A century of slow reading

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 1.25.09 PMA few years ago, John Locke got me interested in the 17th century, and I’ve been reading about it off and on ever since. I think I’m understanding part of the draw. Here’s Professor Alan Charles Kors from the first lecture in his Teaching Company series The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries:

The thinking group is small. In a subsistence economy, very few are freed from labor to study and to think. But travel is expensive and dangerous, paintings few, there are no media, and one’s window on other times, places, and minds — one’s escape from one’s own life — is the text. The book. And people who could read focused on the book with an intensity difficult to imagine today. They loved close reading and logical argument and took pride in erudition and formal thought. That will be our window onto early modern culture: their texts, the debates around those texts, and, dramatically, the consequences around the debates.

Here’s Anna Beer from her book Milton: Poet Pamphleteer, and Patriot:

Having acquired a new book, John would adopt an intensely scholarly approach to his reading. His edition of one of his favorite writers, the Greek playwright Euripides . . . is annotated within an inch of its life . . . John made notes on hundreds of the pages and then added side notes so that he could find certain passages more easily. Tellingly, he also made corrections and comments in a number of places, and even added many new references to the index, all written into the book in extremely neat handwriting. (63)

[Photo by Provenance Online Project. Used by permission.]


  1. It reminds me somewhat of my rural childhood in the early 1950s: there wasn’t much else except musical instruments, crafts, and the text.

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