Centre for the History of the Book

Adam Smyth

Reading the provisionality of early modern print.

In this paper I want to consider two ways in which the early modern book that was offered for sale in the bookstalls around St Paul’s was understood by sellers and buyers to be something less than finished, autonomous, complete, monumental, and I want to track the modes of reading that were encouraged by this provisional culture of print.

First, reading and error. The history of the early modern book is in part a history of error, and one version of reading was the continual process of grappling with, and responding to, mistakes: ‘for thine owne good, amend these following faults (committed in printing) with thy pen, before thou enter vpon the body of the booke’.[1] I will examine the printed presence of error and those technologies of correction (errata lists, cancel pages, pasted-in slips) that sought to amend but only drew attention to mistakes. This culture of slips encouraged a particular sense of reading: what we witness is the reader as something like corrector, or at least as a figure invested in the scrupulous detection of mistakes, in some ways an early version of the sceptical close reader familiar to literary studies today.

Second, reading and non-reading. I want to explore the fact that new books carried within them fragments of older books in the form of printed waste: pieces of last year’s almanac or royal proclamation lined the boards, or supplied the endpapers. This waste was often legible and reading a new book meant, necessarily, encountering parts of unwanted, discarded, or recycled texts: to read the Bodleian’s copy of Edward Lively’s A true chronologie of the times of the Persian monarchie, and after to the destruction of Ierusalem by the Romanes (1597) means turning flyleaves that are made from cut-out pages from Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella (1591). What protocols of reading are at play here? Are the fragments of Astrophel and Stella part of Lively’s A true chronologie, and if so, how and what to they signify? How does one read a book that is haunted by the ghosts of older works? How much of a book should one read in order to read a book?


[1] Lancelot Andrewes, Scala coeli: Nineteen sermons concerning prayer (1611), sig. A8.


Adam Smyth is Associate Professor at Balliol College, The University of Oxford.

View his profile at The University of Oxford