They are least usefull of any”

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András Kiséry (Columbia U.)

They are least usefull of any”:

catalogues, booksellers, and the invention of literature in 17th c. England.

A few years ago, I was having dinner with two friends. One of them, Adam, is a poet, and most of the evening we were talking about the new volume he was then putting together. This was at the time when he decided to come out in public, and for a few months he was even receiving nationwide attention as a vocal member of a rapidly organizing gay civil rights movement. After a while, the conversation turned to the connection between Adam’s public appearances and the new kind of critical attention his poetry had started to receive. Rather impatient to drive his point home, our friend asked where Adam would like to see his new collection in a bookshop: in the Poetry section, or under Gay and Lesbian literature?

The difference the classification of texts makes to reading and interpretation hardly needs to be urged. What is perhaps the most powerful of classificatory moves: the formation and transformation of canons has received plenty of attention over the past decades, and the understanding of literary genres as important heuristic and classificatory devices has, it now seems, always been central to literary scholarship. But the realm that lies between the fundamental ideological problems of canonical exclusion and inclusion on the one hand, and the formal complexities of literary genre systems on the other, has been less well served or indeed visited. Until quite recently, the interpretive and cultural significance of the various possible and historically important ways to classify texts according to their content or subject matter has been mostly thought about by librarians, and then usually as part of their typological prehistories of the arrival, around the end of the 19th century, of some Messiah of library classification, be it called Dewey or Universal Decimal. An alternative, although often closely related, preoccupation of intellectual historians has been with ways in which philosophers proposed to organize and classify knowledge. But the question how characteristic these models may have been of the ways in which contemporary readers thought about their readings has rarely been asked. The most important use of old catalogues has been in studies of ownership: but research in this field tended to obliterate, rather than emphasize, the classification found in catalogues.1

Readers are elusive nomads in the fields of writing: but they do follow certain signposts, and do leave some traces. How they organize their books, whether on paper or on their shelves, offers us important (if not well-enough researched and thought about) material clues about the conceptual frameworks they bring to their texts. Here again, the radical, fundamental question of inclusion and exclusion has often been dealt with: the fact that Thomas Bodley did not want plays and other ephemera (“such riffe-raffe and baggage books”) in his library, is often cited by historians of early modern print culture. But where his librarian put the Bodleian’s first Don Quijote, when they finally purchased one, or indeed on what shelf, next to what other volumes had they kept their Shakespeare First Folio before they famously discarded it, is not something people tend to ask.

The importance of the various systems of organization is partly a function of their intellectual and physical inertia: university and college libraries continued to classify their holdings according to a medieval system of academic faculties into the 18th century, partly at least no doubt because the bookcases were already in place, and it was easier to gradually extend than to completely rearrange them. The faculty-based shelving system of the Bodleian, on the other hand, had a significant influence on how books were organized and thought about both in England and on the continent, since the library’s catalogues were widely used as reference books and interleaved copies of it also as doubled as catalogues of various other libraries, both public and private.2

Shelving is also responsible for arrangement according to size, and one of the most dominant feature of early catalogues both of private libraries and of booksellers is their division of books according to format. But not only did size indeed matter, informing less tangible aspects of interpretation and cultural evaluation: it also tended to overlap and interfere with other sets of distinctions. “A note of the severall sortes of bookes ...”, a single folio sheet with an undated list of books from the press of the King’s printer,3 uses format as its organizing principle, enumerating Bibles moving down the scale of size and prestige, listing items “in folio, in quarto, in octavo, in 12, in 24, in Welsh.” Language has always been a major issue in the organization of texts, but this printed sheet in itself speaks volumes about the hierarchies of vernaculars.

