Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Voltaire Almighty: A Life in Pursuit of Freedom by Roger Pearson

Not a bad life, OK biography, terrible ebook
I have never been a big fan of Voltaire’s writing. His sense of humor has not held up well over the last two centuries. Nevertheless, the man himself and the life he lived is a source of fascination. It’s hard for today’s American reader to understand his importance or the influential role he played in French and world history. Voltaire is somewhat analogous to our Benjamin Franklin—neither a head of state nor a war hero, but a leading architect and living embodiment of the philosophy of a nation undergoing rebirth. In addition, Voltaire was the most acclaimed living French playwright of his time, a groundbreaking historian, an influential public intellectual, and a major celebrity throughout Europe. As a freethinker, I admire his championing of reason over superstition and his outspoken advocacy for freedom and human rights. Voltaire was a deist, meaning he believed in the intelligent design of the universe by God the creator, but not in the active participation of that God in man’s affairs. He fought tirelessly against religious intolerance and oppression by organized religions, in particular the Catholicism that was dominant in France.

Yet for all his accomplishments, there is a less flattering side to Voltaire that is all too apparent in Roger Pearson’s 2005 biography Voltaire Almighty. His behavior was frequently childish and shallow. He was constantly engaged in petty squabbles and frivolous lawsuits with anyone who criticized his writings. Much of his literary output consisted of thinly veiled digs at those he didn’t like. Despite his iconoclastic image, he spent years kissing up to the royal family, hoping to curry their favor. Toward the end of his life he devoted months if not years to devising a scheme by which he could be granted absolution by the Catholic church without publicly declaring a belief in their faith. While such behavior makes for witty anecdotes, in sum total these shenanigans regrettably lower one’s estimation of the man. Pearson unfortunately revels in Voltaire’s infantile escapades, while the reader is often left wondering why exactly the man was so significant. I would never fault a biographer for providing too much detail—because that’s his job—but Pearson’s account of Voltaire’s life is such a morass of data it’s difficult to see the forest for the trees. He is much more interested in recounting the financial minutiae of a real estate deal than in examining Voltaire’s literary or philosophical achievements. Pearson’s concluding summary is really quite good at encapsulating Voltaire’s life and legacy. If only he had injected some of that big-picture view into the preceding 23 chapters, instead of dwelling on every trivial dispute and investment transaction, the book would have been a more rewarding read.

Through no fault of Pearson’s, this Kindle file is in terrible shape. It is riddled with typographical errors. The reader must acclimate himself to the fact that the letters “t” and “r” appear to be used interchangeably. In addition, someone possessing no familiarity whatsoever with the French language went crazy with the spellcheck. In all cases, the word “duc” (French for Duke), has been changed to “due”; The title of Voltaire’s play Oedipe has been transformed into “(edipe”; and “Mlle” (the abbreviation for Mademoiselle) has become “Mile”. In a few places numeric dates have been inexplicably replaced by a letter “n”, as in “n April 1713”. Almost every word in italics is misspelled. These are just a few examples. Outside of free public domain files, I’ve never seen an ebook this poorly done. The publisher ought to be embarrassed to have put a file in such condition out for public consumption. Perhaps by the time you read this review they will have replaced the file with a corrected version, but I can only review what I bought.

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