New York Society Library

Mandatory Reading: The Novel and the College Course in the Early American Republic

by guest contributor Rob Koehler


Daniel Tompkin’s collegiate essay. Image courtesy of the HathiTrust Digital Library.

Like a lot of college students today, Daniel Tompkins (1774-1825) spent much of his four years at the newly named Columbia College [now University] writing essays.  Foreshadowing his later political commitments as New York Governor from 1807-1817, he wrote about topical issues, pressing problems of social justice, and more abstract problems like the persistence of prejudice. Tompkins proved to be quite liberal in most of his sentiments, as in his arguments for the abolition of slavery, the end of capital punishment, and the demotion of the classical curriculum in the collegiate course.   Yet, for the purposes of this essay, Tompkins most interesting piece is “On Novels,” in which he defends fiction reading as a valuable part of an education.  Tompkins begins his essay by noting he was taught that novels were “solely for the amusement of puerile minds” but eventually came to realize that simply accepting this opinion was like being a child who “by [his] catechism [was] taught to admit principles as true without being convinced of the truth of them as [he] ought to be by [his] own reason”.  And Tompkins’ reason taught him to enjoy novels; in fact, he was willing to go so far as to relate the reading of novels to that of his own formal education at Columbia, writing:

It is further remarked, that novels have a bad tendency, by possessing a power of alluring the reader and cause him to devote his whole attention to them.  Mathematicks it is observed have the same tendency to those who have a relish for the pleasure arising from that study, yet in my humble opinion, this is not a sufficient demonstration to shew, that Mathematicks ought to be avoided.

Writing after having completed the mandatory two years of Mathematics required of Columbia students, Tompkins had the academic experience to make the comparison. It seems unlikely that most young men—who would have studied arithmetic as an effort to better their employment prospects during apprenticeship or after the work day had ended—would have shared Tompkins’ perspective on the subject and its more than practical purposes. It was his privileged position as a college student that made the comparison both sensible and useful.

In the early United States and in the Anglophone world more generally, criticism and praise of novels centered around their moral qualities and their impact on young women, not on young men.  In her magisterial study of early American novels and novel readers, Cathy Davidson focuses almost exclusively on the uses of novels as an informal—and somewhat subversive—education for young women in the dangers and possibilities of heterosociability, courtship, sexual relationships, and marriage.  A wealth of letters, diaries, and other sources back up Davidson’s claim, showing how female characters and the narrative frameworks of novels were taken up by young women to discuss their misgivings, fears, and hopes about their futures.  Yet, how did novel reading impact the intellectual lives of young men?

After all, no early American cultural pundit decried the deleterious impact of novel reading on young men or espoused his or her fear that it would lead to their seduction, ruin, and premature death.  This gap emphasizes the sexist and overtly regulatory functions of this kind of criticism of the novel, but it does not answer the question of whether young men read novels as avidly as young women, or what exactly that activity meant to them.  Some scholars—such as Bryan Waterman and Robb Haberman—have noted that, like young women, young men also used the literary language of the novel when engaging in romantic and sometimes sexually charged relationships and thus it became one mode of conducting a romance in the early Republic.

Based on Tompkins’ essay though, I suggest that the novel was also a part of the informal education of young men that became for many a lifelong interest.   The records of the New York Society Library from 1789-1792 document the reading of nineteen unmarried young men—all of them, like Tompkins, students or recent graduates of Columbia—who all checked out and read novels in addition to the history books, Latin translations, and reference books that they were likely using to accompany or supplement their courses. This cohort of young men such as John L. Norton, Samuel Jones, and James Parker showed many of the behaviors decried by critics of young women’s novel reading.  They regularly selected the newest rather than the best, they read salacious scandal fiction like Retribution or The Convent, and they read very quickly, often returning a volume of a novel the day after they checked it out.  But, they did all of this while also taking out a steady stream of works like Robertson’s History of America and Adam Ferguson’s History of the Roman Republic.  These habits show that, just like teenagers today, college students in the early Republic were multi-tasking, moving fluidly between various tasks and types of reading.

