Pens and Heads

Blair Worden

  • The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making by Adrian Johns
    Chicago, 707 pp, £14.50, May 2000, ISBN 0 226 40122 7
  • Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England by Kevin Sharpe
    Yale, 358 pp, £25.00, April 2000, ISBN 0 300 08152 9

‘We Should Note,’ Francis Bacon enjoined in his Novum Organum, ‘the force, effect, and consequence’ of three inventions which were unknown to the ancients, ‘namely, printing, gunpowder and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world.’ Since Bacon’s time almost everyone has agreed that the social and cultural impact of printing must have been huge. Only in the past half century, however, has it begun to be studied and measured. The movement of enquiry began in France in the 1950s, when the Annales school counted print runs and estimated the breadth and social composition of readerships. More recently, the ‘history of the book’, as it has come to be called, has assumed less statistical, more subtle and more intensive forms.

This enterprise, which belongs among the striking advances made by social history over the past three decades, has had one advantage over its neighbours. It started with a ready-made scholarly base. The technicalities of bibliography and book-production have long been studied, often with the aim of separating authentic from corrupt texts of the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. On that foundation there has been built what the late Don McKenzie, a leading inspiration in the history of the book, called ‘the sociology of texts’. Scholars have inspected habits of reading and writing; standards of literacy; the emergence of modern conceptions of authorship; the relationship between élite and popular literature; the distinctions and overlaps between a ‘manuscript culture’ and a ‘print culture’.

These two long books are contributions to this movement. Adrian Johns’s is very long, for he has a great deal to cover. The Nature of the Book displays a breadth of insight and of learning astonishing in a work produced in early career. There is no mistaking its stature or importance. Yet the work is exceptionally difficult to describe. Johns alludes repeatedly and confidently to its scope and purpose and direction, only to leave a reader less wise than himself. Reading him can be an unnerving experience, rather like travelling with a taxi-driver who gives every indication of knowing what he’s doing but who for some reason seems to be taking one round the houses. It may be that The Nature of the Book is most rewardingly approached not in the hope of finding a coherent thesis in it but as a miscellany of essays, or perhaps as an attempt to write too many interesting books at once.

Johns’s starting-point is indignation. He is provoked by the only thorough survey of the impact of printing to have been written, Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (published in 1979 and abridged as The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe in 1983). Eisenstein argued – though less insistently than Johns’s criticisms might suggest – that one consequence of the printing revolution was the standardisation, systematisation and certainty of knowledge. So long as there were only manuscripts, intellectual propositions could circulate only in various, frequently corrupted forms. Books provided not only larger readerships but a common frame of intellectual reference.

As Johns sees it, Renaissance and 17th-century books had none of the authority or ‘fixity’ that Eisenstein claimed for them. At least until the 19th century, he thinks, books presented as many problems to readers as manuscripts had. Piracy and plagiarism were rife. Readers had no way of knowing whether the author whose name was attached to a book would have accepted responsibility for its contents. For Johns, the intellectual history of the early modern period – especially the history of scientific ideas, which is the largest of his many interests – is a series of contests for the aura of reliability: of battles fought not merely between competing claims of the mind but for control of the press. Ideas prevailed not, or not only, because of their innate superiority but because they had literary patrons or printing-houses or censors on their side.

The high point of Johns’s book is his account of the protracted quarrels between, on the one hand, Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley, those grandees of the Royal Society, and on the other the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, the doyen of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. Johns levels the same complaint against historians of science as against Eisenstein: that they take the subject ‘outside history’ and miss the struggles, practical as well as intellectual, through which victories were won. Content to hail the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, the first scientific periodical, as a natural development of the age of scientific revolution, they overlook the initial failure of the venture and the difficulty it had in asserting its authority. Placing Newton on a pedestal, they avert their eyes from his manipulation of patronage and the press to ensure the triumph of his ideas.

Flamsteed, with less powerful patrons, lost out. His Historia Coelestis was published in 1712, against his wishes, in a form that suited his enemies. It was, he complained, the most outrageous act of intellectual appropriation in a hundred years. The scientific revolution, Johns argues, might have taken a very different turn had the roles been reversed: had, say, the publication of the Principia Mathematica been entrusted to Flamsteed and the Royal Observatory. Historians of science need to give ‘as much attention’ to the politics of scientific publication as to its intellectual content.

Need they? I suspect that Johns overstates a powerful case. There were struggles enough before the appearance of the Principia in 1687. Yet the ‘immediate sensation’ which, he acknowledges, greeted the publication indicates the power of ideas and of truth to overcome practical obstacles. There may be a danger that the reaction against a ‘pure’ or ‘internalist’ history of science is producing its own excesses: that we shall soon have a history of science with the science left out, or at least left unexplained. I wonder, too, if Johns doesn’t overestimate the uncertainties caused by plagiarism and piracy and by variations between one version of a printed text and another. Was there, in the ordinary course of events, much comment on such difficulties? Students of Johns’s period are familiar with pamphlet debates whose participants, in rebutting their opponents’ arguments, refer page-by-page to each other’s publications. They seem to take for granted the very textual ‘fixity’ which Johns gainsays.

To readers with no stake in the controversies over the history of the book, Johns’s study may seem less a confutation of Eisenstein’s than a development of it and complement to it. Eisenstein pointed out, for instance, that Luther’s decision to post his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg assumed importance only because they then got into print. The activities of printers, translators and distributors were thus as much a part of the story as Luther’s own formulation of his ideas. Does Johns not apply the same principle, albeit more extensively, to the scientific revolution?

The real value of his book lies not in his dispute with Eisenstein but in his extraordinarily rich and vivid portrait of London’s community of authors, printers and booksellers. Here is the organisational infrastructure of the ‘vast city’ of Milton’s Areopagitica, of its ‘pens and heads ... sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas ... others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement’. Johns’s account centres on the social arrangements and values of the printing houses. Not for him the stock image of the mercenary and opportunist book trade of Grub Street. Instead, he re-creates a world with strict ethical codes.

Here, as elsewhere, Johns’s preoccupation with the problems ‘fixity’ brings life to his argument but is perhaps given too large a share in it. Ethical standards, he maintains, were designed not merely to supply the self-esteem of professional respectability, which might seem explanation enough, but to assure purchasers that the books they bought were what they purported to be.

The ethics were not simply business ones, for there was a ‘bond between domestic and occupational propriety’. Printing shops were patriarchal households, with hierarchies of workers, some of them highly skilled and highly literate. Rules of chastity were firmly enforced, for nothing was likelier to discredit a book than allegations of sexual impropriety among its makers (though theological unorthodoxy could do equal damage). Yet, if the households were tightly disciplined communities, they were not self-enclosed. Authors and booksellers were constant visitors, bargaining, arguing, bringing news from the wider world. Many printers’ homes and booksellers’ shops adjoined a coffee house, that rapidly expanding social milieu. The feud between Halley and Flamsteed turned on confrontations and snubs before coffee house audiences.

Milton argued, against the licensers, for freedom of the press, a claim that seems to our age self-evidently enlightened and progressive. Johns shows us another side of the story. Publishers and scientists wanted a licensing system, not in order to repress subversive ideas, but to supply endorsements of reliability. A licensed text would be an authorised text, not a pirated or plagiarised one. So we find John Streater, a republican under Cromwell, arguing for the Crown’s control of the press after 1660. Streater, whose career Johns lovingly recreates, looked to the monarchy as a counter-weight to the Stationers’ Company, the oligarchy which ran the book trade and with which he engaged in a quarrel as colourful and illuminating as that between Flamsteed and the Royal Society. The Crown’s right of control, resting on claims of antiquity and precedent, had to be demonstrated by historical inquiry. There thus emerged from the controversy the first histories of English publishing, themselves critical documents, in Johns’s view, in the forging of the book trade’s sense of identity.

The ‘sociology of texts’ has sought to give us a history not only of writing and publishing but of reading. Among Johns’s erudite detours is an account of 17th-century hypotheses about the operation of the brain and the nervous system when the eye meets the page. Modern commentators have been more interested in reading as interpretation: in the processes by which readers order or sift or slant what they read as they accommodate it within their perceptions of the world. Renaissance commonplace books, notebooks and manuscript annotations have attracted particular attention as guides to, or even determinants of, the period’s intellectual systems.

Kevin Sharpe’s book centres on ‘the richest archival source for the study of reading in early modern England’: the voluminous notes which a country gentleman, Sir William Drake, from Amersham in Buckinghamshire, took on his reading before and during the Puritan Revolution. Apart from that reading there is little about Drake to know. Sharpe reports that, in the Renaissance manner, he read to ‘equip’ himself ‘for action’ – or, in the sort of wording Sharpe prefers, to ‘write himself, we might say, a successful actor in the world’ and to lead a life ‘scripted by texts’. Yet action seems to have been beyond Drake. He was a member of the Long Parliament, but it is not clear that he ever spoke in it. Most of the Revolution he spent abroad, ‘for his health’, which seems to have conveniently recovered at the Restoration. Though he commented so relentlessly on books written by others, he appears to have written nothing of his own, not even an essay or memorandum. For Sharpe, however. Drake’s ‘mental world’ is claim enough to immortality.