The organization and classification of knowledge, texts, books is an overdetermined affair: the clarity of Bacon’s or Hobbes’ systematizations is not characteristic of how most people think, nor are particular schemes of classification always informed by a coherent underlying theory of knowledge. But, as Steven Orgel once put it, “our filing systems tell a good deal about our minds”4: and the present paper (a preliminary probing into the problem) grew out of a curiosity about how the changing divisions of the field of writing, the ways texts were organized, classified and categorized, could be used to think about early modern thought. I am interested in the possible cultural connotations and motivations of classification: in what early modern filing systems might tell us about early modern minds, about the intellectual, political, ideological constraints and consequences they mediate to readers. The question whether to put a particular collection of poems on the shelf for poetry or for gay / lesbian writing suggests a tremendous difference; and the difference is even greater if the conversation is taking place in a country where there is no shelf for gay or lesbian writing in any bookstore.

My primary concern is with literature, or rather, with the kinds of writing we now call literature, and with the beginnings of their separation as a group from other types of writing. The introduction to the recent Cambridge History of Early Modern English Literature5 reflects the current critical consensus regarding the concept of literature in the 16th and 17th centuries when it quotes Raymond Williams on how literature in the period is “synonymous with the domain of all knowledge that has been transmitted and preserved in written form.”6 It has become customary to argue that the modern understanding of literature as comprising of poetry, drama, narrative fiction (and perhaps the essay) is a post-romantic notion, the result of a complex process of exclusions and narrowing of focus, which assigned all other kinds of writing and learning to various academic and other disciplines and professions.7 In this narrative, the staking out of the field of fictional writing known to us as “literature” (different from, and more limited in scope than, earlier understandings of “litterae”8) went hand in hand with the crystallization of the educational, social and disciplinary functions bestowed upon it. Recent histories of the invention of “literature” have focussed on this bestowal of new meaning, new usefulness, upon writing divested of any practical value by its fictionality.9 What this work – mostly by scholars writing about the 18th and early 19th centuries – has tended to ignore was the process by which forms of writing of such differing social and cultural value and relevance as fictional prose narratives, lyric poetry, and plays written for the commercial stage, were brought together as belonging to the same category in the first place, and what cultural and social forces informed the consolidation and stabilization of this category of texts into a recognizable field of writing, homogenized by the distinguishing feature of fictionality.

Archaeologists of the English novel have long noted the paradoxical connection between the “puritan fear of fiction and factitiousness” and the consumption of (prose) fiction.10 In what follows, I will be using the example of the catalogue of a provincial bookseller to suggest ways in which various systems of classification reflected the socio-cultural, geographical and ideological backgrounds of readers as well as of booksellers, and to argue that the puritan reaction against fiction was in fact one of the major forces contributing to the crystallization of a field of writing defined primarily by its fictionality, and thus, to the definition not just of the novel, but of what we now call “literature.”


The 1657 Catalogue of the most vendible books in England by the Newcastle bookseller William London is remarkable for the relatively careful organization of its contents first by subject headings and within those, alphabetically by the authors’ last names or (in the case of anonymous works) by title, as well as for the long introductory essay about the uses of learning also doubling as a rationale for the system of classification adopted by the catalogue. A feature of this work which should have made it important not only for historians of the book trade but also for historians of literature is its clear and surprisingly modern separation of “literary” material from the rest of the titles. Unsurprisingly, of course, about half of the catalogue’s 3096 entries fall under the heading “Divinity Books Alphabetically Digested”: 1632 entries, sigs. I4r-T2. The rest is divided into categories as follows: “History With other Pieces of Humane Learning Intermixed, Alphabetically Digested” 468 entries, T3-Z1; “Books of Physick and Chyrurgery” 145 entries, Z2-2A4; “Books of the Common and Civil Law” 146 entries, 2B1-2C2; “Books of the Mathematics. viz. Arithmatic, Geometry, Musick, Astronomy, Astrology, Dialling, measuring of Land and Timber, Gageing Vessels, Navigation, Architecture, & c. also Of Horsemanship, Faulconry, Merchandize, Limning, Millitary Discipline, Herauldry, Fire-works, Husbandry, & c.” 227 entries, 2C3-2E2; “Romances Poems and Playes” 250 entries, 2E3-[2]F2; Hebrew, Greek, and Latin Bookes. Such As falls not directly under the Heads of Divinity, Physick, or Law, & c. But Are properly usefull for Schooles and Scholars” 228, [2]F3-2G4.11

