Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Material Texts) BY William H. Sherman. University of Pennsylvania Press. Hardcover, 280 pages. $45.

The cover of Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Material Texts)

What makes one copy of an old book more valuable than another? Should pristine copies, fresh and white, bring the highest prices? Or messy ones that show the complex and multiple signs of use? Over the last two centuries, most dealers, collectors, and librarians have preferred the former. Catalogue descriptions emphasized the handsome, unscarred bindings and crisp, clean paper that showed no one had ever read the books in question––much less smeared them with perspiration, messed up their neat rows of printed text by underlining striking sentences, or filled clear margins with scrawled comments. When the marks of use were already present, clever bookmen removed them. A good bleaching, for example, could restore the margins of a handsome large-paper edition to virgin whiteness. Exceptions were made, especially for title pages that bore the signatures of famous owners. For the most part, however, those who knew rare books best had little use for the varied readers’ marks and notes that they dismissed, revealingly, as “dirt.”

These rules did not apply in every case. Books annotated by well-known readers like Gabriel Harvey have attracted attention for generations, and more than one independent or eccentric collector has seen the interest of books with marginalia. Since the 1970s, however—as William H. Sherman shows in his learned and lively Used Bookstastes have clearly shifted. Pioneering literary scholars like George Whalley recognized that great writers often read with pen in hand, revealing much about their passions and their interests. Whalley’s meticulous six-volume edition of Coleridge’s marginalia shed a brilliant light on the well-read critic’s responses to older and contemporary writers, British and foreign. Learned librarians have come to love marginalia of every kind. One of the most learned of them all, Roger Stoddard of the Houghton Library, devoted a pioneering study, Marks in Books, to illustrating and classifying readers’ ways of personalizing their texts. The deeply informed booksellers who do more than anyone else to shape the tastes of collectors have also pitched in. Bernard Rosenthal, for example, assembled a splendidly varied set of books with marginal notes, which he described in a lavish catalogue. They now repose, and attract the attention of scholars, in Yale’s Beinecke Library. Nowadays, the smallest and strangest marginal notes are prized and celebrated by those who once regarded them with contempt.

Most striking of all—and most unex­pected—has been the rise of a new kind of scholar­ship, one pursued by historians, literary critics, and bibliographers. Historians of the book, as they call themselves, try to understand every feature of the long life cycle of literature. They show us how authors go about their reading and writing; how scribes, printers, and correctors format, edit, and write or print different kinds of text; how design and marketing define and shape the ways in which texts reach readers; and what readers—some of whom, of course, are writers––do with them. The history of reading is a lively subsection of this growing field. At first, it was a French specialty, and those who pursued it, like Lucien Febvre, concentrated on large-scale records that they could subject to quantitative analy­sis. By reconstructing the contents of individual libraries and tallying the sales of particular titles, they traced changes less in individual tastes than in the larger climate of opinion. Robert Darnton updated the same methods to teach us, more recently, that the true best sellers of eighteenth-century France were books in which ample amounts of sex and gossip helped to sell what publishers called “philosophy.”

Warning on a readers’ table at Cambridge University Library.
Warning on a readers’ table at Cambridge University Library.

Gradually, historians of reading began to hunt for sources of a different kind—sources that could lead them closer to the lost experience of how past individuals read. Carlo Ginzburg used Inquisition records to show how a forgotten heretic had drawn his wild theories about God and the universe from widely available books. Adrian Johns studied early modern theories of the physiology and psychology of reading to work out how readers responded emotionally to books. And Jonathan Rose drew on dozens of autobiographies to show how intense, serious reading shaped the minds of the British working classes over the last two centuries.

But the majority of historians of reading have found their richest evidence in used books themselves. Historians of political thought and literature, of magic and science, have found vivid and intimate materials in the margins. Sherman devoted his own first book to the ways in which John Dee, the Elizabethan magus, mathematician, and maven of many other fields, collected and annotated the books in his enormous library and then wielded them systematically as he formulated technical advice for the government of Elizabeth I on navigation, colonies, and other practical subjects. Now he returns to the subject with a fascinating synthetic study of the ways in which books of all kinds were used in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. As before, Sherman brings a new style to the field and leaves it with a new twist.

Used Books stands out, in the first place, for the sheer depth and range of Sherman’s research. Like other intellectual historians who have recently studied reading, he uses books owned by the good and the great to illuminate their intellectual and literary lives. Close study of newly discovered books from Dee’s library, for example, enables Sherman to show us exactly how that avid reader pursued his armchair travels, reading accounts of navigation by Ferdinand Columbus and others—and how, in doing so, he articulated powerful, and sometimes chilling, responses to the enterprise of European colonization. A brilliant analysis of Sir Julius Caesar’s commonplace book reveals it as “a powerful tool that anticipated the kind of indexed archive now being delivered to anyone with a networked computer by Google and its associates.” And an ingenious examination of the notes in Isaac Casaubon’s copy of Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning (1605) shows the great Huguenot Hellenist doing something even more unexpected: using Bacon’s prose to learn English. Casaubon did his systematic best, marking stresses in the text and translating words that were new to him into Greek. Not surprisingly, Casaubon never gained much active command of English during the four years that he spent in London, 1610–14. But then, as another male polymath, Sir Henry Savile, explained to him, it was hardly to be expected that a man of his age could rival Mme Casaubon at speaking a new tongue. Over and over again, Sherman confronts us with the sheer density and richness of information preserved in annotated books and readers’ notebooks: “One extraordinary copy of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics, printed in Leipzig circa 1500, has some 59,600 words of annotation on its 68 pages.”

