When, in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver confronts the stark consequences of her father's bankruptcy, the superiority of her nature shines through in her dismay at the sale of the family's books:
Her eyes had immediately glanced from him to the place where the bookcase had hung; there was nothing now but the oblong unfaded space on the wall, and below it the small table with the Bible and the few other books.
"Oh Tom," she burst out, clasping her hands, "where are the books? I thought my uncle Glegg said he would buy them—didn't he?—are those all they've left us?"
"I suppose so," said Tom, with a sort of desperate indifference. "Why should they buy many books when they bought so little furniture?"
"Oh but, Tom," said Maggie, her eyes filling with tears, as she rushed up to the table to see what books had been rescued. "Our dear old Pilgrim's Progress that you coloured with your little paints; and that picture of Pilgrim with a mantle on, looking just like a turtle—O dear!" Maggie went on, half sobbing as she turned over the few books. "I thought we should never part with that while we lived—everything is going away from us—the end of our lives will have nothing in it like the beginning!"
While Maggie's mother worries only about her initialed silver teapot with its stand (334), her "chany" (china) with "the tulips on the cups, and the roses, as anybody might go and look at 'em for pleasure" (328), not to mention her sugar tongs, Maggie's attention moves to the gap in the fabric of the room where the bookshelf used to be. But Maggie resembles her mother insofar as her reaction to the loss of her favorite things is unabashedly sentimental. Although the family retains its Holy Bible (a book that will prove to be immensely significant as the plot unfolds), Maggie laments the loss of the pleasurable Christian allegory of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress
, a volume made more precious by her brother's coloring and by an illustration that makes the hero look like a turtle. Books here stand for religion and literacy, for the possibility of wisdom and goodness, but for much more besides: shared experience, shared jokes, and a tangible link back to childhoods that are receding all too rapidly. In Maggie's concluding sob, the disappearance of individual "things" is subsumed into a much larger loss—"everything
is going away from us—the end of our lives will have nothing
in it like the beginning!" Her words suggest the power of objects to hold our memories and to secure our identities, providing anchors amid the flux of experience. As she loses her grip on things, Maggie is cut adrift.
Thanks to their physical resilience, books are potent carriers of personal associations and memories. Although their spines fade and their pages yellow with time, they have a tendency to endure on the shelves, serving as visible reminders of the circumstances in which they were first bought and read. Philip Larkin's poem "Love Songs in Age" conjures up a widow's music books—"One bleached from lying in a sunny place, / One marked in circles by a vase of water, / One mended, when a tidy fit had seized her, / And coloured, by her daughter." Opened again after many years, the books and the songs they contain allow "the unfailing sense of being young" to "spread out like a spring-woken tree." Marcel Proust speculates that "there are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those . . . we spent with a favourite book." But this retrospective sense of plenitude derives not from the text but from all the things that seemed at the time to distract us from it: "The game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench without touching, while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter." Such seemingly extraneous things stay with us, so that now, "if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist." Like a taste or a scent, a book can bring the past flooding back.
Books decay over time, of course, and countless numbers have been lost. But they put up a dogged (or dog-eared) resistance to change that allows them to bear witness to distant times. James Joyce's story "Araby" begins with a boy's recollection of coming to live in a new house: "Air, musty from having been long enclosed, hung in all the rooms and the waste room behind the kitchen was littered with old useless papers. Among these I found a few papercovered books, the pages of which were curled and damp: The Abbot by Walter Scott, The Devout Communicant and The Memoirs of Vidocq. I liked the last best because its leaves were yellow." In the dank air, a flash of color—which is at once a visible color and the literary color of books that continue to communicate long after the worlds that gave them birth have passed away. This power of the book as witness has been pushed to an extreme by the photographer Yuri Docj, in a project entitled Last Folio. Docj was making portraits of Holocaust survivors when he was taken to see an abandoned school in Bardejov, on the border between Poland and Ukraine. The school was a time capsule: everything remained where it was left on the day in 1942 when the Jewish students were taken away to the camps. On seeing the building, his collaborator Katya Krausova recalls, Dojc became fascinated by the books. "The disintegrating tomes, the beautiful decaying spines, all the crumbling pages are mesmerizing. They speak volumes about those who never came back to read the texts, to explain, to teach, to learn from them." The felicitous wordplay of "speaking volumes" captures the miracle of Docj's photographs, in which the brooding presences of Hebrew books become powerfully eloquent. They tell of loss and the evisceration of human lives, but they also come to seem like Holocaust survivors, things of flesh and bone rather than paper and cloth, guarding unspeakable memories.