This is not to say that reading novels was not important but to say that it took place in a larger context of engagement with the printed word; for these privileged young men of the early Republic, novel reading was, as much as Mathematics, a part of a liberal education. What is perhaps most interesting is that for readers in this cohort, novel reading remained a pursuit after the end of their educational careers in a way that the reading of other types of works, many of which had been required for their educations, did not.  Because the library’s records between 1792-1797 are lost, there is a particularly jarring difference in borrowing for many of these men between their college days and their adult reading.  In their adult years, novels predominate in almost every reader’s record. While this might be evidence that a wife or child is using the account, the preponderance in so many accounts suggests that it is the men themselves.


Governor and Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins. Image courtesy of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library.

And this returns me to Daniel Tompkins and a peculiarity in his comparison of reading novels to studying Mathematics.  Tompkins ends by commenting that “Mathematicks. . . have the same tendency to those who have a relish for the pleasure arising from that study, yet in my humble opinion, this is not a sufficient demonstration to shew, that Mathematicks ought to be avoided.” Tompkins is as much complaining about the dullness of Mathematics for most students as he is highlighting the enjoyability of reading a novel.  As the reading habits of others his age and background suggests, higher education did not generally invoke a passion in early American students to pursue learning for the love of it, instead they embraced novel reading as both educative and pleasurable. More generally, I think Tompkins’ defense of novel reading makes clear that whatever their more intimate and immediate purposes for young people during this period, novel reading often became—and still becomes for many young people—a steady habit, one that continued after  reading required for other purposes fell away. None of these men—unlike Tompkins himself who later became a Governor and then Vice President—would become particularly famous or well known in a field of endeavor in the early Republic, and most would lead lives that left little trace.  They all, however, seem to have made separate yet unquestionably linked decisions to embrace the reading of novels over other forms of improving intellectual pursuits that had formed a part of their formative education.

In an earlier post for this blog, I suggested that as scholars we have yet to consider what it would mean to develop a history of reading for pleasure instead of for purpose, or to develop a history of reading that did not place these two objectives in tension but, as these Columbia students did, instead in purposive relation.  Reading for pleasure is not an act of non-purposiveness but an act of a different purpose altogether.  The life of the mind does not solely originate in planned study and courses of reading, in the aggressively organized, disciplinary spaces of universities and learned sociability; it also develops in the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience that persist as much because of their often inexplicable enjoyability as their expressed purpose or lack thereof.

Rob Koehler is a PhD. candidate in English at New York University. He works at the intersections of education, literature, and publishing in early America, examining the political, legal, and cultural origins of schools and libraries as public institutions.

“Herman Melville’s New York, 1850” at The New York Society Library

by guest contributor Charles Cuykendall Carter

Circulation ledger featuring Melville's Society Library borrowing history, 1847-50. New York Society Library.

Circulation ledger featuring Melville’s Society Library borrowing history, 1847-50. New York Society Library.

The New York Society Library’s current pop-up exhibit explores the life and experiences of Herman Melville in New York City, during the time leading up to the 1851 publication of Moby-Dick. The more specific, and more intimate, concern of the exhibit is the symbiotic relationship between an author and his library, both as a site of research and as a vehicle for promotion.

For much of 1848, and then again for a time in 1850, the Society Library was Melville’s library. (He did also personally own a good number of books, many of which he annotated; some can be seen in digitized form through the impressive Melville’s Marginalia website.) While in the throes of composing his masterpiece, Melville regularly spent time doing research in the reading room of the Society Library, then on Broadway and Leonard Street. He was again a Society Library member in the years before his death in 1891.

Some treasures from the Society Library’s archives featured in the exhibit vividly demonstrate Melville’s membership and activity. One charming display item is a facsimile of Melville’s 1850 Society Library membership certificate, reproduced on cardboard and able to be handled and examined up close. Other indices of Melville’s personal relationship to the Library include a contemporary city directory listing Melville’s home address at “103 Av. 4,” about a half-hour’s walk away; and his large autograph signature in a circulation ledger, dated 1850.