The history of books, as Sherman practices it, offers more than striking vignettes. He made a “reasonably comprehensive” survey of all the books printed between 1475 and 1640 in the Huntington Library—more than seventy-five hundred of them—as well as the smaller, but very revealing, corpus of manuscripts and books that Matthew Parker assembled, now preserved in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and he has examined many other individual copies and collections, including the Rosenthal books at Yale. By drawing on this massive database, Sherman reconstructs norms. He shows us, for example, that early modern readers often made a habit of tracing their progress through their books with ink (or red chalk, in Parker’s case). More than one in five of the books in the Huntington’s vast deposit contains readers’ notes, and many more still contain revealing marks of one sort or another, while bleach and various forms of assault have removed or made illegible many others. As Sherman charts this vast corpus of evidence, he also suggests that the forms of marginal annotation have a history of their own—that the practices of manuscript readers, still used in the early decades of printing, slowly changed under the impact of the new technology and its aesthetic. Slowly, serious readers ceased to turn each book into a personalized memory theater. Instead, they concentrated on recording the most important passages and facts in systematically ordered and indexed commonplace books—a more effective way than marginal notes to organize and make accessible the contents of the vast number and range of titles made available by printing.

No detail of this story escapes Sherman’s attention. In one of his most suggestive chapters, he traces the development of the “manicule”: the pointing hand, drawn in by readers in a florid variety of ways, from the graphic to the schematic, and later used by printers as well, to guide readers to what they saw as crucial lines and passages. Here, the usual, banal generalities about “the impact of print” make way for a complex, revealing story about the differences between the past and the present: “With modern readers, their handwriting is going to be distinctive while their symbols will tend to look pretty much like other people’s symbols. For early modern readers it is the other way around—their symbols, and in particular their pointing hands, are more likely to be recognizably theirs”: an artful way, charged with meaning, of making the uniform-looking printed book the recognizable property of its reader.

Sherman pays careful attention to the fact that manuscripts continued to be written and read and that manuscript conventions survived for decades in the age of print. His awareness that printing did not change everything at once gives his book great density, richness, and truth to experience, as well as a nice sense of paradox. So does his willingness—a quality, as he explains, that his sources taught him in the course of his research—to examine evidence of use in books of many kinds. Early historians of reading have concentrated on the ways in which early modern men worked with classical texts, political treatises, and other, more obviously modern and dramatic reading matter. Sherman, by contrast, scrutinizes the vast range of notes that appear in Bibles and prayer books. By doing so, he makes clear—as Eamon Duffy has done, almost simultaneously, in his rich study of English prayer books from 1240 to 1570, Marking the Hours (2006)—the multiple ways in which early modern readers used seemingly simple, functional religious books. He also shows us women, as well as men, reading the Scriptures and much more—and using their books as everything from objects of erudite commentary to receptacles for recipes.

Unlike Lisa Jardine and Kevin Sharpe, two pioneering scholars whose work Sherman praises, he treats his protagonists more as readers than as thinkers. This emphasis brings costs, as well as benefits. It’s fascinating to learn that Casaubon used his copy of Bacon to study the English language. But it would also be interesting to know what he made of Bacon’s arguments. In fact, a note in Latin on the book’s title page, which Sherman does not quote, shows that Casaubon noted Bacon’s challenge to the reigning view that the moderns could never know as much as the ancients—the thesis that many have seen as central to Bacon’s provocative and influential book. In this and a few other cases, Sherman leaves the reader wanting deeper, fuller studies of the alluringly annotated books he brings to light.

In the end, though, Sherman’s catholic view of the forms of reading in the past gives his project a distinctive focus and value. Some years ago, Sven Birkerts argued that the rise of the computer endangered serious reading—by which he meant the engaged, sequential form of attention that readers had brought to nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century fiction. Sherman, by contrast, makes clear that reading in any period encompasses multi­tudes, from practical consultation of cookbooks or legal reference works to passionate immersion in a novel or a tragedy. By placing the material remains of reading—those dirty used books—at the center of his inquiry, he has taught us to see the great benefits of a broad survey. He brings us something more important than isolated, vivid vignettes, though he offers plenty of those: the first comprehensive account of the ways of readers in the last age when books held, or seemed to hold, the answers to all of the most profound questions.

Anthony Grafton teaches European intellectual history and directs the Center for the Study of Books and Media at Princeton University. His books include (with Megan Williams) Christianity and the Transformation of the Book (Belknap Press, 2006) and What Was History?: The Art of History in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007).