Kevin Sharpe, Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000)
I read Kevin Sharpe’s Reading Revolutions with unwavering attention from cover to cover. While reading, I took notes in the WordPress administrator panel, and when the book touched upon issues that my thesis deals with, I added notes to the Word files that make up my thesis-in-progress. Whenever I was not accompanied by my little laptop, I took notes on a separate sheet that doubled as a bookmark, since the copy of Reading Revolutions that I was reading, was a Utrecht University Library book. Had the book been my own, I would have marked the arguments and information that interested me from an academic point of view, would have concurred or disagreed in the margins, and would perhaps have highlighted a choice of word that I admired and hoped to use sometime myself.
This is not how the seventeenth-century gentleman whose reading habits are the object of Sharpe’s study, read his books. Kevin Sharpe, a historian of the cultural politics and political culture of early modern England, came across a manuscript diary kept in the 1630s by the Buckinghamshire gentleman Sir William Drake (1609-1669). Fascinated by the references to Drake’s own reading in the manuscript, he decided to look into the reading habits of this gentleman. Sir William Drake’s notebooks, commonplace books, family papers, parliamentary diary and marginalia in manuscripts as well as printed books, cover the politically turbulent years between the late 1620s to the early 1660s, and make for an important archival resource to reconstruct the ways in which an early modern English gentleman’s reading shaped his thinking.
Kevin Sharpe’s study of the reading habits of Sir William Drake is an absolute feast to read. Sharpe’s approach to early modern history is informed by the latest developments in the field of cultural history. Drawing on the ideas of the New Historicism, Sharpe argues that the history of political ideas cannot be written on the basis of what we term “political writing” — these works acted differently on different societies in different circumstances at different moments. From the scintillating details of the material practices of Drake’s reading, Kevin Sharpe shows us how for Sir William the act of being in the world was in itself political, and how his political thinking was shaped by what he read and re-read.
To say that Sir William Drake read a lot is an understatement. In the field of classical literature, philosophy and history, for example, he read Plato and Aristotle, Aesop, Plutarch, Thucydides, Isocrates, Strabo, Seneca, Demosthenes, Herodotus, Polybius, Homer, Pindar, Lucian, Cicero, the younger Pliny, Virgil, Martial, Catullus, Terence, Ovid, Petrnius, Quintilian, Florus, Sallust, Cato, Dion and Tacitus, but also humanist commentaries on classical texts, such as Lipsius on Seneca, as well as many English humanists. Sharpe remarks that the notebooks read like a compendium of Renaissance humanist learning, covering nearly all the key scholars of early modern Europe, as well as some lesser known authors. Drake read religious works, works of policy and political history, and was well versed in legal literature. His personal favourites were the works of Macchiavelli and Francis Bacon.
I was especially captivated by the ways in which Sir William Drake digested what he read. Reading for him was certainly no passive process. Drake was a man who read very much for his personal use. His rich notebooks are the result of his resolve to “never hear, think or read anything conducing to my end but write it down.” His reading was always geared towards the practical application of the things he had learned in his daily life. Sharpe writes that Sir William did not read for contemplation, or for recreation, but for action: like a true humanist he was “preparing a self-help manual of prudential instruction for engagement with the world.” Making it his custom religiously to sit down every evening to write down the lessons he had learnt that day, Drake noted: “I think that day lost in which I have not learned somewhat.” He even maintained a similarly utalitarian view of his social contacts, drawing up a list of which persons could be of use for which purposes.
Drake’s method of reading is fragmented, circular, and by no means linear. There is no evidence that he used a reading wheel, the machine that allowed readers to skip from one book to another without having to close them or put them back on a shelf — Sharpe compares the wheel to our computerized ways of reading and calls it ‘Windows 1498’ — but it is certain that Sir William moved from text to text and back again in a fragmented way, “reading each in the light of the other.” He was often reminded of other texts while reading, and tracked down the relevant passage in those texts before proceeding. My way of consuming Reading Revolutions, reading sequentially and taking notes on academically relevant observations, is William Drake’s least common method. Sharpe convincingly demonstrates that Drake organized his notes according to subject, and read in a similarly non-linear way. His reading notes frequently show him making circular movements, moving for example from Seneca to a history of the life of King James I, and back again. The method of keeping a commonplace book, with headings such as ‘Eloquentia,’ ‘artifice,’ or ‘dissimulation,’ or ‘the nature of man and society’ allowed Drake to make what he read his own, to create his own meaning in reading.
Sharpe suggests that perhaps the central faultline in the early modern period was that between a common hermeneutic and a growing emphasis on individual judgement. He views the commonplace book as a site in which that fissure took shape. As the early modern reader selects, paraphrases, arranges, glosses, cross-references and indexes, he makes the works that he is reading his own. The ways in which early modern readers glossed the texts that they read, varies for each individual. The same texts could mean differently in different contexts, and in the case of Sir William, a text he had read in the 1630s could come to mean differently in the 1650s. Kevin Sharpe’s wonderful book sets the example for a new way of analyzing the local, material, and contextual ways in which texts mean in the early modern period. Central to such an analysis is the fragmented and appropriative manner in which this seventeenth-century gentleman read. Sir William Drake himself says it best:
The meat which we have taken, so long as it swimmeth whole in our stomachs, is a burden, but when it changeth from that which it was, then at length it turns into strength and nourishment. The same let us do in our reading books. Let us not suffer these things to remain entire which we have gathered from various authors for they will not then be ours, but let us endeavour to digest and concoct them — otherwise they will fill the memory and leave the understanding void and empty.
- See also: Reading, Society and Politics in Early Modern England, edited by Kevin Sharpe and Stephen Zwicker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
- Earlier Earmarks posts on early modern interactive reading here and here.