Most exhibition materials reflect Melville as author. Among them are the first published excerpt of Moby-Dick in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of fall 1851, and a facsimile of an early manuscript invoice showing Society Library purchases of Melville books.

The largest exhibit piece is a pin-board chart covered with index cards, which are connected with tightly-strung lengths of different colored yarn. The cards represent specific Society Library readers; the yarn, Melville’s first seven novels. The display renders visible for the viewer what is addressed by most modern introductions to Moby-Dick: upon publication, it was a commercial dud.

Melville’s earlier, less complex, more straightforward travel adventures—Typee, Omoo, White-Jacket—were in frequent circulation at the Society Library in the late 1840s–early 1850s. Moby-Dick was borrowed fewer than twenty times during the period represented by the chart. Melville’s next book, Pierre, was even less popular—and, as the exhibit points out, earned him the headline “Herman Melville Crazy” from a contemporary reviewer.

Perhaps the most amusing exhibit item shows a unique exchange between Society Library readers of Melville. In what amounts to a nineteenth-century version of internet comments (including insults and a silly pseudonym), at least three Library members left penciled notes at the end of a chapter of White-Jacket:

[annotator 1:] This is a bad chapter. / E. B. / July 5 1860
[annotator 2:] Why the devil don’t you put the real date in. (Signed) Adolphus Fitz Noodle
[annotator 3:] I should think you were a noodle indeed. G.J.V.

Also on display are several mid-nineteenth-century scenes—prints and photographs of the New York City harbor—artfully paired with quotations from Moby-Dick. A panoramic engraved view of the city from the East River accompanies Ishmael’s opening admission that seafaring adventures are his cure for frustrations with obnoxious city life, when “it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off . . . .”

The absent star of the exhibit, the barely-circulated first edition of Moby-Dick belonging to the Society Library, is unfortunately now lost, perhaps disappeared in its depths.

Herman Melville’s New York, 1850” is on display, free to the public, at the New York Society Library, in the Peluso Family Gallery, until November 7.

Charles Cuykendall Carter is the Assistant Curator of the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. He is also Associate Editor of the Shelley-Godwin Archive, and is on the board of The American Printing History Association.

Imagining Communal Intellectual History: Libraries and Their Readers

by guest contributor Rob Koehler

Intellectual history and the histories of libraries have always had a peculiarly tangential relationship to one another. Intellectual history as practiced in the United States often pursues the transmission and transformation of ideas through texts, but less often engages with the means by which books got from place to place or how networks of readers at a given institution interacted with ideas to which they had joint access. Similarly, library historians have tended to focus less on the possibilities for exploring the diffusion of ideas through libraries and more on their developing institutional forms or the changing political valences of their founding, operation, and institutional self-presentation to the communities in which they existed. Yet, the development of large sets of digitized borrowing and holding records from historical libraries, along with efforts to preserve reading experiences through oral histories, offers a fruitful moment to re-consider how the methods of intellectual and library history might be productively fused to develop new insights into the life of the mind in previous historical epochs. Through examples provided by the rich records of the City Readers project at the New York Society Library, I want to offer two observations about how the resources and methods of library history might usefully broaden the purview of intellectual historians.


The New York Society Library at its third location on Broadway at Leonard Street, which also housed the Academy of Design, c. 1840. In 1856 the Library sold the building to the publisher and bookseller D. Appleton & Co., and moved to a new location on University Place. Image courtesy of the New York Society Library.

