“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man,” said the Elizabethan man of letter Francis Bacon. Reading was, in fact, a social experience, a public act, in the realms of academia, ecclesia, and civil service in the early 16th century England before the Reformation era, which was still reminiscent of medieval traits in general modus viendi. Reading was an expensive activity of the literate accessible to Greek and Latin texts, and books were not so much a necessity as a luxury. So much so that going to a theater was cheaper than buying a book. This Elizabethan culture of books and reading was the topic of the delightfully informative podcast interview “Books and Reading in Shakespeare” with Stuart Kells and Jason Scott-Warren, which I came upon while I was reading a book about the culture of Elizabethan England with a mental exclamation: Geronimo!
Shakespeare used historical contents, contemporary literature, and translations of classical continental source texts to use them as his poetic imitations. The existence of Shakespeare’s library is always elusively ethereal, but the poetic dramatist was himself a walking library; carrying all of the source texts in his head and drawing on a wealth of the information, he created a polyphonic work that elegantly and wittily interwove multiple strands. With Shakespeare as an illustrative example of personalizing books to use them as source texts to create his own works, we see the Elizabethan England changing from the elitist medieval academic institution to the popular readers’ club with members from various social strata wallowing in simple pleasure of reading books to their liking. This cultural character of the era is marked by individualism; that the responsibility for your achievement is attributed to yourself was the ethos. This growing self-confidence in awareness of individualism permeated writing as well as reading by personalizing the knowledge of others to make it your own.
The increasing availability of books in English language resulting from the Reformation encouraged people to teach themselves to read, including women. A variety of subjects, ranging from recipes for meals to Scriptures, in English gave access to those who were often excluded from a feast of knowledge enjoyed by a privileged few, and now more people could share the joy of being knowledgeable and creative thanks to the democratization of reading in general as a result of the mass production of books in the vernacular language that captured the shift to a more literary culture in comparison to the continental counterparts.
In short, reading practice in Elizabethan England reflects social changes in the religious climate that permeated people’s literary interests: the Bible became the ultimate self-help book as well as philosophy and literature that made readers inquisitive and intelligent by trying to ascertain the meanings of the Gospel, which was the office of the clerics before the reformation. Now the time changed, and people read the Bible directly, using their own faculty of comprehension and imaginativeness. Consequently, the democratization of subjects and accessibility of books gave the power of knowledge to people to enter the truth of the world and the beyond. Blimey. For reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.