learning to be wise

It’s that time of year again: another semester and more learning and teaching to be done! In honor, once again, of all of us involved in those activities, here’s a look another book that will help us “learn to be wise.”

Last fall, the book with which I started off the semester was a copy of Lily’s Grammar, the standard Latin textbook of the period. I’m not sure if that book will exactly help you to be wise, although it was certainly used to help you master your early modern Latin. This time, the book I’m focusing on is Johann Comenius’s Orbis sensualium pictus, or, A World of Things Obvious to the Senses Drawn in Pictures. Comenius’s book, first published in 1658 in Latin and German, is often described as the first children’s picture book. His intent was to teach children not only how to read, but how to be wise. That wasn’t an unusual aim for the time. What was new was his method: using pictures of worldly activities and objects to engage his young readers.

Last time I mentioned Comenius, I used his illustration of a scholar at his study to start off my post. Above is the illustration for writing: a table laid out with the implements for and examples of different kinds of writing. On the right side are the various instruments, keyed by numbers in the text to the details in the illustration:

The Ancients writ in Tables done over with Wax with a brasen Poitrel, 1. with the sharp end 2. whereof Letters were engraven, and rubbed out again with the broad end 3.
Afterwards they writ Letters with a small Reed. 4.

As you can see from the picture below, the book uses shifts between blackletter, roman, and italic fonts to differentiate between those things illustrated and between the different languages. (My italics are a small attempt to transcribe the shift between blackletter and roman.)

The text continues on the next page to describe how “we” write today:

We use a Goos-quill, 5. the Stem 6. of which we make with a Pen-kife; 7. then we dip the neb in an Ink-horn, 8. which is stopped with a Stopple, 9. and we put our Pens into a Pennar. 10.
We dry a writing with Blotting-paper, or Calis-sand, out of a Sand-box, 11.
And we indeed, write from the left hand, towards the right; 12. the Hebrews from the right-hand towards the left; 13. the Chinois, and other Indians, from the top downwards. 14.

One of the fun things about this book for me is the descriptions of activities related to book history–there are pages not only for the scholar and for writing, but for paper, printing, the book-seller’s shop, the book-binder, and even for a book. I don’t have images for all of those, but on Google Books you can find the 1887 edition of Orbis pictus, which reuses the 1658 illustrations.

Comenius’s impact on children’s education and book history is huge. His method for engaging children through pictures and narratives about the world around us not only made his book tremendously popular, it has shaped nearly all such books since. His method is wholly familiar to us today–it’s how we routinely teach our kids to read. In fact, what Orbis pictus reminds me most strongly of is Richard Scarry’s stories about Busytown. And let me tell you, as someone whose children love my old copies of Richard Scarry, wow is that a book that appeals to little kids! (You can see a few images from Busy, Busy Town and What Do People Do All Day? on Amazon.)

Comenius’s Orbis pictus starts off with a dialogue between The Master and a Boy which lays out concisely the purpose not only of his book, but of all subsequent children’s books:

M. Come Boy learn to be wise.
P. What doth this mean, To be wise.
M. To understand rightly, to do rightly, and to speak out rightly, all that are necessary.

Comenius’s book is organized not only around A World of Things Obvious to the Senses–or what people do all day–but in an order that makes sense of that world rightly. The book moves from God then the World through all the worldly activities and objects until we reach Gods Providence and the last Judgment.

Naming the world around us to children always means embedding that world in our moral structure, from where we begin and end our narrative to how we describe the activities that take place in the world. It’s one of the qualities that can make children’s books so rewarding to study. Richard Scarry’s steady popularity makes it possible to trace the ways in which children’s books like these reflect our societal worldview–see this great Flickr set for some images comparing the 1963 and 1991 editions of The Best Word Book Ever. Given that my kids read my childhood Richard Scarry, we still name the handsome pilot and pretty stewardess. But I’ve never noticed the screaming lady–something to look forward to the next time my little one drags it out!

the intangibles of books

My recent posts have been focusing on books that have been handed down from one generation to the next, books that allow us to see evidence of the social transactions of books and the links they forge between family members. But we wouldn’t be able to see that evidence if the books themselves weren’t in such good shape to begin with.