The histories that lie buried in books are often traceless; purely personal associations that leave no physical mark. But books become more palpable "calendars . . . of the days that have vanished" when they are annotated by their owners. An act as seemingly straightforward as writing one's name and the date on a flyleaf makes the book part of a skeletal autobiography—why that book, for that person, at that time? A gift inscription marks a particular occasion and a particular relationship, and makes us wonder still more about the title in question—why that book, passing between those people, at that time? If the book is the gift of its author, it is known in the trade as an "association copy," but any kind of inscription creates an association that can reveal something important about the lives of those who made it. One of the most familiar kinds of annotated book in the West was the family Bible that was turned into a repository for lists of births, marriages, and deaths. This usage, which materializes Proust's sense of the book as a repository of past times, presumably evolved partly because Bibles were once prefaced with calendars marking out the red-letter days of each month. It was eminently practical; if a family had no other books, it would have a Bible, and the durability of the volume would help to protect precious information. But it also had a powerful symbolic role, bringing together the human and the divine, and framing the family in the sight of God. When, in The Mill on the Floss, Mr. Tulliver asks his son, Tom, to write a declaration of abiding hatred for "the man as had helped to ruin him" in the family Bible, forcing Tom to sign his name beneath it, it is a terrible perversion of the traditional use of the Good Book. This attempt to make the end of the Tullivers' lives have something in it like the beginning takes root in one of the few objects that escapes the sale of the family's property.
At the points where the lives of people and of books overlap, books can come to seem strange objects. John Milton offered one of the most eloquent accounts of that strangeness, writing against prepublication press censorship in Areopagitica (1644): "Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them." A book distils its writer's rationality, producing a quintessence of wit like the elixirs and waters that were manufactured in early modern households or sold by apothecaries for use as medicines, perfumes, or ingredients in cookery. The effect of the elixir is revealed in the next sentence to be nothing short of magical: "I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous Dragons teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men." Writing in the thick of civil war, Milton draws on the myth of Cadmus to demonstrate the proximity of the pen and the sword, and the way that printed polemic fuels needless conflict. But the most remarkable twist in this skein of metaphors comes when the radical Protestant reaches across to the Catholic culture he reviles and turns the book into a sort of relic: "A good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm'd and treasur'd up on purpose to a life beyond life." This is one of the best accounts we have of the mysteriousness of the book as an object and the sense of desecration that can attend on its destruction.
If the book is the blood of a spirit, it occupies a privileged middle ground between the flesh and the soul; it shares the betwixt-and-between nature of man. This in part explains why the book can stand in for its writer, or can continue to be its writer after the writer is dead. On this account, the book is numinous and set apart from other material things. But if we are to understand the power of ink on paper, we also need to put the book back into the world of material things, albeit a world imagined as full not of absolutely dead things but of objects that might be imagined as alive. This is the thought experiment urged on us by Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter, a study that challenges us to reconceive our relationship with "stuff." Instead of seeing humans as set on some lofty plane of being, a giddy height from which they manipulate the world and mold it to their will, Bennett suggests, we need to understand ourselves as material things among material things. Agency, or "vibrancy," is not a human or an animal privilege: humans do things, but so do storms and asteroids and bags of potato chips. Things do what they do both on their own and as part of larger systems, chains of object agency; so to think about the vibrancy of the book means thinking about structures of publishing, institutions of education, and the paper industry, to name just a few of the systems in which the book is embedded. For an example, we might ponder the development of the daily newspaper in the nineteenth century, which was dependent not just upon the invention of the mechanized steam press (replacing the manual labor of presswork) but also upon the replacement of rag paper with paper made from wood pulp (which was far more abundant). The reengineering of paper allowed the newspaper to happen. But the acidity of the new paper meant that it began to discolor and crumble after a few decades, making nineteenth-century materials a headache for conservators in libraries around the world. Materiality bites, all the time, in ways that we frequently try to hide from our own view.
In coming to terms with the ontology of the book, we can also benefit from the work of the anthropologist Tim Ingold, who believes that we are prone to think far too abstractly about the world we inhabit. In his account, material things may appear to be contained and self-sufficient, but they are actually always in dynamic relationships with their environments. Humans invest heavily in the idea of stasis—they create closed environments that put a brake on change—but what appears to be stasis is really flux. Books readily bear out this claim. Designed to preserve text, they sit on the bookshelves, achieving the feats of endurance that I described earlier. But their endurance is also change: as they persist, they gather dust, bleach in the light, dry out, feed worms. They start to look dated; more subtly but just as ineluctably their texts date, thanks to the shifting meanings of words, the volatility of intellectual currencies, the rise and fall of authorial reputations. While they are changed by the world, books also change the world, effecting revolutions of thought and perception or (more locally) transforming their owners, turning them into magicians who sell their souls or dukes who neglect their dukedoms. Even when a book appears to be doing nothing, to be simply part of the furniture, it remains intricately entangled in the world.
