Scholars have managed to solve the problem of what people read in past times. Fortunately, a number of early private libraries survived more or less intact, while the contents of many others came down to us through manuscript inventories. Early wills often provide evidence of estates that included books and manuscripts. Journals and diaries, as well as school and university curricula, printers' and booksellers' business records, and even advertisements offer further testimony as to the sources of literate culture. The history of the book has been adequately, if not completely, excavated. In contrast, we know a great deal less about how the earliest generations of readers of books approached, experienced and understood that activity—that is, the actual practice of reading. Now, the Folger addresses that intriguing set of issues with its fall exhibition, "The Reader Revealed." Accompanied by a splendid volume consisting of nine essays and detailed catalogue of the works exhibited, this show explores the politics, economics, and technologies involved in producing and consuming books in the Renaissance. It is especially informative on the act of reading itself, which it approaches through analysis of marginal notes, commonplace books, and other sources. Among the many writers whose notebooks preserve passages they thought worth recording was one Sir William Drake, a man deeply influenced by Machiavelli's disillusioned views of the evils of human nature. His commonplace book offers a worldly cynicism that runs counter to the poetic miscellanies usually associated with this era.
Visitors to Washington from now to January 19, 2002 might find this show an intriguing complement to the usual museum fare. Learn more about it, and about the Folger itself, on the web at www.folger.edu.