- Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England
William Sherman made his academic debut in 1995 with an innovative monograph on the Elizabethan scholar and "conjuror," Doctor John Dee, The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance. This book tried to map the intellectual horizon as well as the scope of ambition and self-fashioning of the doctor, in Sherman's interpretation the central figure of the so-called Elizabethan "think tank." The research was primarily based on John Dee's magnificent library, his use of books not only as repositories of knowledge but also as means of connections and politics.
Thirteen years later Sherman himself pinpoints the genesis of his new monograph, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, in his earlier studies of Dee's bookish culture and practices. This work represents an important step toward the consolidation of a relatively new area within the development of a large field that could be termed as the study of intellectual curiosity. As of the beginnings of civilization, perhaps the most important documents of intellectual curiosity have been embedded in written texts. A fundamental feature of texts is that they have an exponential effect: few people write them but many more use them later. Print culture brought about an acceleration in this effect: while manuscripts reached out to relatively few readers, since the sixteenth century the [End Page 1358] influence of books has been dominant and universal in modern societies. The early modern period, however, had its peculiarities in connection with the use of books, too.
In the process of recovering and analyzing this early modern bookish culture the first step was to study book production. Printing history has done it. The next step became the study of book collecting. The reconstruction of Renaissance libraries and their content analysis became an important field after 1945, the first pioneering and already comprehensive monograph being Sears Jayne's Library Catalogues of the English Renaissance (1956; new, updated edition 1983). One of the last, magisterial studies of individual libraries was Roberts and Watson's long awaited edition of John Dee's Library Catalogues in 1990 —actually this gave the impetus to Sherman's study of the English doctor.
Recently yet another, more pragmatics-oriented field has emerged: the research of the use of books by various readers. This trend is associated with the name of Roger Chartier, and Sherman refers to Roger Stoddard's Marks in Books, Illustrated and Explained (1985) as a first effort to establish a new direction of investigations.
Sherman's book already represents an advanced stage. His research question could be formulated as follows: how was a book read around 1600? While modern books are usually kept clean and readers —if at all —write their reflections and remarks in separate notebooks, early modern books were treated as dialogical objects that could accommodate responses to the texts they originally contained. Sherman cites John Brinsley's Ludus Literaricus; or, The Grammar Schoole (1612), which actually encouraged young readers to learn how to make useful and meaningful markings in their schoolbooks; hence the phrase mark my words meant not only "notice" or "observe," but also the physical process of underlying and annotating.
The monograph consists of eight chapters in four complex parts. The first deals with marks and methods, including a draft history of the manicule, that is, the pointing hand () that was so popular among the scribblers of marginalia in early modern books. The second part focuses on reading and religion, examining primarily markings in Bibles or in prayer books. The third chapter presents two interesting case studies under the title "Remarkable Readers." The two subchapters deal with John Dee's marginalia in Ferdinand Columbus's famous biography of his father, Christopher (published in 1571); and with the commonplace book of Sir Julius Caesar, written during six decades by England's leading lawyer. From these encounters Sherman draws the following lesson: "To study readers' notes is to work at the fringe of the tapestries...