Heidi Brayman Hackel. Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005. xii+322pp. ISBN 0 521 84251 4.

Emily Smith
Emory University

Smith, Emily. "Review of Heidi Brayman Hackel, Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy." Early Modern Literary Studies 12.1 (May, 2006) 10.1-7<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-1/revhacke.htm>.

  1. Because of our own embedment in a culture of technological overlap, where print publication and web-based publication coexist and compete with one another, the overlapping of manuscript and print during the early modern period has proven to be a rich avenue of inquiry for scholars. Margaret J. M. Ezell's Social Authorship and the Advent of Print and George Justice and Nathan Tinker's Women's Writing and the Circulation of Ideas: Manuscript Publication in England, 1550-1800 map out many of the similar energies and anxieties surrounding these publishing technologies for early modern writers and for twenty-first century writers. Their works address questions relevant to readers, contributors, and the network of scholars otherwise invested in an online academic journal like EMLS. They ask whether digital or web-based publication possesses the same degree of authority as print-based publication, and they consider how web-based publication should fit in the tenure process.

  2. Heidi Brayman Hackel takes some of these ideas as starting points, but she suggests something more provocative in her study Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy: Like print before it, the electronic medium takes its force and importance from its unprecedented powers of dissemination. And yet the asymmetrical literacies of early modern England continue, if in a diminished and inflected form, in unequal access to computer technologies, equipment, and literacy. (257) To reach this conclusion, Brayman Hackel has worked through an impressive range of topics including reading habits, preliminaries, margins, commonplace books, and gendered reading habits. She approaches these forms of reading and writing material through what she has usefully termed the microhistories of "many readers, who have left material traces of both the common and the idiosyncratic practices in which they engaged" (141). Like Victoria E. Burke, whose recent study of Ann Bowyer's commonplace book <http://purl.oclc.org/emls/06-3/burkbowy.htm> interrogates reading practices among the "middling sort" in order to challenge typical ideas about the history of reading, Brayman Hackel re-historicizes the reader by shifting her emphasis away from "great writers" such as Ben Jonson and professional scholars like Gabriel Harvey (7). Instead she focuses on "less extraordinary readers, who often remain visible in the historical record only because of their occasional traces in books" (8).

  3. Brayman Hackel utilizes a sophisticated interdisciplinary approach that allows her to suggest (among other things) that the spatial attributes of a house, the availability of writing materials, and the reusability of written texts in privies all play roles in how literacy was acquired, transmitted, and enacted during the early modern period. The necessary overlaps between visual and oral habits of reading as well as public and private acts of writing are never far from her analyses, and the often misunderstood distinctions between reading and writing that demarcated degrees of literacy among early modern people are presented with clarity and persuasiveness. Brayman Hackel coins the phrase abecedarian literacy to describe "the most elementary vernacular reader, someone unable to write and able to read only haltingly and aloud" (63). By developing this term, she makes a phenomenon that has perpetuated gross underestimates of literacy rates visible in a new way. Her meticulous investigation of non-page writing surfaces, her emphasis on the dual way in which literacy depended both on class-bound educational practices and technical skills, her awareness of the shifting contours of the role of the reader in the writing, publishing, dissemination, consumption, and rewriting of print texts, and her careful buttressing of theoretical claims with many and varied historical examples make Reading Material both breathtakingly large scale in its implications and individualized.

  4. In chapter four, "Noting readers of the Arcadia in marginalia and commonplace books," Brayman Hackel investigates the material traces that readers left of their intellectual encounters with books by surveying marginalia, words written on flyleaves, and commonplace books, all of which differently interact with the text of Philip Sidney's Arcadia. Brayman Hackel considers processes by which individuals could expand the pages of the books they were reading by "interleaving their books and compiling commonplace books" (142). She provides a sophisticated and important discussion of what it meant to keep a commonplace book during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which expands on the work of Peter Beal, Earl Havens, and Ann Moss.

  5. As with her discussions of readers' marginalia and commonplace books, Brayman Hackel's discussion of female reading practices in chapter five suggests how textual consumption was a highly individualistic process that we can better understand by reconstructing women's libraries and examining their idiolectic practices of owning, inscribing, and reading books. She points out some of the invisibilities surrounding female book ownership, including the general lack of marginalia in books owned by women, and she challenges the notion that few women accumulated and organized their own libraries by describing the libraries of Anne Clifford Pembroke, Jane Lumley, and Frances Stanley Egerton, as well as by highlighting the signatures of several female book owners: "Isabella Ponsonby," "Mary Raymond 1669," "Katherina Clowes Her Book," "Judeth Wood 1644," "Susan Bensley her booke" (217), along with a full range of verses and marks that indicate a woman's ownership of a text.

  6. In her case studies of Anne Clifford Pembroke and Frances Stanley Egerton, Brayman Hackel emphasizes that these women's libraries should suggest to us that female book ownership was not as unusual as modern historians have been inclined to believe. Of Egerton, Brayman Hackel suggests:
    It is, in fact, her very conventionality, I would argue, that makes her library so striking, for its existence does not seem to have been considered worthy of remark. And if a woman's library of 241 volumes did not warrant attention in 1633, then we must expand our notion of early modern women as consumers of books.
    Thus in the concluding passage of her final chapter, Brayman Hackel points out something that Danielle Clarke and Erica Longfellow have elsewhere suggested -- that many of our most basic assumptions about early modern women have been engendered by our own practice of asking the wrong questions and looking at the material traces women have left behind with predetermined expectations and analyses. Brayman Hackel does much to replace superannuated prejudices about early modern women's roles as book readers, writers, and owners.

  7. With Reading Material, Brayman Hackel makes a major contribution to our knowledge of the reading and writing practices of many forgotten, underrepresented, or misunderstood book owners. Like Margaret J. M. Ezell, Harold Love, Frances E. Dolan, Peter Stallybrass, Juliet Fleming, David Scott Kastan, Wendy Wall, and Margaret Spufford -- all scholars whose work Brayman Hackel draws into conversation with her own in Reading Material -- she has produced a study that is essential to our understanding of early modern reading and writing practices.
Works Cited

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

© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).