If we want to think about the materiality of the book, we need to attend to the circuits in which it moves. A desire to understand wider ecosystems is increasingly important to historians of reading, who often start from particular volumes preserved in libraries and seek to move out to understand the circumstances of reading, the when, where, and how. One of the seminal contributions to this field, the celebrated article by Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton entitled "How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy," is important precisely because it stops us thinking about reading as a private, subjective act, enclosed (as it were) within the cranium, and re-embeds it in time and space. When Gabriel Harvey read, he read as a professional reader, with other people, in particular historical circumstances, for very clearly defined ends. Crucially, he had furniture (at least several very large tables to facilitate constant cross-referencing; at most a book wheel, an ingenious device that allowed the scholar to access multiple folio volumes at once). This account of Harvey's reading might transform our sense of our own reading, whether we are journalists or political aides scanning the latest government documents, or idlers flicking through the newspapers over coffee at the weekend. Reading always needs furniture, though that furniture may be a bed rather than a book wheel. Even if we are playing the modern, private, subjective reader, we have to be plugged into a particular set of circumstances for that style of reading to be possible. Understanding what reading might have meant in different periods requires us to parse the changing relationship between texts and environments.
When she laments the loss of her Bunyan, what Maggie Tulliver misses above all is its record of a social interaction, the childhood jokes and games that anchor her life in a shared past. The book is remembered through its material features—funny pictures colored in with a child's paints—rather than through its text alone. It is a particular copy of The Pilgrim's Progress, not just any copy, that matters to her. We might think of this as a "material mattering," in which the book as a whole, in both its content and its physical appearance, signifies. Work in book history has drawn attention to the many ways in which (as D. F. McKenzie put it) "forms effect meaning," or in which (for Jerome McGann) bibliographic codes help to frame our interpretation of a text. Yet for those of us brought up on modern reading, with its associations of privacy and intimacy, mediated by the relatively disposable paperback or e-book, it is still hard to put the physical book and the text together. In Dreaming by the Book, Elaine Scarry distinguishes the written arts from other forms, like music and painting, that work with sensuous materials: "Verbal art, especially narrative, is almost bereft of any sensuous content. Its visual features, as has often been observed, consist of monotonous small black marks on a white page. It has no acoustical features. Its tactile features are limited to the weight of its pages, their smooth surfaces, and their exquisitely thin edges. The attributes that it has that are directly apprehensible by perception are, then, meager in number." For Scarry, there is nothing to see or hear in a book, which is above all a vehicle for the imagination. There is plenty to argue with here. Those with an interest in type design might baulk at the claim that the small black marks on the page are monotonous, and those who have explored the way in which the brain processes text, and who ascribe a significant role to subvocalization, will wonder at the idea that text has "no acoustical features." Still, the passage makes sense in context, where it serves Scarry's larger point about the contrast between the sensuousness of the world we imagine when reading and the restrictedness of the medium that provokes that imagining. A similar point is made from a very different perspective when the textual critic Randall McLeod confesses that "I can't read a book and look at it at the same time." To start to see a book in its physical detail, McLeod has to abandon "The Missionary Position of Reading," turning it upside down and using an optical collator to compare the typesetting in two supposedly identical copies from the same edition. For both Scarry and McLeod, the book performs a disappearing act when we read; it becomes a kind of non-object. Removed from society into a sphere of privacy, it represents an honorable exception to the things in the world. We might turn that idea inside out and say that a book is a paradigmatic object, in that centuries of refinement to the human and material hardware of reading have rendered it invisible. For the literate, the process of textual engagement is so fluent that it seems to lack a material substrate (we feel a jolt when a typo brings us back down to earth). Books thus share in the subservience that Daniel Miller ascribes to material culture in general, a subservience that makes "objects" seem secondary to "subjects" when in fact the two terms are inextricable.
