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Ways of Reading Seventeenth-Century Poetry


Active Reading: As William H. Sherman has shown in his Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, when Renaissance readers read, they did so with pen in hand. Indeed, many of the books that survive from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are smothered with manuscript notes, be it in the margins, the endpapers, or on specially made interleaves. While some Renaissance readers scoured their copies with notes, others read, much as students do today, with blank notebooks by their side. But how these readers used their notebooks is at once familiar and strange. Evidence shows that readers in the period often used two types of notebooks: table books and commonplace books.

Table Books: Small and portable, table books were especially useful for the early stages of composition. Renaissance scholars would often take their rough notes in table books, which they could carry by their side. Both Philip Sidney and John Donne are known to have used such books. First produced in the early sixteenth century, table books were especially popular, in part, because they were the first erasable books. In an age when paper was expensive, the ability to erase proved an attractive innovation.

Commonplace Books: Unlike table books, commonplace books are indexical by design. Renaissance scholars would often copy noteworthy excerpts (or commonplaces) from their readings and place them under various subjects (or heads) in their commonplace books. For example, under the heading of Corruption one might find a quotation from Machiavelli’s The Prince, an anonymous proverb, lines from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, and an excerpt from a speech given by England’s King James I. Under the heading of Lust, one might find a reference to a painting by Titian, a verse from the Bible, and longer excerpts from the poetry of Christopher Marlowe and John Donne. Commonplace books depended, in part, on selective reading and careful indexing. Today we might think of the commonplace book as a kind of self-made search engine or a precursor to Tumblr or Pinterest. Many famous early modern authors produced commonplace books, including Francis Bacon, John Locke and John Milton.

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