The first observation is that library records challenge any easy assumptions about the methods of reading and motives for reading of people in the past. Take for example, the borrowing records of Alexander Hamilton—a figure enjoying a powerful renaissance in popular culture as financial genius and self-made immigrant. Hamilton became a member of the Library immediately after its refounding in 1789; he was not particularly active as a borrower, he checked out only two books, but those two books open suggestive questions about Hamilton’s intellectual activities as he was beginning work as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton checked out two novels: The History of the Honourable Edward Mortimer, a recent British romance that was popular with many of the library’s subscribers, the other, Eleanora, an English translation of a novel by Goethe. Often understood as a hard-bitten elitist with little sympathy for popular tastes, Hamilton could not have been more in the mainstream of popular literary taste in his selection of novels. Fifty other subscribers—of all different political persuasions—checked out these same books in 1790; Tunis Wortman, soon to be a powerful voice in opposition to the Federalist fiscal and military policies of Hamilton, checked out Edward Mortimer immediately before Hamilton.

Then and now, the reading of popular novels is often portrayed as a frivolous and even somewhat morally suspect behavior, but that didn’t stop even the most elitist of the Founding Fathers from reading them anyway. As Elizabeth Ott recently pointed out on this blog in reference to the Sheffield Reads oral history project, we have little understanding or exploration of the intellectual history of reading for pleasure rather than improvement, perhaps because—just as Hamilton himself likely would have—we wish to distance ourselves from such dissipated and putatively non-intellectual practices. More generally, because of the intellectual seriousness that governed both the public behavior of the Founding Fathers and the sometimes almost suffocating decorum of the intellectual histories of the Founding Era, we have few investigations of the impact of works of popular literature on elite culture and the mechanics by which knowledge of them spread through communities. While I do not want to claim that we need an intellectual history of popular literature of the Founding Era, several suggestive studies—including those of Cathy Davidson, Julie Ellison, and Bryan Waterman—already exist and provide intriguing insights, I do want to suggest that beginning with borrowing records can disrupt otherwise entrenched perspectives on the intellectual investments or predispositions of well-studied figures and eras.


The Society Library’s first bookplate, designed by William Livingston (1723-1790) and etched by Elisha Gallaudet (1728-1779). Image courtesy of the New York Society Library.

Following that hope, my second observation is that library records can open up entirely new ways to engage the spread and transformation of ideas in the communities they served. Rather than beginning with an individual, faceted records allow the opportunity to begin with other, non-anthropocentric perspectives. For example, as librarians and bibliographers have been doing for years, one can begin with the life cycle of a single book: how it arrived at an institution, how long it was checked out by each individual who read it, and when it either disappears from records or stopped being checked out altogether. To take another perspective, one can begin with a given year and explore all of the books that were checked out in that year: what were the most and least popular books, when were users particularly active or inactive, and more generally, how did diurnal and seasonal cycles impact intellectual pursuits in the pre-modern era? Or, to take a third perspective, perhaps the most intriguing to me: what books were held by the library but never checked out by a user; what book or books never appealed to a reader in early New York?

Turning to these questions would open on to a broader intellectual history of a particular community, in this case New York City, but that could be taken up elsewhere as well. Digitized holdings records are available for other libraries as well, including those of English Dissenting Academies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and of the Muncie, IN Public Library from 1891-1902. Making use of different interfaces to expose their data, these early efforts each offer different insights into their collections and suggest different questions that might be asked. The New York Society Library also plans to continue expanding its collection of digitized records, with the long term goal of making all of its borrowing ledgers from 1789-1909 available digitally. With a record set that rich and diverse, it is possible to begin imagining writing a more comprehensive intellectual history of New York communities from below, beginning with those groups of readers—whether they were reading the newest popular novel or the most austere moral philosophy—who came to the same book and engaged with it as part of their individual intellectual life.

Rob Koehler is a PhD. candidate in English at New York University. He works at the intersections of education, literature, and publishing in early America, examining the political, legal, and cultural origins of schools and libraries as public institutions.

