• A Wicked Company
  • Reviews

A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment

Basic Books, 2010
ISBN-10 0465014534
ISBN-13 978-0465014538
Hardcover, 384 pages


Blom here returns to the field of an earlier triumph (Enlightening the World: Encylopédie, the Book That Changed the Course of History, 2005) to take the measure of Encyclopédie’s editor, Denis Diderot. Placing Diderot in the natural habitat of Enlightenment philosophes, the Parisian salon circa 1750, Blom presents one Diderot habituated, hosted by Baron Paul Thierry d’Holbach. Baron who? readers may wonder, but d’Holbach attracted Diderot, Rousseau, and Hume to his salon and also penned atheistic philosophical tracts. If those endure less in intellectual history than the writings of his guests, d’Holbach’s hospitality receives Blom’s recognition as an incubator of the Enlightenment. Over the baron’s table, as conversationalists volleyed their subversions of the ancien régime and then crystallized the badinage into published works, Blom pauses to summarize its arguments. Those who might not be pleased with such paraphrasing might be placated by Blom’s interludes about the relationships among d’Holbach’s group, their japes, their lusts, their acrimonies: Rousseau, the great lover of humanity, hated Diderot and Hume. A perceptive, readable portrayal of a seminal coterie in the history of ideas. --Gilbert Taylor, BOOKLIST

“Tells the story of a set of remarkable individuals on the radical fringes of the 18th-century European Enlightenment, whose determinedly atheistic and materialist philosophies denied the existence of God or the soul…. [P]art biography and part polemic…it is also an iconoclastic rebuttal of what he describes as the ‘official’ history of the Enlightenment, the sort of history that he finds ‘cut in stone’ on a visit to the Paris Panthéon.  There the bodies of Voltaire and Rousseau were laid to rest with the blessing of the French state.  Neither deserved it, suggests Mr Blom.” THE ECONOMIST

Review of A Wicked Company in the FINANCIAL TIMES - March 28, 2011

A Wicked Company offers an entertainingly brisk introduction to some of the more intriguing byways of the Enlightenment, and in particular a humane and engaging portrait of Diderot, a man of startlingly modern ideas constrained by his humble circumstances to an almost-stifling public discretion.” David Andress, author of The Terror and 1789

“Historian Blom returns with a flowing, limpid account of an 18th-century French salon that housed the greatest names in French philosophy…. A swift, readable reminder that ideas are exciting – and have consequences.” KIRKUS REVIEWS

“A bold book. In A Wicked Company, Philipp Blom recaptures some of the limelight from the most famous figures of the French Enlightenment – Rousseau and Voltaire – by arguing that the more radical ideas of Diderot and Holbach would have more resonance in our own times. Written with pace and verve, the book evokes the vibrancy of the Parisian salons, bringing the protagonists to life – Diderot, Holbach, Rousseau, Hume, Madame de Geoffrin – and puts flesh-and-blood into the story of eighteenth-century intellectual debate.   While challenging the usual pantheon of Enlightenment thinkers, the book offers a lively and readable entry into the wider world of elite culture and ideas in the heady, exciting decades before the French Revolution.” Mike Rapport, author of 1848

“Mr. Blom skillfully evokes the characters of these young men…. Mr. Blom’s coupling of the lives of the philosophers with their thought helps make their ideas less desiccated than they might otherwise have appeared in the hands of a more academic writer. He has an admirable ability to get to the heart of what Spinoza, Hume or Voltaire argued.” WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Tells the story of a set of remarkable individuals on the radical fringes of the 18th-century European Enlightenment, whose determinedly atheistic and materialist philosophies denied the existence of God or the soul…. [P]art biography and part polemic…it is also an iconoclastic rebuttal of what he describes as the ‘official’ history of the Enlightenment, the sort of history that he finds ‘cut in stone’ on a visit to the Paris Panthéon.  There the bodies of Voltaire and Rousseau were laid to rest with the blessing of the French state.  Neither deserved it, suggests Mr Blom.” THE ECONOMIST

“Blom here returns to the field of an earlier triumph…to take the measure of Encyclopedie’s editor, Denis Diderot…. A perceptive, readable portrayal of a seminal coterie in the history of ideas.” BOOKLIST

“Blom reminds us that some 18th-century reformers were thoroughgoing materialists, scoffing at religion, even deist religion, and criticizing an oppressive, irrational society.” LIBRARY JOURNAL


  • The Vertigo Years
  • Reviews

The Vertigo Years - Europe 1900-1914


Basic Books, 2008
ISBN-10 0465011160
ISBN-13 978-0465011162
Hardcover, 512 pages


Blom … brings an appealing energy and curiosity, and occasional humor, to his subject. … Blom has been remarkably successful at synthesizing a wide range of material, creating a panorama of the whole of European culture during this frantic time—and not just high culture, but the transformation of everyday life by revolutions in sex, shopping, science, and sociology.
Adam Kirsch, NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS ambitious book - a one-volume assessment of the gravity-eroding, giddying sweep of European cultural, social, political and spiritual change that permeated the first 15 years of the 20th century. But Philipp Blom has pulled it off triumphantly... a work of narrative history at its best.
Juliet Nicolson, THE GUARDIAN

... engrossing history... a multifaceted, panoramic approach animated by vivacious narration of individual stories.

This splendid book…is a captivating depiction of an age of rapidity…In sparkling prose and with a trained eye for the telling detail and anecdote, Philipp Blom has sketched the outlines of a total history of the last long decade of the long nineteenth century.

Impressive and thought-provoking....encapsulate[s] complex historical and biographical events pithily and in an illuminating context...The book brings the fears, enthusiasms and blindspots of the period brilliantly to life.

a stimulating and original insight into an all-too-familiar period.. vivid... illuminating....

