At present I am somewhat slow to rise, since early on it is rather cold. Yet we have a perfectly green May. If I weren’t deaf, I’d rise early to hear the nightingale. 1
These words are those of Otto van Eck, a ten-year-old boy from the Dutch urban gentry, and the green month of May he rejoices in, is that of 1791. His diary runs until November 17th, 1797. By then the weather has worsened considerably. The bulky document of 1560 pages ends thus: “Yesterday bad weather and snow. Today better with frost, wind east.” This is the most comprehensive diary by a child hitherto found in Europe. Its often exhaustive descriptions of everyday life render it a source of information for a variety of historians. Detailed recordings of the boy’s arguments with his sisters are interspersed with religious contemplations. We read about rides on horseback or in the goat-cart, but also get lengthy reports on the progress of Otto’s illnesses, when he has to rub himself with pitch and bathe in fresh supplies of seawater brought in by the fishmonger every day. The diary is full of fine anecdotes, for instance about Otto’s argument with his “collegue” Tomas: “Today I have spoken rashly again, for which I needlessly earned Tomas’ dislike; that one does not correct people by scolding them is best learned by experience.” 2
But the diary also has aspects which are attractive to students of reading culture. In most cases we have to put up with indirect sources, taciturn characters such as intended readers in prologues, 3 dead readers in inventories, 4 or the hasty ones one meets in booksellers’ files. 5 None of these readers informs us as to their motives: Why did they own this or that book? For the purpose of conversation, or as a guide for everyday life? And did they actually read these books, or did they merely purchase them to fill their bookshelves? They also keep a profound silence as to their reading habits: were the books read aloud in company, or did the readers ensconce themselves cum libello in angello, with a booklet in a corner? And how did they interpret texts—to the letter? Or did they give them new meanings?
Such questions can only be answered directly through personal evidence: letters, diaries and autobiographies, sources which are not only rare, but also insufficiently investigated. A more fundamental knowledge of reading habits in past centuries is provided by no more than a few famous readers, scattered through time and space. The sixteenth-century Italian miller, for example, whose bizarre interpretation of the Creation Story is described by Carlo Ginzburg 6 or the much-quoted seventeenth-century Englishman Samuel Pepys, with his secret consumption of scandalous booklets that “did hazer my prick para stand all the while.” 7 Another famous example is Darnton’s French silk-merchant Jean Ranson, who read and reread the work of his hero Rousseau as if it were the Bible. 8 Ranson’s English counterpart is Anna Larpent, whose highly extensive reading habits have been exhaustively documented by John Brewer. 9 And this [End Page 129] short tour of our historical readers’ pantheon ends with two American celebrities: the nineteenth-century publishers Joseph T. Buckingham and Samuel Goodrich, who play a central part in David Hall’s The uses of literacy in New England. 10 Otto van Eck’s diary may therefore be considered a find, if only because his talkativeness would enable us to brighten up the international company of chiefly adult historical readers with a Dutch child, a youthful reader who would spontaneously answer all the questions we are so eager to ask. But upon closer consideration, this private document turns out to be far from spontaneous. So before anything can be said about Otto’s reception of literature, the specific function of his diary has to be dealt with.
As it turned out we are not the only ones to read Otto’s daily outpourings. Otto’s parents, too, thought this diary would gain them a...