Mai-mai Sze and the I Ching

by contributing editor Erin Schreiner

“What is the I Ching?” was the title of Eliot Weinberger’s recent review of two new translations of the I Ching. It’s an excellent question, and in his review he expertly summarizes the history of the text, from its mysterious origins in the seventeenth century BCE through its introduction to European audiences in the eighteenth century, continuing into the height of the book’s popularity in the West in the mid-twentieth century. As he summarizes, the I Ching meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people, particularly in the West. Hegel thought it was a load of nonsense, Leibniz “enthusiastically found the universality of his binary system in the solid and broken lines,” and English sinologists like James Legge, Herbert Giles (both of whom translated the book) and Arthur Waley (who didn’t) were skeptical of its value as a philosophical text. In the 1950s and ’60s, artists, writers, and musicians, from Philip K. Dick to Bob Dylan to Merce Cunningham, found inspiration in the enigmatic poems they read in the Legge and Wilhelm translations. In the ’60s and early ’70s especially, the book appears all over the popular press. A search for “I Ching” or “Book of Changes” in a historical newspaper database turns up a trove of reviews of translations, interviews with artists and cultural figures, and editorials that mention the book in a variety of ways.

One can get lost in references to the I Ching in the popular press (truth be told, my research for this piece was so entertaining that it threatened to derail my writing completely). But I set out to find out what the I Ching meant to Mai-mai Sze. As JHIBlog readers well know, Sze is an enigmatic and fascinating woman whose dogged pursuit of knowledge across a wide range of subjects comes to life in the penciled notes she left in the vast collection that she bequeathed to the New York Society Library. One of very few traces of her scholarly life survives in William McGuire’s archive: a note at the bottom of a letter she sent him in 1979—thanking him for a copy of Iulian Shchutskii’s Researches on the I Ching—identifies her as a Bollingen author and “scholar of the I Ching” (Sze to William McGuire, 27 Sept. 1979. Box 47 Folder 9, William McGuire Papers, Library of Congress).

The index to her Tao of Painting—a translation of the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, or Jieziyuan Huazhuan—lists thirteen references to the I Ching, and one is an extended passage covering several pages. In this section, forming a major part of her introduction to the text, Sze references the Legge translations in her footnotes. This is a bit odd, as the Wilhelm translation was available by 1950, in the midst of her work on the project.

Wilhelm, Richard & Baynes, Cary F. (translator). The I Ching, or Book of Changes. New York: Pantheon Books, 1950. Volume 1. Copy in the New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.

Wilhelm, Richard & Baynes, Cary F. (translator). The I Ching, or Book of Changes. New York: Pantheon Books, 1950. Volume 1. Copy in the New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.

Although she does include an in-depth discussion of the I Ching and its relationship to Chinese painting in the introduction to the Tao of Painting (Bollingen, 1956), Sze seems to have turned to the I Ching in earnest quite late. A note on the title page of her copy of the two-volume set of the Baynes-Wilhelm I Ching directed me to her copy of the one-volume edition (which wasn’t published until 1968) for “notes + Chin. text.” Over a decade after the publication of the Tao of Painting, Sze studied the I Ching as closely as she studied other classics of Chinese philosophy (such as Laoze, the Confucian Analects, and the works of Mencius). I’m sad to report that her copy of the one volume Baynes-Wilhelm translation is now lost, leaving a gaping hole in the record of her interaction with this book. However, she did leave notes in the other translations that she owned, as well as in her copies of secondary sources on the I Ching in English. They reveal a bit about what she was up to.

Sze’s most heavily annotated copy of the I Ching is one of only a few English translations with the text printed alongside the original Chinese. (She also owned an edited and annotated beginner’s edition entirely in Chinese, but this contains none of her characteristic penciled notes.) The Text of the Yi king (and its appendixes) Chinese original with English translation by Z.D. Sung, published in 1935 in Shanghai, contains typical Sze marginalia and inserts. Some characters are circled, and in the English text below she makes notes in English for alternate translations. On the inserted sheet of paper, she’s drawn out characters in question and jotted down a Wade-Giles pronunciation guide, with some further explorations of a possible English translation below.

Annotations and inserts in Mai-mai Sze’s copy of the Z.D. Sung translation of the I Ching. New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.

