Jennifer Andersen and Elizabeth Sauer, eds. Books and Readers in Early Modern England: Material Studies. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002. vi+305 pp. ISBN 0 8122 1794 2.
Jason Scott-Warren
University of York

Scott-Warren, Jason. "Review of Jennifer Andersen and Elizabeth Sauer, eds, Books and Readers in Early Modern England." Early Modern Literary Studies 8.3 (January, 2003): 9.1-6 <URL:

  1. Literary studies is currently awash with materialism. It is a materialism that has nothing to do with the desire for money and what it can buy, and still less to do with Marxist theories of base and superstructure. Materialism today means an attentiveness to things, in all their reassuringly tangible and hopelessly problematic particularity. A host of journals has been rushing out special issues devoted to material objects and material texts, in which splendid examples of materialist practice jostle with nervous ponderings on materialist theory. On one side, the art historian Joseph Leo Koerner questions whether we have really moved beyond "the familiar scene of the mind set over against an object and deciphering it as container for another mind (the author, the soul)?" On another, the literary critic Bill Brown proposes that objects only become "things" when they start to evade subjective control - "when the drill breaks, when the car stalls, when the windows get filthy". [1] The seeming philosophical incorrectness of any claim to have touched base in the real means that we can look forward to many more anguished reflections on the question 'Are we being material yet?'

  2. To assist with such reflections, the University of Pennsylvania Press has dedicated a new series to "Material Texts." Juliet Fleming's richly suggestive study of Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England was one of the first fruits of that initiative; Books and Readers in Early Modern England is another. The volume's twelve chapters register conflicting pressures. Several of the essays pursue the radical (though by now familiar) implications of book history, spurning authors in favour of a fuller consideration of the production, distribution and reception of literary texts. Others show us the new materialism shaping itself to the canon of English literature.

  3. In the former category, Bill Sherman offers a foretaste of his forthcoming study of readers' marks in early modern books from the Huntington Library, exposing both a world of human interest and a frustrating obliqueness in those volumes (slightly more than 20% of the library's STC collection) which bear manuscript annotations. Heidi Brayman Hackel issues a timely challenge to the idea that little can be known about women's reading in the early modern period, exploring the London library catalogue of Frances Egerton, Countess of Bridgewater, and noting its currency, breadth, and resistance to the standard prescriptions for appropriate feminine reading matter. Michael Mendle offers a bracingly detailed account of the earliest collectors of pamphlet literature (George Thomason and his ilk), which constitutes an important chapter in the development of a 'news culture' in seventeenth-century England. And Anne Hughes discusses Thomas Edwards's great map of religious sectarianism and heresy, Gangraena (1646), attempting to move the historical debate away from questions about the work's factual accuracy and towards issues of textual agency; her essay offers a fine-grained analysis of the relationship between the printed text and the networks of gossip and controversy which it fed off and in turn fuelled. Each of these essays suggests the potential of the "materiality" concept to raise challenging questions about textual agency and cultural history which cut across the traditional boundaries between disciplines.

  4. The collection's more traditionally literary offerings begin with its opening essay, David Scott Kastan's "Plays into Print," an off-cut from his Shakespeare and the Book (2001), which aims to release Shakespeare's plays in quarto from the stranglehold of the New Bibliography. In their concern to reconstruct the best dramatist's best texts, twentieth-century textual scholars created numerous 'pirate stories', tales of sharp practice in the print-shops which helped to explain the existence of so-called "bad quartos". Kastan sets out to show that most of these stories are academic myths, created in wilful ignorance of an early modern world in which play-texts were ephemeral artefacts and in which authorship, and authorial control, was often of little interest to playwrights and publishers. This is a valuable contribution, although it perhaps suggests that we need more studies of early dramatic publication which are not polemically focused on Shakespeare. Elsewhere, Sabrina A. Baron presents us with Milton as poacher-turned-gamekeeper, reconciling his attack on prepublication licensing in Areopagitica with his work as licenser of the press for the Council of State from 1649. Anna Battigelli shows how the Dryden of The Conquest of Granada and Absalom and Achitophel intentionally courted controversy in order to gain the attention of a public sphere which was now structured around such controversy. Two of the least "material" essays in the collection are Christopher Grose's exploration of the "failure of encyclopedic form" in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and Lana Cable's reconsideration of Marvell's satirical attacks on Samuel Parker, which neatly exposes the hidden congruences between the cleric's views on metaphor and those of his opponents. Kathleen Lynch discusses two different appropriations of Herbert's Temple in two different bindings; though she is admirably careful in her treatment of the physical evidence, one yearns for a broader survey of the early editions of this collection as they survive in libraries across the world.

  5. For the questions prompted by the material book are liable to radiate outwards in all sorts of disturbing and delightful ways. That much is suggested by the jewel in the crown of this collection, Peter Stallybrass's "Books and Scrolls: Navigating the Bible," the argument of which is constantly in danger of being thrown off course by adventitious issues-an ownership inscription here, the chance find of a set of late-eighteenth century annotations there. Still, Stallybrass hangs on and works out a fascinating argument about the codex as a multiple-entry-point technology. Protestants did not (despite their claims) read the bible from cover to cover, and contrary to one's suspicions it is novel-readers and not academics who are "perverse" - books are made to be dipped into selectively, not scrolled through. While there is more than a whiff of technological determinism about all this, it is certain to change the way we think about the material form of the book.

  6. The combination in Books and Readers of author-centred approaches with studies of dissemination and reception contributes to one of its main aims, which is to contest the Chartier/De Certeau model of reading as appropriation. According to that model, the tyrannical text attempts to drive home its messages, but readers nonetheless ransack it for their own ends, warping its meanings in endless and usually invisible acts of rewriting. The editors of the collection suggest instead that "authors, texts, and readers exist in dialectical relationships," a point expanded in Randall Ingram's article on seventeenth-century epigram books, which are packed with references to the diversity of readers and the diversity of tastes. While it is doubtless true that some texts are more "readerly" than others, and true too that the pressures of the market worked to make books more accommodating to "the great variety of readers," one might question whether the epigrammatists' frequently antagonistic portraits of the hydra-headed multitude really pose a threat to the appropriation model. That said, Books and Readers is an eminently appropriable volume, which deserves to find a permanent place on graduate courses in book history.


1. Joseph Leo Koerner, "Commentary III and Postscript", Word & Image 17 (2001) [special issue on "Printing Matters"], 177-80 (180); Bill Brown, "Thing Theory," Critical Inquiry 28 (2001) [special issue on "Things"], 1-16 (4). See also Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32/3 (2002) [special issue on "Renaissance Materialities"].

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 2003-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS)