Quill, Wax, Knife

Adam Smyth

  • Mr Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art & Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age by Dror Wahrman
    Oxford, 275 pp, £22.95, November 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 973886 1

‘This Booke,’ Leonard Digges claimed in a preface to Shakespeare’s First Folio, ‘When Brasse and Marble fade, shall make thee looke/Fresh to all Ages.’ If we take the First Folio as our biggest bibliographical landmark, the history of early modern print looks like a journey towards material permanence: towards the production of books that had the power to endure through time, and to ‘redeeme’ their authors ‘from thy Herse’. ‘Thou … art alive still,’ Jonson wrote to the dead Shakespeare in a characteristically conditional bit of praise, ‘while thy Booke doth live.’

But this is only part of the story. Most printed texts lived very briefly, and then were gone for ever. About one in ten thousand 16th-century broadside ballads survives today. Where did printed pages go to die? Some were used for lining pie dishes; for lighting pipes; for wrapping vegetables at Bucklersbury Market, or drugs at the apothecary’s, or (according to Henry Fitzgeffrey) ‘to dry Tobacco in’. ‘Great Iulius Commentaries lies and rots,’ the poet and waterman John Taylor wrote, ‘as good for nothing but stoppe mustard pots.’ Sir William Cornwallis kept ‘pamphlets and lying-stories and two-penny poets’ in his privy, and many texts were ‘pressed into general service’, as Margaret Spufford put it in Small Books and Pleasant Histories (1981), as toilet paper. Books were pulled apart to serve in the binding and endpapers of later books, the pages of an unwanted Bible perhaps padding the spine of an unholy prose romance. A Booke of Common Prayer (1549) in Lambeth Palace Library has endpapers made from a broadside almanac of 1548; the Folger Shakespeare Library copy of The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng (1521), John Skelton’s great poem of drunkenness, survives only because it was used as waste paper for the binding of another book. To read an early modern book was to confront the broken, recycled material remains of former texts, and the effect is of a kind of memory or haunting: of a book remembering its origins. Thomas Nashe imagined his printed pages being used to wrap expensive slippers (‘velvet pantofles’), ‘so they be not … mangy at the toes, like an ape about the mouth’. As Leah Price showed recently in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, we can do many things to books other than read them.

Today we’re inclined to see such losses as unfortunate, even criminal, but early modern bibliophiles were quite happy for most texts to go the way of the pantofles. Thomas Bodley was careful to exclude ‘idle books, & riffe raffes’, including plays, from his library, and many commentators felt there were simply too many books: ‘a vast Chaos and confusion’, according to Robert Burton. ‘The longest life of a man,’ John Cotgrave lamented, ‘is not sufficient to explore so much as the substance of them, which (in many) is but slender.’ Thus careful reading was figured as a kind of profitable destruction: an act of discrimination that, recalling the Latin legere, plucked out the few worthy titles while leaving the rest (the chapbooks, the pamphlets, the bad plays) to the ‘consuming looks’ of fire (as Jonson put it), or the ‘cankring Age’ (Digges) of time. When Lucius Cary celebrated Jonson’s ‘exact’ literary ‘judgment’, he suggested that had we his notes ‘of what was best in Bookes’, then we ‘need not care though all the rest were lost’.

Three of Edward Collier’s letter rack paintings, made between the late 1690s and 1702.
Three of Edward Collier’s letter rack paintings, made between the late 1690s and 1702.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in