William H. Sherman. Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2008. xx+259pp. ISBN-13: 978 0 8122 4043 6.

Paul Dyck
Canadian Mennonite University

Paul Dyck. "Review of William H. Sherman, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England.".  Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 9.1-9<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-2/revsherm.html>.


  1. As someone who has from time to time searched in archives for marks in books left behind by readers, I have found William Sherman’s new book to be a storehouse of delights. Sherman has undertaken the task of tracing early modern readers on a scale that few could practically contemplate, having searched the Huntington Library’s 7500 volumes printed from 1475–1640 as well as other smaller collections book-by-book for manuscript additions of all sorts. What Sherman has found overall—that early modern readers read for use—is not a surprise given his earlier work and that of other scholars such as Peter Stallybrass and Stephen Orgel. However, the scale and the erudition of this present study reveal much about how that readerly use actually worked, both in its general patterns and its extraordinary cases. As Sherman makes clear, there are no easy answers to the question of how early moderns read, but the material traces of that reading have left us, nonetheless, much to discover.

  2. Sherman begins his book with the point that the marking of books, far from being a vaguely transgressive act, was profoundly connected with learning and the putting of learning into action. ‘Making one’s mark’ in books and in the world are here causally related acts, the marking of books (whether physically or not) being the first step in actively reading a text and making it one’s own, thus internalizing knowledge for use in the world. Sherman’s account of the ubiquitous pointing hand device, which he names here the ‘manicule,’ insightfully reminds us of how embodied the act of reading is, and demonstrates how much the early modern reader tended to be aware of that embodiment. The pointing finger is, after all, the index finger, the necessary bodily beginning point of all our indexing. That readers and printers marked texts with a hand was not mere decoration, but reflected the fact that one needs to handle a text in order to read it. This physical handling provides us with the most potent figure for our mental handling of knowledge.

  3. Sherman’s treatment of the manicule stands as an example of how he works to draw new attention to that which we often take as unremarkable. In examining marks left by reading women, for instance, Sherman finds a history missed by the categories of traditional research. He employs Derrida’s term ‘matriarchive’ to explore the textual traces of women who, while they usually do not appear in the historical record as authors, nonetheless led lives “saturated by print” (61). These traces are evident in the annotations in books written for women (such as midwife’s manuals), and in the journals and marginal annotations of identifiable ‘matriarchivists’ such as Lady Anne Clifford.

  4. Of course, readers marking books were not always commenting on or pointing to what they were reading. Early modern books contain a wide variety of manuscript additions, including family records that continued in some case for centuries after the period, ownership notes, and penmanship exercises. In Bibles, readers frequently also marked references to other passages, textual corrections, polemical notes, and numbering of textual units such as book, chapter, verse, and even words, as well as bookish units of pages and columns. This numbering of units aided reference, but also suggests a more general concern to chart the whole of scripture.

  5. Sherman helpfully identifies his own captivity to the category of the unremarkable (though not quite in those terms). He begins his discussion of reading and religion by reflecting on his decision to defer examination of the Huntington’s Bibles on the assumption that pious readers would not have marked holy books. He eventually discovered that quite the opposite was the case, that the particular materiality of the book was indeed especially important in the case of the Bible, but that that materiality was worked out in close personal interaction of readers with text, often through intensive marking. That this was a common practice is borne out by the extant readers’ marks, but also by instructions on how to read, such as those included in many editions of the Geneva Bible, which instruct the reader, among other actions, to mark the text. One extraordinary example of this interaction is a manuscript Book of Common Prayer, which employs illuminated capitals cut from older manuscripts: a personal version of a book available in print. Sherman surveys a range of scholarship to make the point that in early modern Europe such cutting and pasting was “by no means inherently sacrilegious” (103), identifying the Gospel harmonies of Little Gidding—constructed entirely through this technique—as the most remarkable example of cutting and pasting in the period, and, like the manuscript prayer book, a “normal exception” that sheds light on broader cultural logics.

  6. Sherman rounds out his study by considering two exceptional readers. He follows up his own work on John Dee with an examination of a copy of the life of Christopher Columbus, written by his son Ferdinand, a copy full of annotations recently identified (by Sherman) as Dee’s. Sherman reads these annotations to produce an account of the ultimately intimate and personal connections between geographical exploration, imperial ambition, and eschatology. Next, he takes up the indexing work of Sir Julius Caesar, whose work as a lawyer went beyond that profession’s uncommon proclivity for commonplaces. In particular, Sherman examines Caesar’s copy of John Foxe’s commonplace book Pandectae locorum communium, a book empty except for its headings, meant to be filled with excerpts chosen from the owner’s reading. Such a book is already a database, but as Sherman shows, Caesar both added to Foxe’s list of topics, doubling it, and, through the liberal use of vide (‘see also’), produced a powerful system of relationships between entries.

  7. Sherman follows his explorations in particular books with a fascinating account of book collections themselves, interrogating and lamenting the preference for ‘clean’ books, ones that show no signs of use. Given the sorts of conversations with the past that Sherman conducts with used books, this desire for the pristine shows up as strange, but it becomes destructive when book-sellers deliberately remove reader’s marks. Sherman mentions several examples of this practice, including one in which the annotations substantially removed from a Milton text turned out to be in Milton’s own hand. From this dismal place, Sherman turns to the collectors of old books that disregarded the conventional desire for ‘clean’ copies, particularly William T. Smedley, who collected books that he thought were annotated by Francis Bacon, seemingly attributing almost any scholarly annotations to Bacon. His motivation was to collect all of Bacon’s writings as evidence for that writer’s authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and, with some measure of irony, his collection now forms a very important part of the Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library, in that its non- or pseudo-scholarly motivations resulted in an exceptional collection of annotated books that otherwise would not have been gathered.

  8. Sherman, having throughout made the point that the codex is useful precisely for the way it allows discontinuous reading, rightly concludes by calling into question the electronic reading tools that supposedly excel at just such reading. Sherman’s point is that some of the best historical readers have made extensive use of the capacity for textual marking as a way of keeping track of textual connections, and the presently available electronic reading tools lack this vital capacity.

  9. On the whole, though I take Sherman’s point about the value of working from particular exceptional books rather than from great numbers of stereotypical books, I do find myself wanting more statistical overview. For all his nuanced attention to particulars, Sherman does from the outset rightly draw upon a broad survey of materials. Yet, he provides relatively little quantitative information about this survey. We find out that approximately 1 in 5 books in the Huntington STC collection has readers’ marks, but how many of these books actually have manicules, for instance? Or, while Bibles follow the same 1 in 5 proportion, does this proportion run equally along all categories of books? Or, how exactly do the marked books sort out by size and format? Admittedly, keeping close track of details in the 1500-odd marked Huntington volumes would be a significant task, but a report on such a study would have left more for future studies to take up. As it is, Sherman has provided some brilliantly suggestive readings of exceptional documents and the individuals and culture that produced them, but has come up short on the bibliographical facts of his materials. While it is true that the body of extant materials does not represent the past in any sure way (among other reasons, as Sherman points out, the books used most are least likely to have survived), that body is nonetheless what we have and is worth charting more thoroughly. This complaint, however, should not be the last word. Sherman’s book is exemplary in its clarity of expression and its inspired insights into its material: it has been a true delight to read, and my copy is well-marked in anticipation of many future uses.