“Romances Poems and Playes,” although they account for almost 8 percent of the entries, take up less than half a percent of the catalogue’s size, a mere 8 pages out of 172: and that is because William London here makes an exception to his general policy of citing titles in full. In his epistle to the “Most Candid and Ingenious Reader,” he announces that “the Titles of all Books in this Catalogue are at large” even if “they swell the boundary of such a work.” (C1r) Most books, he argues, “by their short and usuall Titles, are not half discovered to strangers: now this method provides against this cheat, in having partem pro toto; nay many have been cosen’d by a short title, that when they expected a Book to treat of one thing, it hath the clean contrary.” But the titles in London’s catalogue, he proudly claims, “have all books brought to you lying open; shops open’d in your studies; and to me it lookes like a walking Library.” (C1v) But this is precisely what London does not want to see happening when it comes to romances, poems and plays: about these, he admits he does “indeed take less paines to promote their study.” The fact that “their names are not so wiredrawn as others are” (C2r) is part of an effort to keep their allures under control: after all, the practice of printing only short titles often makes books “strangers to the World; whereas if fully discovered in their Titles (which should be the scope of each book in short) would be eagerly looked after” (C1v). But the problem with romances, poems and plays is probably that they are already all too “eagerly looked after” – not only are they “least usefull of any” books, they also “may properly be said to be Incentiva vitiorum to some” (C2r), “proving also to some the bellowes to the fire of lust.” (C2v). It seems as if bringing these books to the readers “lying open,” fully “discovered to strangers” would in itself be a dangerously seductive move, prompting eager looks because the very gesture of revelation is evocative of those erotically enchanting subjects who no doubt scatter the pages of these books caught in various unseemly acts of self-discovery. It is clearly their lewdness that relegates romances, poems and plays to the very end of the English part of the Catalogue, followed only by books in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

The “Epistle to the reader” is no more welcoming to fictions: it only deigns to mention them at the very end, after having apologized for not excluding heterodox books from the Catalogue. And if the reading of heterodox materials can be excused by some version of Milton’s argument about the worthlessness of a cloistered virtue, and London in fact ends the long passage on the inclusion of “pernicious pieces” arguing that “to know errours is the shortest cut to destroy them,” he has no such excuse to offer for the inclusion of fictional materials: they are beyond redemption as well as refutation. Even heterodoxy may have its “value and use” (these are the key terms guiding London’s account of the various types of texts) for the right kind of reader, but when it comes to romances, London’s complete befuddlement only affords him a somewhat confusing picture of its dangers: “The matter is not so small an Evil as the manner, The language is indeed the kernell of worth, but the design is like the green Walnut, that both defiles all it touches, and is bitter in the tast, unless you peel the bitterness away, which how to do in Romances I am ignorant to direct” (C2v). Peeling away the green flesh and rind of design from the kernel of language is an idea that would certainly appeal to an audience coming after Mallarmé or Joyce, but readers trained in the rhetorical tradition which assumed the logical primacy of design (inventio and dispositio) over the dress of words (elocutio) would immediately have recognized the paradoxical nature of London’s metaphor. It is the necessarily corrupt design of romances which sets them lowest even among the low: poetry may be dangerous reading, but London at least allows that “they be very well used, if quallified by a regular proportion of their use to a good and true end” (C2v) – how this could be done in the case of romances, however, seems to be beyond London’s ken. Uselessness and the free play of sensuous perception are the most important features which set fictions apart from works deserving the attention of the “Gentry, Ministers of the Gospel and others ... the Wise, Learned and Studious of the Northern Counties,” the addressees of London’s epistle dedicatory.