Shakespeare's First Reader has its origins in my fascination with the strange material and immaterial nature of books as they appeared in early modern account books and household inventories. I had been immersing myself in these documentary sources partly because they offered interesting information about what people were reading (all those titles long forgotten, many of them now lost for good) but also because they set reading matter so provocatively alongside all the other matter in the world: the food and clothing, business and pleasure that go to make up a life. Reading these lists proved a disorientating experience, since it forced me to wonder how we could put the heterogenous worlds of the account book or the inventory back together again. I was aware that book historians had used these kinds of source to compile library catalogues, separating the bibliographical materials out from the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life, and releasing them into a higher sphere of intellectual or literary history. Comparably, when social historians explore such documents, they save the books until last; reading becomes the cultural icing on the economic cake, offering an insight into the "hobbies and pastimes" of the distant past. For Renata Ago, books and paintings can be categorised as "immaterial things," luxuries that float free of the world of material necessity (the original Italian text puts it slightly differently, but equally starkly, distinguishing "i beni dello spirito" from "i beni del corpo"). There is in all this a rage to separate and classify, to draw lines between different areas of culture so as to render the diversity of the account book manageable and meaningful. My own impulse runs counter to this. I want to blur the lines, to recombine body and the soul in order to fully understand the textual cultures of the past. I want to use these dusty documents as a way of plugging the book back into its social and physical ecosystems, and so of coming closer to understanding what reading is.
In this I have been emboldened by early modern writers who delight in thinking across the boundary between books and things (with a pronounced emphasis on clothing and foodstuffs). John Lyly's Euphues (1578) opens with an epistle "To the Gentleman Readers" that compares a book to a flower in the hair of a gentlewoman, which will end up on the floor, or to a cherry that overripens; or to a fashionable garment that is "but a dayes wearing," as a book is an hour's reading. Sir Philip Sidney famously called his unpublished Arcadia "but a trifle, and that triflinglie handled," and urged his sister to look in it for "no better stuffe, then, as in an Haberdashers shoppe, glasses, or feathers." John Heywood and Sir John Harington both wrote poems comparing books with cheese, largely on the grounds that both provoked spectacularly subjective judgments of taste. The metaphor of the book as food was played out on a much larger scale in a masque performed in 1635 at the Museum Minervae, a newly established academy in Covent Garden for the sons of peers and gentlemen. Welcoming a party of royal visitors—Prince Charles, his brother James, and his sister Mary—the masque initially presented a table full of books. But the young royals were expected not to read the books but to eat them; opening them up revealed a banquet, made up of food that punned on the names of celebrated authors. Suetonius contained "a history of sweete meates," Aulus Gellius "nourishing strong gelly," Levinus Lemnius "Dried cand[i]ed Lemons." Friar Bacon needed the least verbal wrenching to fit in. This was a mode of learning that supposedly used "sense" to "extract the sweetest quintessence" of learning.
The comparisons surveyed in the previous paragraph may strike us as somewhat bathetic, focusing on the way that literary texts might fall into materiality rather than allowing that there are genuine comparisons to be made between texts and things. The lame jokes that underpin the Corona Minervae's book banquet look like precursors of those made on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century "dummy spines"—fake books such as those that lined Dickens's walls, bearing titles like History of a Short Chancery Suit (in twenty-one volumes) or Cat's Lives (nine volumes). One of the dummy spines on the library staircase at Chatsworth promised its reader Pygmalion: By Lord Bacon. These examples are cited by Leah Price, who links them up with other groan-inducing puns on books and food:
I lost my Bacon t'other day—could anything be harder?
My cook had taken it by stealth—I found it in the Larder.blockquote>
Price moves from bad jokes like this to critique the recent swerve in literary studies toward the consideration of the material book, offering a withering account of "the literary-critical profession on its trek from the abstract to the concrete." The turn to "book history" is inevitably deflationary, as critics start to privilege "the mundane over the ideal, the local over the transcendent, the concrete over the abstract." High theory once made literary studies something of a master discipline; now an oxymoronic "thing theory" threatens "to drag ideas into the marketplace, the mind down to the level of the body." "A dogged or even mulish taste for the mundane, the contingent, and the simpleminded finds its only aesthetic outlet in puns," as ideas of the marginal and the stereotypical are upstaged by real margins or real stereotypes. By replacing ideas with things, the new materialism turns its practitioners into dummies.
The witty survey that Price offers here prefaces a book about the representations of the material book in Victorian fiction, and hers is not the only attack on thing theory that paves the way for a new, improved contribution to thing theory. Still, it is worth emphasizing that the "trek from the abstract to the concrete" in literary studies and across the humanities has been anything but mundane. With its roots in the cultural turn of the 1990s, the material turn has produced a rich interdisciplinary ferment, sparking new conversations between critics, historians, anthropologists, museum curators, and (more recently) scientists. Studies in this area have not merely transformed our understanding of the past; they have challenged our sense of our own being-in-the-world, speaking to the most intimate of our everyday actions and transactions.