An account of the fourteen years preceding the First World War, which saw the rise of a new world order, revealing the extent to which the twentieth century was essentially framed before the First World War.”

In this masterful presentation, the time in question is so richly laced with scientific bedazzlement, social ferment and cultural churning that a sense of giddying misadventure begins to feel strangely familiar.

In this enthralling, panoramic sweep of the 15 years preceding the First World War, Blom convincingly argues that it was this decade and a half that truly marked the start of the modern age, with all its grandeur and calamities.... With his impressive synthesis of historical literature, old and recent, and his finely drawn portraits of both emperors and workers, Blom's "Vertigo Years" will surely enlighten and interest another generation of readers in an era far in the past, yet worth understanding all the same.


  • Encylopédie
  • Reviews

US: Enlightening the World


St. Martin's Press, 2005
ISBN-13 9781403968951
ISBN: 1403968950
Hardcover, 416 pages


In this meticulously researched historical narrative... Blom takes the reader through these events and through the Encyclopédie itself in a thorough and engaging way, and he makes a strong case for the work's importance in shaping philosophy and political thought for years to come. This book is a welcome read for European historians and for those interested in learning about one of the foremost works of the Enlightenment.

*Starred Review* ... absorbing history ...  The Encyclopedie's story is both epic and epochal, and Blom tells it intelligently, gracefully, and stylishly.

Superb... Blom artfully brings to life the 27-volume work that symbolized its era, the 'Encyclopedie.

With exceptional interpretive skill, Philipp Blom provides a fascinating study--replete with wonderful stories, racy gossip, and grand personalities--of the arduous struggle to produce the work that became a testament to humanity: The Encyclopedia.
Stephen Eric Bronner, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY

...not only a tribute to a very worthy project of enlightenment and liberation; it is also a thoroughly good read.

Blom, a journalist, novelist, and translator, provides a rich, informative, and lively history of the Encyclopédie and those who worked on it, going so far as to recover some of its unsung heroes, e.g., Louis de Jaucourt who provided some 20,000 entries. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.

  • To have and to hold
  • Reviews

To Have and to Hold
An Intimate History of Collectors and Collecting

Overlook TP, 2004
ISBN-10 158567561X
ISBN-13 978 1585675616
Paperback, 345 pages


(A) densely written, wry history (.....) Blom's formidable research is an example of the collector's art in itself."

 A beautifully written, fascinating, amusing, astonishing account, which illuminates the strangeness of the human mind and the wonder of the world

Blom's literary cabinet is full of pungent biographies, as astonishing as the dragons and unicorn horns themselves.

The mania of collecting, a pastime usually reserved for the most wealthy of individuals, has a long history, says German-born journalist Blom. For many collectors, "money is no object, and objects are everything." Blom begins his formal, idiosyncratic chronicle in the 16th century, when the Renaissance-fueled explosion of scientific inquiry led to a boom in what the Dutch referred to as cabinets of curiosities. Typically stocked with small antiques and remains of strange animals and men (fake and real), they were popular among the rich and bourgeois across Europe through the next few centuries. Blom follows the tradition into the dark castles of crazed aristocrats and obsessed collectors (such as the 18th-century German doctor who had a collection of skulls taken from the local gallows and asylum) who thought to compile small, neurotically labeled and catalogued worlds, which countered the chaotic one outside their walls. Although Blom's book sticks mainly to highbrow collecting-e.g., old master drawings, snuffboxes, architectural models, human skulls, books-and does not come to any conclusions on what drives people to collect, it is an admirable attempt to chart the history of an obsession. 53 b&w illus. and photos.

Taking as its inspiration Walter Benjamin's dictum that a collector's passion borders on "the chaos of memory," this curiously moving history argues that collecting is driven by the desire to control that chaos. Blom traces the development of collections since the Renaissance through lively portraits of famous collectors, like the Englishman Sir Thomas Phillips, who believed that he was meant to own one copy of every book in the world; the Austrian Franz Joseph Gall, who lined his walls with row upon row of skulls; and the American Alex Shear, who has amassed more than a hundred thousand relics of nineteen-fifties America. Blom shows that there is no limit to what can be collected, or to the intensity of the pursuit. Ultimately, he suggests, "the shadow looming over every cabinet" is a kind of willful, if unacknowledged, futility. To collect is to freeze the world in its tracks and hold it still. But if this succeeded what would be left to collect?

It does take one to known one. Journalist Blom waxes lyrical about the art and craft of collecting--and the results of collectors' labors. His own interest started with his grandfather's "The Yellow Finch" shop in Amsterdam, and here he relates stories of some of the oddest hobbies-of-passion known to history. Prince Rudolf of Habsburg, later Holy Roman Emperor, amassed amazing things of nature-a musk pouch, Seychelles nut, a bezoar (a poison antidote), among other "miracles," housed in a huge rococo chest. Czar Peter the Great was obsessed with dwarfs and freaks, so much so that he bought the entire collection of a Dutch doctor and moved it to St. Petersburg. Then, the business moguls, including J. Pierpont Morgan and William Randolph Hearst, had their arts and oddities, too. Throughout these well-documented stories, Blom probes the heart and soul of collecting's appeal, whether it be for the beauty of the superficial (a book's hand-wrought leather binding, for example) or the beauty of the content inside. An intellectual journey worth taking.
Barbara Jacobs, BOOKLIST

Blom peppers his historical account with well-chosen stories ...To Have and To Hold is an impressive, wide-ranging book.
Christopher Tayler, SUNDAY TELEGRAPH

Provocative, stimulating and entertaining ... Huge questions are thrown up...on every page of the book, but it is also full of jokes, unusual and very welcome in a work of such impressive scholarship and elegance of style...a sparkling, discursive, and eclectic book.