The book of the brain

I was browsing through Whitney’s Choice of Emblems (1586), and came across this emblem on reading. The motto: Usus libri, non lectio prudentes facit — “it is the use of books, not reading that makes wise men.” I have no wise thoughts on the emblem, but it does give a glimpse into early modern reading practices (see also earlier posts here, here, and here).


The volumes great, who so doth still peruse,
And dailie turnes, and gazeth on the same,
If that the fruicte thereof, he do not use,
He reapes but toile, and never gaineth fame:
Firste reade, then marke, then practise that is good,
For without use, we drinke but LETHE flood.

Of practise longe, experience doth proceede;
And wisedome then, doth evermore ensue:
Then printe in minde, what wee in printe do reade,
Els loose wee time, and bookes in vaine do vewe:
Wee maie not haste, our talent to bestowe,
Nor hide it up, whereby no good shall growe.

The concept of reading is expressed in the emblem’s subscriptio (the text below the image) in terms of memory and forgetting. One who reads passively might just as well drink from the river Lethe, which induces a state of sleepy forgetfulness. If you read actively, however, you remember what you learned because your brain is (paradoxically?) like a book: “Then printe in minde, what wee in printe do reade.” Ready access to the volumes of the brain ensures that a wise person puts his knowledge to virtuous use, so that he practices “that is good.”

I thought that the man on the left, assuming he is left-handed, might be writing things down in a little commonplace book, while the man on the right only reads large volumes to forget what he read. But after enlarging the image, I am not so sure the man on the left is writing. Also, perhaps the forgetful reader would have been depicted sitting, rather than standing — or is that too modern an association? The image may even have been re-used from another book, and perhaps should not be interpreted too literally.

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2 thoughts on “The book of the brain

  1. Pingback: Carnivalesque XXXVI « Mercurius Politicus

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