Among the most significant contributions to the material outpouring for early modernists are Juliet Fleming's Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England and Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass's Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. Both books propose that, far from experiencing the material as bathetic, writers in the past were much more at home with it than we have subsequently become. Jones and Stallybrass propose a genealogy of the transition to modernity, grounded in the (Protestant, imperialist, capitalist) subject's desire to imagine himself or herself as set over and above the world of objects, which have to be imagined as exchangeable and disposable in order to serve as vehicles of monetary accumulation in the marketplace. Shaping the modern subject required the creation of the category of the "fetish" and the "fetishist," the person who is excessively and improperly invested in material things—invested in a way that makes investment of the capitalist variety impossible. The result of this intellectual dispensation is the world described by Daniel Miller, in which "either we desperately want to escape being material, or we spend our lives trying to accumulate more material, or, most bizarrely, most of the people I live amongst in London want to do both of these things simultaneously." Dependency and disavowal are the stuff of modern life.
While it is hardly free from anxieties about the material (often based on Christian or Platonic versions of object disavowal), early modern literature is vehement in its determination to think through things. The metaphysical conceit is just one of many modes of metaphorical thinking that saturate the writing of the period. John Lyly's attempt to think through the material is not confined to a few metaphors in a prefatory epistle; the "Euphuistic" style is characterized in part by its relentless similitudes, which attempt to understand human affairs with reference to all of the bizarre phenomena in the Plinian book of nature. The Sidney who talks of his prose masterpiece as glass or feathers in the haberdasher's shop is the same Sidney who imagines poetic inspiration as a shower of rain falling onto a sunburnt brain (in the first sonnet of Astrophil and Stella), and who describes tragedy as the genre that "openeth the greatest woundes, and showeth forth the Ulcers that are covered with Tissue" (in the Defence of Poesie). Early modern literature, like many other literatures, reminds us that the material is all we have; we can populate the cosmos with all manner of numinous entities, but if they are not made manifest in some this-worldly form, they will not register. Or, to put the point more strongly, for those who are thoroughgoing materialists, we might say that the world offers us a range of materialities, some obvious (the stone that hurts me when I kick it), others so subtle and complex that we struggle to think of them as material (things such as consciousness, language, personal identity, and perhaps also, by extension, books). We need to be alert to the forms of alchemy that mediate between the former and the latter, for example by transforming an agglomeration of ink on paper into a cultural monument or a treasured possession. Reading literary texts is often a process of learning to care about the material, and to see that it is material; you cannot understand a detective story, or a novel, or Hamlet unless you keep an eye on the movement of things. It is in this sense a process of curation, in its etymological sense of caring. The material turn does nothing if it does not invite us to care more about things in the world, in part as a possible route out of the environmental impasse to which capitalism has now brought us.
This book represents one such act of curation, applied to a single sixteenth-century life that left its primary trace in the form of account books and inventories. Richard Stonley was an Exchequer clerk under Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I, and he is (in historical terms) a minnow; only in 2016 did he acquire his own entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, the work of the historian Felicity Heal. He was born, around 1520, in the Warwickshire village of Bishop's Itchington, where his father owned about sixty acres of land at his death in 1547. Much of the village has now disappeared beneath the fields, partly as a result of another event that took place in 1547 in the nearby chapel of Chadshunt, where a "Picture and Ymage of [Saint] Chadde [was] broken downe and burnte," and lucrative offerings to the shrine ceased. While Chad was falling, Stonley was on the make and heading for London. We know nothing about his education, but by the late 1540s he had attached himself to William Petre, a secretary of state, who between 1535 and 1538 had been one of the overseers of the dissolution of numerous ancient monasteries, abbeys, and chantries in England and Wales. As a reward for his faithful service, Petre had been granted one of the Essex lands formerly owned by Barking Abbey, the manor of "Gyng Abbess" or "Yenge atte Stone," familiarly known as Ingatestone. The stone in question was a "sarsen stone" boulder deposited by a glacier; Petre might have been charmed by its fittingness with his own name (the Latin "petrus" means rock), and that of his new servant. In November 1549 Stonley was given a hundred pounds "in ready money" by Petre, "to be by hym delyveryd over to my Ladie"; thereafter he seems to have served Petre in a variety of offices. It was presumably thanks to Petre that Stonley was installed, in 1554, in a job for life, as a teller in the Exchequer of Receipt. His relationship with his patron remained close, in the most literal sense; the property he acquired on Aldersgate Street, in the suburbs of London, was a stone's throw from Petre House. In the early 1550s Stonley married a widow, Anne Donne, who brought with her three sons, two of whom would go on to achieve positions of eminence, Daniel as an ecclesiastical lawyer and William as a physician. If his Exchequer position brought Stonley into regular contact with courtiers, involving him in the financing of the political nation, his marriage brought him city connections, since Anne hailed from a family of Drapers, the Branches, who were based in the parish of St. Mary Abchurch. In 1557 he secured a grant of arms and in 1579 acquired a country estate at Doddinghurst in Essex, just down the road from Ingatestone and close to Branche family lands at Margaret Roding. He sat in the parliament of 1571 for Newton in Lancashire, a place with which he had no obvious connection, and in 1574 was made a governor of the newly founded free school at Lewisham in Kent.
