Contradictions of Properly Reading: 16th Century-19th Century

Contradictions of Properly Reading: 16th Century - 19th Century (Lab 4)

Johannes Comenius teachings of the “crucial aspects of the known world” (Hooks), in his work Orbis sensualism pictus from 1659, is something I came to truly experience during this specific lab.

As I came to spend a couple of hours alone with two books from the Northeastern University Archives, I felt that I like Comenius was in “a place where a Student, a part from men, sitteth alone, addicted to his Studies, whislt he readeth Books, which being within his reach, he layeth open upon a Desk, and picket all the best things out of them into his own Manual”.

Sketches of Young Couples (1840) - Charles Dickens

As I began to analyze and dive into Dickens’ small pocket-like book, I felt myself taken back at its form and delicacy. As I turned each page carefully, I would pause with each page and roughly hover my fingers over the animal-skin-paper. When impressions, thoughts, questions and observations started flooding my mind, I began to create my own manual of Dickens text. Below are my hand written notes while I was in this “Renaissance study-mode”, typed up from my notebook:

  • Small red book (1840); can see and literally feel bumps of bounding that are decorated
  • Front cover seems heavy, almost makes a semi loud sound when you open it and falls to lay on the table
  • Inside of cover has an elaborate gold (leaf?) border
  • Subtitle mentions its a remonstrance against “Bachelors or Widowers” - is this a social class issue of the time?
  • First page has some sort of stamp that you can feel from its relief
  • Sketches seem more like etching with illusions of detail - was this done purposely?
  • If a page has a sketch, the opposite side is empty
  • Pages separately are fairly light but after pages are accumulated, the pages feel decently heavy
  • Final two pages: Left advertises Dickens other works; Right is a much more elaborate sketch
  • Final sketch is the whole page and makes the paper much more heavy; almost feels more like a cardstock material instead of paper?

How The Other Half Lives (1904) - Jacob A. Riis

Once I switched to Riis’ larger book–in both dimension and weight–I realized that although Riis’ book was published over 20 years after Dickens’, it did not appear to be as well preserved. Looking back, I have two possible theories for its condition:

  1. The book is produced with different materials (most likely ones that were thought to be more advanced) and although the materials were functional for other purposes, they perhaps were not as sustainable.
  2. The society at the time was advancing fairly rapidly in education and book production that reading was now a leisure activity rather than an educational task. More reading led to more usage which inevitably makes a book more susceptible to damage.

As I began carefully analyzing Riis’ book, I also began writing down my observations seen below:

  • Cardboardish cover (maybe)?
  • Imagery on front cover seems like it could be a separate material from the actual cover - is this why it looks like its peeling off from the corner?
  • Pages do feel like they’re of a better quality. More smooth. Less hair follicles creating less friction?
  • Transparent-parchment-like paper between the first sketch and original page - Was this used so the printing of the sketch would not damage the other page?
  • Illustrations/photographs are by Riis himself
  • Has a Preface
  • Index page (separate) for list of illustrations
  • Texture of photographs suggests a more systematic way of printing/transferring images?
  • Blueprint plan (page 12) is somewhat relieved from the page
  • Pages may be more thin because the text on the opposite side of the pages can be seen - see through
  • Binding does not seem fairly secure (at this point in time at least)
  • Margin notes in pencil (page 44-45).

Textual Contrasts

Given my personal impression and textual analysis of both books, the textual contrast between Dickens’ book and Riis’ book portrays a counterintuitive contrast between the two period of times in relation to technology, their culture and the culture of Renaissance readers, such as Geradus Mercator.


While I roughly compare the pages that have sketches in both books, throughout my written (manual) notes, there is a much more elaborate relationship between the different sketches.

In regards to the detail of sketches depicted in both books, they are quite identical. However how the sketches are placed within the book, indicate an evolutionary relationship between the sketches and technology.

While in Dickens’ the sketches are printed solely on an individual page with nothing around it (page 1 in Sketches of Young Couples) nor on the pages opposite side, Riis’ sketches (page 45 of How The Other Half Lives) are carefully printed within the text already on a page. His sketches are also able to be printed on a page where the opposite side is printed with text, something that evidently seemed impossible twenty years prior.

So not only is there a clear advancement in printing technology, but there is an advancement seen towards how the reader reads. While sketches (or any images of that matter) were looked at separately from the text, not the sketches are not being looked at but are too being read within the pages context.

If I could ask one question regarding this it would be:

Was this change of sketch/image placement on a page in relation to text, something that was decided because it perhaps was cost efficient (did not have to waste blank sheets of paper between sketches and text) or was it decided for marketing purposes? Did publishers come to the sense that readers responded better to the actual text of the book when sketches/images were included, and thus leading to more sales?


In regards to cost efficiency as my question above proposes, what role do the books material play?

I noticed that the pages in Dickens’ book felt more rough and thicker, whereas I found (and literally felt) the opposite in Riis’ book. What I find interesting is that although the pages in Riis’ book were indeed thinner, there were pages with marginal notes made in pencil. At first, I come to think that writing on a material so thin is risky because it could tear the page but perhaps this is only true if the pages are being marked on individually rather than on a pile of several other pages and thicker cover.

So not only is there a technological advacement in the material of books and paper but there is also an educational shift as we see through Riis’ marginal markings. Readers in the 20th century now are not only reading the texts but they are engaging with them and resonating certain aspects of those books with themselves for when they are not reading. This almost gives the sense that reading not only becomes reading stories and facts, but it becomes reading lessons that society can look back to.

The Mercator Atlas of Europe

Although Adam G. Hooks looks at Johannes Comenius and John Brinsley as “fathers” of proper reading, in his article How to Read like a Renaissance Reader, I am not sure if I can agree that the proper way to read is to sort of note down specific parts of the text, questions, and thoughts into the margins of the page.

When I look at Geradus Mercator’s, Atlas of Europe (1550-1560) also from the Renaissance, his way of reading maps was to completely transform, what he thought to be their original form. He would draw out several maps and upon observing errors or sections of other maps he thought to seem were more appropriate/accurate, he would simply cut up and paste those parts and place them together to create a completely new regional map.

It was through this process of being able to analyze and critique different sections of a variety of different regional maps, that Mercator was able to experiment and over a long period of time, create a new map, the whole atlas.

So in concluding thoughts, as I compare the detailed drawn out maps of Mercator to the sketches and context of Dickens’ and Riis’ books, I begin to question the readers of these different times. Evidently (at least to me) the readers of 1840 and 1904 are much more systematic. They embody a culture that needs a formula way of doing things, such as reading. Mercator, of the 1500s however, portrays a kind of reading that is much more abstract and innovative. To me, it makes more sense to take certain knowledge or content from a source you past read, and using your own observations, create your own knowledge. But in the 19th century, knowledge is just being taken as plain facts that need to be memorized and can only be done so by taking notes of them.

My question for all of this is: Is this systematic way of reading, something the evolution of printing is at fault for?