Annotations and inserts in Mai-mai Sze’s copy of the Z.D. Sung translation of the I Ching. New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.

As David Hinton points out in the introduction to his new translation, the “texture of open possibility suffuses every dimension of the I Ching” because of the “wide-open grammar” of classical Chinese. The meanings of the characters are never precise. Verbs don’t indicate time with tense, and no punctuation was used, making it extremely difficult to extract a convincingly accurate English phrase from a cryptic string of graphs. To show how this works in practice, Hinton’s illustration looks much like one of Mai-mai’s annotations:

Hinton, David. I Ching: The Book of Change. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015, xvi.

Hinton, David. I Ching: The Book of Change. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015, xvi.

The original Chinese appears above English words whose meanings aren’t always closely related. This suggests that Sze was aware not only of the many possibilities for an English translation of a Chinese word, but also of the vast open territory to be covered by the translator in rendering the English into the Chinese. Her inclusion of phonetic transcriptions of the Chinese characters also indicates that she was clued into the importance of the sound of the original, which often rhymed.

The Sung translation of the text was described in the excellent 2002 annotated bibliography of the I Ching as a “convenient arrangement of the Legge translation,” as opposed to a totally new interpretation of the text in English. Sze referenced the Legge translation throughout the Tao of Painting, and kept up with new translations and secondary sources about the I Ching as they came out. Her collection includes copies of the Blofeld translation (Allen & Unwin, 1965), the previously mentioned two-volume Baynes-Wilhelm translation, and three studies of the book published by the Bollingen foundation by Richard Wilhelm, Hellmut Wilhelm, and the Russian scholar Iulian Shchutskii. All of them show the telltale signs of Sze’s intense engagement: TLS reviews are taped to the front covers, and the texts contain annotations in English and Chinese, with cross-references from one book to another.

Based on the surviving record, it seems clear that Sze’s most intense scholarly engagement with the text took place during the 1960s and 1970s; this period and the interaction were defined primarily by her engagement with the text in the original Chinese, as well as in English translations and studies published by the Bollingen Foundation. While the Bollingen angle is certainly worth investigating (particularly from a Jungian point of view), I’d rather close this piece by turning again to Hinton’s introduction and especially his discussion of how to read the I Ching. “As a poetic/philosophical text,” he writes, “it can be read like any other text, from beginning to end. However, even in this conventional reading, the book frustrates expectations of coherence. It is made up of fragmentary utterances, mysterious enough in and of themselves. And these fragments often feel quite disparate in nature: poetry alternates with philosophy, bare image with storytelling, social and political with private and spiritual, plainspoken and earnest with satire and humor” (xvii). As I’ve written previously on this blog, Mai-mai Sze’s interests were as wide ranging and complex as the I Ching that Hinton describes. Her library reveals her explorations of poetry and philosophy, visual art and literature, politics and social life, and spirituality, and I believe she saw all of these things at work in the I Ching.

With so many ellipses in the story of Sze’s life, it’s almost certain that there’s a more to this story than what I’ve been able to describe here. Like the I Ching, there’s always room for new interpretations when it comes to Mai-mai Sze. I hope these posts will inspire a new investigation.

Records of Student Life in Early Modern Europe

by Madeline McMahon

Much of student life in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe revolved around writing in books. Unlike modern library copies of frequently assigned texts or even students’ personal copies (such as this outraged copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter in the Onion), however, many of these books were intended for annotation. The cover of Wynkyn de Worde’s publication of Virgil’s Bucolica (1514) shows students poring over the text as their teacher expounds upon it. But if the early English printer imagined his customers writing in the Bucolica, he did not leave them much space to do so. The lines of poetry are jammed against the accompanying commentary interspersed every few verses or so.

Title page of 1513 copy of Virgil's works. By permission of the New York Society Library.

Title page of a 1513 copy of Virgil’s works. By permission of the New York Society Library.