To his contemporaries, Stonley might have registered as a "new man," a social mushroom who sprang up overnight and went from complete obscurity to the heights of wealth and significance. His job, a secure bureaucratic position with a guaranteed income, was the kind of post that many men spent their lives dreaming of. As well as benefiting from the fees that went with it, Stonley seems to have used some of the vast sums that passed through his hands to engage in moneylending and land speculation. He accumulated property not just in Essex and London but also in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Oxfordshire, and Sussex. Such investments required a considerable outlay in legal fees, repairs to the fabric of buildings, and travel to visit tenants, not to mention the purchase of more material goods to bolster an ever-expanding status. One of the key sources for this study is a series of account books that show us a material world being assembled through ordinary and extraordinary expenditure. Besides his lands, Stonley invested in books, acquiring a library of perhaps around five hundred titles—not an enormous collection to rival those of contemporaries such as John Dee and Matthew Parker, or of still more ambitious 'universal' collectors like Hernando Colón, but likely among the largest English collections of its day. The journals allow us to see him buying books from day to day, often hot off the presses. Shakespeare's poem Venus and Adonis, the author's first published work, was one.
All of these goods would later be dispersed. In his old age Stonley was convicted of having embezzled a spectacular sum of money—just under £13,000—from the Exchequer, and was incarcerated in the Fleet. For him, these events spelled the collapse of the social role that he had sustained for more than four decades; for us, they are the amber in which an Elizabethan fly was caught. The other key source for my book is an inventory that shows the contents of his London townhouse being priced up for sale, and in the process documents the book collecting in which Stonley had been engaged for several decades. His was an extraordinary library. Like many in the period it was very heterogeneous: the bulk was made up of religious works, including fifteen Bibles or part-Bibles (roughly 38 percent of the whole), alongside substantial holdings in classical and modern literature (11 percent), history and geography (9 percent), moral/political philosophy (8 percent), and law (8 percent). But the collection was startlingly new in its inclusion of so much vernacular literature (55 percent of the books were in English, where in other contemporary libraries the figure is less than 10 percent). Still, in this document the books are not allowed to steal the show; like the account books, the inventory sets them alongside the flux of material culture, a wealth of domestic furnishings in a house that was stuffed with stuff. Book historians long ago separated out Stonley's booklist from his inventory so that it could become an object of independent analysis. My book brings the two back together, exploring the role of the material text in the life of an Elizabethan household.
Stonley probably died in prison. His life must have ended in a howl to echo that of Maggie Tulliver—in his final years, everything was going away from him. It is not true that we have no first-person expressions of pain from his pen (our knowledge of his date of birth comes from a document of 1585 in which he complains that "I am now in case to begge in my old Dayes . . . being now lxv yeres olde"). But we do not have the benefit of a nineteenth-century novelist to provide a three-dimensional, psychologically nuanced rendering of the loss Stonley suffered. His books are comparably recalcitrant; of the two dozen volumes known to survive today, dispersed in libraries across the world, only one bears readerly annotations in his hand, and those are fleeting. To understand his life and his reading will therefore require a more roundabout method; indeed, it will require us to follow a series of paper trails. For the notion of the paper trail, I am indebted to the work of the late Lisa Jardine, who throughout her career delighted in the construction of resonant and moving historical narratives based on links and connections that had all of the delicacy and fragility of the archival documents on which they were based. Jardine showed a generation of scholars how to bring together an interest in literature with an understanding of pragmatic transactions and power relations, by pursuing social and political life into its minutest capillaries, where so much of the action is. Inspired by this approach, my chapters move paratactically through the evidence, exploring the relationships that surround the archival and bibliographical record and reconstructing the processes underpinning apparently innocuous textual phenomena. As a scholarly genre, the paper trail foregrounds the materials—the books and documents—from which an argument is constructed, often ranging them in the order in which they were first encountered, with all of their gaps and occlusions (the conceptual equivalent of torn-out pages or missing volumes) open to view. This is a mode that, while it appears crudely empiricist, demands imagination, as it forces us to abandon our comfort zones in the already known and to listen for stories hidden in the interstices.