Although his reservations are obviously more tentatively phrased, his general concern about the uselessness of these books and his unwillingness to explicitly encourage their sales ties William London’s rhetoric to the work of such contemporaries as the eminent puritan lawyer and fiction-hater William Prynne, whose 1633 Histrio-mastix may also be used to spell out some of the assumptions underlying London’s position.12 An important strand of Prynne’s baggy encyclopaedic monster of a “pamphlet” is concerned with what in a marxian language would be best described as the fetishism of the cultural commodity. In the Preface he famously complains about “there being above forty thousand Play-books printed within these two yeares, (as Stationers informe mee,) they being now more vendible than the choycest Sermons” (*3): and later in the work, in a short passage about the illegitimate nature of the trade in fictions, he comes close to making a conceptual distinction between morally legitimate value and market-driven price, only to immediately condemn the rift between them. Because “Stage-playes in their very best acception are but vanities or idle recreations, which have no price, no worth or value in them: they cannot therefore bee vendible because they are not valuable,” and since “In every lawfull way of gaine or trade, there ought to be quid pro quo, some worth or other in the thing that is sold, equivalent to the price the vendees pay, or else the gaine is fraudulent and sinfull,” thus because “there is no value at all in Stage-playes or their action, which are but empty worthlesse vanities; therefore no price ought to bee taken for them” (p. 905, sig. 5Z2). For Prynne, fictions should have no price because they have no value: whoever buys them, obtains something that is good for nothing. The same logic, however, does also open up the possibility of legitimate use and therefore value: if fiction is found to be useful, its circulation in the marketplace might be justified – which was the line of argument an anonymous pamphleteer took in one of the “Spurious Impostures which have been injuriously fathered on [Prynne] ... , to his Dishonor, and the Readers Delusion”13: the 1649 Mr VVilliam Prynn his defence of stage-plays, or A retractation of a former book of his called Histrio-mastix. In this short pamphlet, the pseudonymous author suggests that “distinctions ought to be used in those cases; for all Plays are not of one nature, and vertues, magnanimity, chastity, sobriety, temperance, justice, modesty, goodness, &c. may be taught in Plays, and many men have been made the better for seeing of them.”14

The scope of his catalogue, which offers “the most vendible books” in England, forced William London to take the discourses about the ungodliness of commodification and of feigned histories quite seriously into account. Unlike Prynne, however, he was in the business of “taking a price for his wares,” and obviously could not afford to ignore the market in fictions, characterized not only by the growing volume of the trade, but also by the lengthening life-span of a significant number of the titles in this particular field. But contrary to what C.J. Hunt15 suggests, London’s catalogue is not a list of books available from his shop on the bridge in Newcastle: its aims align it with Andrew Maunsell’s 1596 catalogue, or indeed (in its ambition to use the full descriptive titles as an indication of the contents of the books) a national-vernacular version of Konrad Gesner’s Pandectae, an organized and classified account of the learning amassed in English language books, rather than a particularly elaborate stock list. Its choices and value judgments, its modulations of the intellectual traditions it attaches itself to, are therefore probably informed by factors other than the immediate economic pressures London experienced as a bookseller in the mid-1650s. Nor is puritanism necessarily convincing as a motivation: as David Kastan has argued, Prynne’s Histrio-Mastix was “less the culmination of the attack on the stage ... than an anachronism at the time of publication and one that had no immediate successors.”16 And finally, it is less than obvious how closely the anti-theatrical arguments were meant to apply to printed play texts: although the the Publick intelligencer, for January 14-21 1655/56, presents the whipping of 7 players in the marketplace of Newcastle “for Rogues and Vagabonds” for “adventuring to act a Comedy within the Precincts and bounds of this Town” as “a piece of Exemplary Justice,”17 around the same time, Christopher Parkes, a Yorkshire clergyman, otherwise an avid reader of Baxter and Sydenham, noted down “Shakespeares Tragedy of Rich: 3d.” as item 256 in his catalogue of “Bookes p[er]used” – a list he kept in a notebook which was bound together with a copy of the Book of Common Prayer.18 To understand what made London “invent” (or serendipitously, though unbeknownst to him, stumble upon) English literature, we need to try to go beyond the preliminaries of his catalogue.

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