The photo above is of one of my favorite books, and I mean that in a very material sense, not a textual sense: I love this particular book because it was my father’s when he was a boy. I remember it sitting on his bookshelves in our house, and him telling me how fond he was of Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve never actually read Kidnapped. And I’m not going to be able to read this copy. It’s so fragile that the front cover came right off as I removed it from my bookshelf this afternoon. I’m not actually sure what year it was published–it was part of the Giant Junior Classics series, but there is no date on the book itself, and though my father was clearly young when he signed it, he didn’t date his inscription. I could read a different copy, of course. It wouldn’t be too hard to track one down, even another Giant Junior Classics issue. But it wouldn’t be the same, I don’t think. What I love about this book is knowing that he loved it when he was a child, and that he loved it enough to save it. Not being able to read this book doesn’t make me any less fond of it.

It does, however, make me keenly aware of how unlikely it is that my children will have this book on their shelves, or their children. Or to have it someday be auctioned off at Sotheby’s, as Frances Wolfreston’s books were. That’s okay, really. I don’t think it’s valuable to anyone other than me. There are plenty of mid-twentieth-century books that future readers and scholars and grandchildren could wish had stayed in good enough shape to hang on to. We’re lucky that earlier books were made of comparatively sturdy stuff.

In my earlier posts about the Frances Wolfreston books and other books, I have been focused entirely on the material and social presences of books–how books are made, how they circulate between users. I have not dwelt on some of the other important aspects of books, including the emotional attachments that readers and owners form to them and with them. But I don’t want to underplay the intangibles of books, either. My father’s copy of Kidnapped is important because of those intangibles. And it is those intangibles that I share with my son when we read Charlotte’s Web together. We actually each have our own: my childhood copy is on the right, only $1.25, and his is on the left, just released as a “major motion picture.”

I was traveling while we were reading the book, so I bought him his own copy and took mine with me, so we could read it together over the phone. And because the book is still published by HarperCollins, we could read copies that were nearly identical, page for page. When we were on separated by hundreds of miles, being able to read together–to turn the pages at the same time and to look at the same Garth Williams drawings–made us feel as if we were sitting next to each other, reading our bedtime story. That closeness was possible through the material conditions and history of copyrights, publishing companies, printing processes, and marketing. But it was made possible first by the power not only of E.B. White’s story, but of the very act of reading together. That’s one of the amazing things about books and readings to which my posts in this blog have not always paid tribute. It’s a hard thing to quantify, certainly, and hard even to put into words. But my relationship to books that I’ve been discussing here reminds me that the Chaucer that passed from Dorothy Egerton’s hands to Anne Vernon’s to Frances Wolfreston’s isn’t just a volume of paper in which readers inscribed their names. It’s a book they sat with, and returned to, and passed on to others.

I’ve been negligent in posting recently, and this post has not dwelt at all on early modern books. But I’ll be back up to speed again soon, with more posts on early books and book history. In the meantime, happy reading.

Montelyon’s sword

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the social lives of books and how they take on meaning through our uses of them. That’s come in part from the moving Yom Kippur service I was at and the use of a rescued Lithuanian Torah scroll. More on that, and how it has been making me think about the lives of books and readers, in a future post.

But for this post, a much smaller look at a book from our period and the social and emotional life it suggests. So: Emanuel Ford’s The famous historie of Mountelyon, Knight of the Oracle, and sonne to the renowned Presicles King of Assyria. The Folger’s copy of this book is, unsurprisingly given my recent theme, one that was owned by Frances Wolfreston, and it has her characteristic inscription on leaf A3r: “Frances Wolfreston her bowk.”


What I like about this particular book is that she seems to have given it to her son Francis, who also carefully inscribed it on the first leaf: “Francis Wolferston his Booke.” (You can see bleed-through from the other side, on which a later Wolferstan decendant has inscribed his name and has repeated the title of the book.)


In 1652, the year that Francis has dated his inscription, he would have been fourteen years old. And later on in the book is the sort of marginalia that I imagine a 14 year-old boy reading a romance would want to draw: the hero’s spear and sword.


I love that Frances bought this book, and then passed it on to her son, and that both of them marked it as their own. The fact that she gave it to him when he was still young, rather than him inheriting it as an adult, as was true of the other books that his brother was willed, makes it seem so much more evocative of a parent-child relationship. Or maybe it’s that drawing of the sword that gets to me. The Chaucer is a big important book, and the marginalia only confirms what I think we already know from looking at it. Frances and Francis’s inscriptions make this book, which would otherwise be a slight romance, into something more tantalizing and meaningful.