In this book, what the paper trail discloses is a network or circuit that bring texts, people, and objects into a dynamic set of relationships. I am indebted to Bruno Latour, as recently remediated by Rita Felski, for a methodology that feels adequate to the concatenations of people, places, and things that are the focus of my interest. Drawing on the actor-network theory adumbrated by Latour in such studies as Reassembling the Social, Felski's The Limits of Critique imagines a literary criticism focused not around the unmasking and demystifying of texts but instead on attachments—the ways in which works of literature connect up with readers, affective regimes, and many kinds of institution, figuring as "nonhuman agents" that take their place in wider assemblages. By adopting a "flat ontology" in which people, objects, and texts are equal players, Felski hopes that we shall find a way to acknowledge the power of texts, their ability to "make friends" (like people in a social network) and to reconfigure the circuitry of the world. While my book does not respond to all of the challenges of Felski's manifesto, it profits from the fecundity of the notion of attachment as a way of thinking simultaneously about chains of objects, interpersonal relationships, affective investments in texts, and the things that people do to books when they cut and paste their contents. The idea of attachment offers a powerful counterweight to the "detachment" that we sometimes believe we enjoy in relation to the world of things.
My study sets out from Stonley's purchase of Venus and Adonis on 12 June 1593, asking why it is so difficult to treat this as anything more than a literary-historical trifle, and unmasking the "trifling" as a category precisely designed to trivialize the presence of poetry, and other goods, in the market. To challenge the logic of the trifling, I begin to limn a mode of material reading that works through the attachments between Venus and the other items entered into Stonley's accounts on that day, including buttons, fashionable leggings, and another printed book, John Eliot's Survay of France. Disrupting our standard narratives of literary history simply by dint of his age, Stonley also forces us to reframe Shakespeare in relation to transnational literary cultures and to transnational trade. At the end of this paper trail, I show how the practice of commonplacing—probably the dominant mode of reading in the period—aligned reading with account keeping, turning texts into marketable wares.
Chapter 2, "Accounting for the Self," turns to a larger consideration of the journals within which Stonley's purchase of Venus and Adonis is embedded, exploring the nuances of their material form in relation to the rhetoric of bookkeeping, understood as a mode of specifically financial self-knowledge and self-discipline, a way of ruling in and regulating the self. Following a material trail that leads from the implements of Stonley's writing to the turnspits in his kitchens and the clocks on his walls, set in relation to representations of social disruption in the text of the daily entries, I adumbrate a notion of the account book as a way of ordering the world, a medium for materializing the subject as a disciplined and ordered object. The journals present us with "life in a box": as the self acquires property, it is produced as a property that can, at least notionally, be filed away alongside other objects in the household.
Chapter 3, "On Aldersgate Street," turns to the other key source for the life and library of Richard Stonley, the inventory produced when the contents of his house were sold off upon his imprisonment in 1597. This chapter begins where the last leaves off, with the self-as-object and the propensity of early modern mock inventories (whether they are offered in Shakespearean plays or popular broadsides) to include people in their lists of property. Again what is at stake is status or "estate," the material constitution of the self through its props and properties. With this in mind, the chapter explores the circumstances in which the inventory was compiled, with attention to its many gaps and occlusions, before taking us on a tour of the book-strewn household that it describes. Focusing on the anomalous presence in Stonley's bedchamber of an item described as "xj printes for pastery," I read his house as a textscape, in which visual and print cultures were densely intertwined. But if the house, through its pictures and its books, provided a series of windows onto the world, it was also a mirror, reflecting the aging of its owner in the fading of fabrics and the yellowing of paper. Finally, in its proliferation of books and boxes, the house modeled the self as a container and the book as a thing. Exploring his penchant for the ostentatiously commodified products of a new generation of "polygraphs," I suggest that Stonley was a new kind of reader, a product of the press in the first great age of vernacular publishing.
