2.4.4: 1585 - 1725 - Reading habits / traces of users

That the reading culture was a special aspect of Dutch culture during the seventeenth century can be deduced from, among other things, the many pictures and prints showing books. In genre paintings such as still lives, the book is often part of a so-called vanitas motif: it symbolised something of eternal value. In portraits, the book gives the owner an aura of erudition and wisdom. There was, however, also some scepticism about the usefulness of reading.

The historical reader is a most illusive figure. The meaning assigned to reading material by individual readers can hardly be ascertained. How was reading done (reading behaviour): aloud or internally, intensively or extensively or, in other words, was there a limited amount of reading material which was repeated over and over again (which was the most usual for this period)? Many books such as medical, theological and legal handbooks or practical manuals were hardly innovatory and merely offered a codification of existing knowledge. Much new knowledge was passed on orally as well, or by way of correspondence. Reading habits are also interesting: when and where did one read, in the morning or the evening by candlelight, in separate rooms (office, study) or in company; which choices of reading matter were made and what influenced these choices (level of education, profession, etcetera)? The analysis of texts (text interpretation) can provide details on the information the reader of that time had in his spiritual baggage - a much-used method in the study of works by men of letters. Finally, attention can be paid to the clues in the books themselves (in titles or in prefaces) about the intended reader: youth or experienced elders. Indications are also offered by the language, the style, the poetical and/or rhetorical affectation of a text.

The extent to which particular reading behaviour was representative of groups of comparable readers is also difficult to determine. Inventories or (printed) auction catalogues of private libraries offer some help, but such summaries of titles do not in fact say anyhing about the way in which reading was done. The best information is to be found in so-called ego documents: letters, diaries or autobiographies which contain individual reflections on reading material. This type of source is, however, still extremely rare in this period. The traces of users in books or manuscripts can also offer clues to the 'reception' of texts. These may be notes which are part of the provenance (ownership marks at the front of books such as a name or a book plate, which indicates previous ownership rather than actual reading), and remarks and comments in the margins or even in or across the text. Study of other ownership marks such as specific bindings, can also contribute to the reconstruction of the potential reading matter of the owner in question.

author: Piet Visser

Reading habits / traces of users