Yet at the same time, De Worde’s contemporaries on the continent were adapting their printed textbooks of classical works to student use. From about 1490 to 1520, publishers in German university towns churned out “lecture texts” that included interlinear spacing and wider margins to accommodate note-taking (Jürgen Leonhardt, “Classics as Textbooks: A study of the humanist lectures on Cicero at the University of Leipzig, ca. 1515” in Scholarly Knowledge, Textbooks in Early Modern Europe). Thousands of such books can be found, often with identical annotations—many hands recording the same series of lectures (Leonhardt, 90-1).

Annotations between the lines and in the margins of Virgil's Eclogues. This book will be displayed at the New York Society Library's upcoming exhibition, "Readers Make Their Mark," Feb. 5 - Aug. 15.

Annotations between the lines and in the margins of Virgil’s Eclogues. This book will be displayed at the New York Society Library’s upcoming exhibition, “Readers Make Their Mark,” Feb. 5 – Aug. 15.

The book shown here, a copy of Virgil’s poetic works printed in Leipzig in 1513 and now in the New York Society Library, is one of many such extant school texts. The anonymous student annotated the Eclogues the most heavily; while all of Virgil’s works were commonly assigned bestsellers in this period, the Eclogues were particularly popular (Leonhardt, 90, 107). He used the spaces between lines of Virgil’s text to add vocabulary notes, and wrote more advanced comments in the wide margins around the short commentary of Hermano Torrentino that punctuated the poetry. Yet in general, although this student underlined some of the printed commentary, his primary annotations were more or less transcripts of lectures, in which his teacher would paraphrase the poem’s meaning in easy-to-understand prose. Red-colored ink, much like the modern neon highlighter, helped important information leap off the page. This book shows the early sixteenth-century humanist classroom in action: this student learns how to annotate as he is taught how to read a classic.

Such annotations can help us to imagine the experience of attending early modern lectures—or not. A lecture text’s pristine pages can signal when a student failed to show up to class (Leonhardt, 104). Such absences remind us that student life was not confined to the lecture hall, then as now. We can glimpse the friendships formed at early modern universities from a different kind of book meant for writing as well as reading: the album amicorum, or register of friends. These small books of blank pages were also popular in German universities, although they were used across Europe (June Schlueter, “Michael van Meer’s Album Amicorum, with Illustrations of London, 1614-15,” 302). An owner would solicit entries from friends and acquaintances as well as the great. Filled with pithy quotations, flattering notes, coats of arms and illustrations, albums are valuable sources for the history of scholarly culture in addition to a range of other approaches—from the history of theater to that of politics. The album amicorum was like an early yearbook or proto-Facebook, keeping the memories of one’s college friends within reach. The Englishman Nathanael Carpenter (1589 – 1628) brought his album with him to Dublin, where he spent much of his career. The book (Trinity College Dublin MS 150) is full of notes in Latin, Greek, and French from an international group of friends Carpenter met during his time at the University of Oxford in the early 1610s. Flipping through the clever adages and colorful drawing of an astrologer in his album, Carpenter would have come across his friend Jonas Adelwertus’s note:

You desire, good friend, that my hand be read in this album; why should I deny?
I will inscribe not only my name but I will add a distich,
So that you may never not remember me.
I pray, good friend, that you may be well, flourish, and live as long as Nestor, and that you remain happy.

Ut mea conspicue manus, hoc cernatur in albo,
Optime Amice cupis; qua ratione negem?
Non tantum inscribam nomen, sed Distichon addam,
Ut nunquam possis, non memor esse mei.
Ut valeas, vigeas, vivasque in Nestoris annos,
Et maneas fielix, Optime Amice precor. (TCD MS 150, 86r)

Like Carpenter, we can still access early modern student life through annotations, the record of friendship as well as education.

Many thanks to Erin Schreiner, rare books librarian at the NYSL, for permission to show the images. The copy of Virgil shown here will be on display at “Readers Make Their Mark: Annotated Books at the New York Society Library.” My thanks to Will White for leading me to TCD MS 150.