My fourth chapter, "People of the Book," focuses on the small number of books that survive from Stonley's library. Here I unpick the process by which Stonley took possession of his books, through rituals of inscribing and witnessing that were ubiquitous in book culture but are thinly understood today. Whereas we expect reading to point inward, to the self, Stonley's books direct us outward, to networks and connections: family members who patronized the same bookbinders, members of the book trade centered around Paul's Churchyard, and Catholic associates, who may or may not have been coreligionists, and who were on occasion persecuted for possessing the wrong kinds of books. I suggest that the layering of Catholic, Protestant, and "crossover" texts in the library that Stonley amassed points us in the direction of his layered and multiform religious identity. I go on to explore how the ownership of books might be understood as shared or devolved within the family, lingering in particular on a remarkable Sammelband signed by Anne Stonley as well as by her husband.
Chapter 5 follows paper trails that are also "Paper Travels," exploring the power of the book to cross physical borders and to facilitate the crossing of mental borders. The chapter offers a diptych, attending to two books that ought not to have been in Stonley's library—the first Giles Fletcher's Of the Russe Common Wealth, which had been banned, the second a copy of the Oeuvres of Hélisenne de Crenne (the pen name of Marguerite Briet), which is not known otherwise to have circulated in early modern England. I read the first in relation to Stonley's family networks, which thanks to the recent expansion of English trade stretched as far as Moscow. Following a remarkable paper trail that leads us to a story of early modern technology transfer and tangled financial exchange, I show how the translation of materials between London and Moscow destabilized the distinction between civilization and barbarity, and threatened the supremacy of Elizabeth I, who was accused by the tsar of being subject to "boors and merchaunts" who sought not her honor but "there own proffit of marchandize." Hélisenne's Oeuvres have at their heart the story of a woman "completely ablaze with erotic fire," who speaks of her violent passions in a remarkably vivid first-person account. This is a tale of sexual errancy that prompts romance wanderings and ends up celebrating the mobile medium of print; it is one of a number of books in Stonley's library that became best sellers thanks to their pioneering of a new kind of urban realism in the vernacular. While we can only imagine how Hélisenne's narrative might have been read in Stonley's household, it is easy to see how it destabilizes an early modern literary history that continues to be divided on anachronistic national lines.
Chapter 6, exploring the purchase by Stonley on 8 May 1594 of "A Booke in Commendacion of the Ladye Branche," carries us still further into his familial networks. Venturing into the bowels of a rancorous family dispute, articulated via churchyard scoldings and accusations of witchcraft, it uncovers the print agency of Stonley's close relative Robert Nicolson, a merchant-reader whose procedures, for all their distinctiveness, were all about splicing himself into networks of family history and family property. Whether or not Stonley knew his younger relation, Nicolson's practices of reading and writing confirm that the material book was a key site for the cementing of familial and interpersonal relationships in this period.
Chapter 7, "Meet the Chillesters," carries our story forward to the events that led to Stonley's decline and fall in the 1580s and 1590s. The chapter is based on a curious coincidence—that Stonley owned two books by authors with the highly unusual surname Chillester. The first was a translation of a French mirror for princes, published in 1571, the second a pioneering anthology of poetry and prose fiction, published a decade later. Digging into these publications, I open up a fantastically seamy paper trail that links literary piracy with counterfeiting, lynching, murder, and extortion, and that leads directly to the door of Richard Lichfield, the government informer who was pursuing Stonley for his peculation in a public office. The web of hidden agencies that underpins his reading matter thus turns out to be the trap in which Stonley was caught.
Finally, in Chapter 8, "Reading in the Fleet," I explore the motley community that surrounded Stonley in prison, where the networks of London life were crushed together into a universe of debt. Having begun to reconstruct the community of the Fleet, I pursue that community into the two books that we know he bought during his time there, the first a commentary on the biblical book of Proverbs, the second Deloney's work of rags-to-riches prose fiction, Jack of Newberie. To read in the universe of debt was, I show, to encounter a hall of mirrors in which the material underpinnings of early modern social life were repeatedly exposed to view. As his personhood dissolved, a few last books remained to remind Stonley of what he had lost.
As this summary suggests, Shakespeare's First Reader begins by exploring the key sources for Stonley's life and adopts a more biographical (or bio-bibliographical) mode of working as it proceeds, with familial and social networks coming to the fore. My shaping of the material is constrained by the fact that all of the key sources date from the end of Stonley's life; so this is a story focused on decline and fall, and on the 1580s and 1590s, rather than a more distributed narrative. My hope is that, as well as making its own methodological innovations, the book will encourage further exploration of a neglected body of materials: there are many more stories lying in wait here.
To begin, we need (of course) to go shopping.