Serious reading

The Maugham Library at Kings College has an exhibition of some of its rare books, including an early edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, so well known to all students of Shakespeare. But known by name only, in most cases. According to the Catalogue this is Denham’s edition of 1587.

We all know Shakespeare used Holinshed, but few of us have actually gone back to the original source. Looking at the edition in the Maugham, my first thought was how densely packed and how hard to read it is. The printer made no concession to the comfort of the reader, did not attempt to break the page up or to provide resting paces for the eye.
They did have the technology to enliven pages. Consider these two spreads, both from a 1568 edition of ‘Orlando Furioso‘, for example. The one is ornate, with two woodcuts, an ‘executive summary’ in verse, and an illuminated capital. The other, at the end of a canto of unrelieved verse, has the annotations in such small type that they are only legible with difficulty. In other words, the printer could have made the second page more readable, but he didn’t. There was no intention to make things easy for the reader.

At least the Italian typography of Orlando is easier to read than the Gothic face of Holinshed: modern readers owe a lot to Manutius.

Given that these books were meant to be read in an age when domestic lighting was poor, and reading glasses likely to be rudimentary, one has to admire the scholars of Shakespeare’s time for their patience with small print and featureless pages. Of course there was less to read, and probably more time to read it in: but scholars have always needed ‘sitzfleisch’, and you have to admire Elizabethan scholars for their sheer stamina.

George Steiner, in his essay ‘The Uncommon Reader’ (in ‘No passion spent‘, Faber 1996) argues that the process of reading has changed in several ways since the invention of printing, which was in itself a major upheaval.
– reading was a far more formal and inportant activity than it is now: an encounter with an important person. Books were far more of an authority, immutable ‘auctoritas’, almost in the way the Mediaeval schoolmen saw them. (Since the Romantics perhaps, we regard ‘life’ as more vital and a better educator than books. We read all the time, but mostly ephemeral material, or to pass the time on journeys.)
– readers often wrote marginalia, and reading was active rather than passive. Readers might annotate, copy out passages, or correct them: ‘latent in every act of complete reading is the compulsion to write a book in reply’. (Interactivity with texts is coming back a little, but mostly in the tendency to comment on internet texts: blogs, etc. Buying second hand academic books as I now do, I note that the previous owners only underline or sideline passages they think they should remember: they do not comment on them.)
– reading was done in silence and alone: there was an element of formality. (Steiner calls it ‘cortesia’.) Books had a solemnity: they would outlast the reader, they contained immortality. They were leather bound, heavy, large, and kept and read with respect. You needed a table or a lectern. (Today the written word is everywhere, and much of it is deliberately ephemeral – advertisements, for example, or newspapers. Books are paperback, made to be thrown away; you hold them in your hand to read them. And when did you last see a complete edition of any author, such as you will find beautifully bound in 18th century libraries? These days, even literary or scholarly books are either single volumes, just one work by the author, or selected and often shortened collections of the ‘Best of..’ or ‘Major works of…’, etc.)
– books relied upon the reader understanding a whole range of allusions – classical, Biblical, etc – which are largely lost today to all but specialists. They have of course been replaced by newer allusions, but these are perhaps more ephemeral and topical. Like Shakespeare’s allusion to the School of Night in Love’s Labour’s Lost: they may mean a lot at the time, but they rapidly become the stuff of footnotes. Whereas classical allusions, to Roman or Latin models, were common currency amongst intellectuals for hundreds of years.

I might add, since this blog consciously uses a large number of hyperlinks, that reading was not formerly subject to such distractions. You followed the order imposed by the book and the page within it, rather than jumping about like a butterfly.

All of which makes the Maughan’s Holinshed seem a long way away. Worth seeing it, though.

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