To have imposed interpretative order on Drake’s notes, which are scattered, in what must often be inconvenient forms, in libraries in England and North America, is a singular accomplishment. There is no danger that Sharpe has made Drake seem less interesting than he is. How interesting is he? Sharpe is impressed not only by the extent of his commentaries, which, though far from unusual in form, may be unique in quantity, but by his mind. Drake’s immersion in the ‘politic’ Italian writers of the Renaissance – Machiavelli, Guicciardini, Botero – made him, in Sharpe’s account, a clinical observer of contemporary events, freed by his reading from the conventional moral framework and religious fanaticisms of the age of Puritan revolt. He developed ‘a Hobbesian view of the world before Hobbes wrote’.

It is not clear – Sharpe has a way of leaving such things unclear – whether this means that Drake assumed philosophical positions that would later become hallmarks of Hobbes’s writing (which would indeed be remarkable) or merely that he said things which remind Sharpe of Hobbes. There was plenty of scepticism, philosophical, political and religious, in late-Renaissance England, and Drake’s views, as quoted or summarised here, sound less distinctive than Sharpe supposes. Sharpe’s command of Drake’s ‘mental world’ does not always seem firm. At least one of the passages of incisive reflection that he appears to regard as Drake’s own was simply taken from Machiavelli’s Discourses. When Drake comments on the Old Testament king Jehu, Sharpe supposes his remarks to be about Christ.

Sharpe’s grasp of the mid-century political background likewise seems insecure. One of his themes is the impact on Drake’s reading of the political events around him. Attitudes which he had formed before the Puritan revolution were developed or adjusted, Sharpe thinks, by its course. It would be surprising if Drake’s engagement with ‘politic history’, a form of enquiry intended to illuminate present events, proved to have been unaffected by them. Yet it is usually hard to see why the passages which Sharpe takes to have been shaped by experiences after 1640 could not equally well have been written before it. Allusions by Drake to contemporary politics seem to have been few and far between. A passage quoted by Sharpe as a reflection on the new republic of 1649 appears, from the excerpt we are given, to be merely a somewhat cumbersome exposition of a Renaissance commonplace about the danger of allowing an interval between the death of one king and the succession of the next. No more convincing is Sharpe’s opaquely formulated suggestion that Drake’s notes on Ben Jonson’s play Sejanus allude to Oliver Cromwell.

We all make mistakes, but Sharpe’s invite the question whether the energy that has gone into Reading Revolutions has been wisely allotted. Time which he might have spent reading what Drake read has gone into a zestful deployment of the theoretical apparatus – by now surely rusting apparatus – of Post-Modernist and New Historicist literary criticism. For Sharpe has brought a macrohistorical ambition to what may seem the microhistorical subject of Drake’s note-taking. Through the application of recent critical discourse, he maintains, a study of Drake’s literary practices ‘may lead us to a rethinking of the early modern past’. It is on such enterprises, he believes, that the future of historical understanding depends.

That vision is couched in an inflated vocabulary which owes everything to imitation and beyond which it seems to have no independent life. I do not see how Sharpe’s claims can survive, even where they permit, translation into concrete English. Historians who have admired the lucidity and verve of other writings by him will regret his new addiction to a thought-numbing and syntax-impairing litany of negotiations, representations, interrogations, constructions, strategies, rhetoricities, indeterminacies, authorisings etc, his subscription to the jargon of ‘reader reception’ theory, his laboured description of reading and writing as exercises of ‘power’. When he turns to the habit among Renaissance readers of writing in the margins of their books, you fear you know what is coming. When it does, we get the kind of non-sequitur to which devotees of enclosed languages are liable: ‘Margins, as our own vocabulary of marginal and marginalise reminds us, were always ideological spaces.’

Behind its mannerisms of expression, Sharpe’s book rests on assumptions more traditional than he seems to realise. Words such as ‘evidence’ and ‘scholarship’, he explains, are ‘an ideological discourse’, or else remnants of a ‘positivism’, of a ‘scientific approach’, to which historians who have not caught up with Post-Modernism are ‘prone to cling’. But when he turns from theoretical to historical issues he invokes the claims of ‘evidence’ and ‘scholarship’ in precisely the ‘positivist’ spirit that he has disowned. Having earlier written a distinguished narrative of the personal rule of Charles I, Sharpe here portrays narrative history as an ‘ideological construct’ and asks us to prefer ‘the case-study’, which for some reason is less of an ideological construct. Yet case-studies are inconceivable without narrative frameworks. Without one, how could Sharpe’s question whether the course of the Puritan Revolution affected the reading habits of Sir William Drake even have been framed?