Not Reading in Early Modern England

We think of skimming, scanning, and study aids as the particular intellectual malaise of the internet age, but early modern commentators also worried that tools to faciliate discontinuous reading might enable unacceptable laziness and failures of readerly attention. John Milton complained in 1644 of clergymen who composed sermons with the “infinit helps of interlinearies, breviaries, synopses, and other loitering gear.” Cribs and commonplace books, wrote John Selden in 1618, are "excellent instruments for the advancement of Ignorance and Lazinesse." Others were concerned that people weren't reading at all: in an “admonition touching reading” prefaced to a 1594 treatise, Stephen Egerton lamented the “profit and pleasure, businesse, and idleness, matters at home and matters abroad, company, and a thousand occasions” that make the reader “fickle and unfaithfull in forgetting and omitting the times of reading."

Drawing on the early modern and Osborn collections at the Beinecke Library, this exhibit showcases three genres of early modern study aids: the commonplace book, the epitome, and the index. All the objects in the following pages allowed (and perhaps encouraged) readers to access books in ways other than by reading them from cover to cover, through quotations, summaries, and finding aids. As Pierre Bayard asks in How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read (2007), if a person spends "a certain amount of time on a book—hours, even—without reading it it fair to say of them that they are talking about a book they haven’t read?" For early modern readers, this was precisely the question. 



Curated by Eve Houghton, Curatorial Assistant for Early Modern Books and Manuscripts, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library