Rembrandt van Rijn's Old Woman Reading, 1631

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt van Rijn: Old Woman Reading, 1631

We commonly think of books as containers of ideas or wrapping for literature, but they can be understood in other ways—as if they were blood cells carrying oxygen through a body politic or data points as infinite as stars in the sky. Books lead lives of their own, and they intersect with our lives in ways we have only begun to understand.

The president customarily assumes power by swearing the oath of office on a book. Ladies have hollowed out books to hide their jewelry. Books are presented as prizes, carried as companions into battle, kept at bedsides to induce sleep, exchanged as gifts to cement friendship. A German friend gave me his grandfather’s battered copy of Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hymnen an die Ideale der Menschheit, inscribed “Nord-Frankreich 1916” on its title page. A German soldier reading hymns to the ideals of humanity in a trench in World War I: the gift has meaning beyond the words of the text.

Since World War II, a new discipline has coalesced around the attempt to understand the power of books. Its emergence can be dated to the publication in 1958 of L’apparition du livre (The Coming of the Book) by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, a work that challenged readers to think of early printed books in unfamiliar ways—as objects of artisanal labor, items of commercial exchange, catalysts of economic development, and engines of political conflict. To be sure, historians and literary scholars had explored those topics for generations. But Febvre and Martin argued that they should be brought together in an effort to understand the entire ecology of the world of print. Soon afterward, the French began to describe this field of study as “l’histoire du livre,” a term translated into English, somewhat awkwardly, as “history of the book,” “history of books,” or “book history.”

Now, six decades later, the discipline has expanded all over the world and into many neighboring fields. In England it intersected with a tradition of descriptive bibliography, which developed around the attempt to reconstruct the original texts of Shakespeare by analyzing the earliest printed versions of his plays. In Germany it merged with scholarship on the book trade as measured by catalogs from the fairs of Frankfurt and Leipzig going back to the sixteenth century. In the US, it built on studies of colonial printing and expanded to include varieties of popular culture up to the present: Benjamin Franklin stares across the centuries at Rupert Murdoch.

We now have multivolume, collective histories of the book in France, Britain, the US, Canada, and Australia. We have book-history journals, associations, conferences, courses of study, monograph series, research centers, glossaries, companions, and encyclopedias. The history of books goes back long before printing. It figures prominently in scholarship on antiquity and the Middle Ages, and it extends to China and Korea, where paper and printing by movable type were first developed. It also spills over into related fields such as the history of libraries, collecting, and connoisseurship.

Reading has become a major subfield of book history, because the ways people construed signs stamped into paper, vellum, papyrus, or clay can provide hints about how they made sense of the world in general. The experience of reading changed when people began turning pages instead of unrolling sheets, when words were separated by spaces instead of run together, and when they were deciphered silently and individually instead of aloud and in groups. The responses of readers to books can be reconstructed from margin notes, journal entries, and references in letters, although the evidence is scattered and spotty.

Endless in its ramifications and inexhaustible in its potential for innovation, book history has become one of the most vital disciplines in the human sciences—that is, in the fertile territory where the humanities and social sciences converge. Its attraction can be explained in part as a reaction to the digital revolution. Yet it shows very few symptoms of nostalgia; printed books continue to be published in larger numbers than ever before, while e-book sales have leveled off. One lesson of book history is that new media do not necessarily displace the old, at least not in the short run. Manuscript publishing expanded after Gutenberg and continued to thrive for the next two centuries. Far from wiping out communication through print, digital media have sharpened the awareness of how print satisfies the senses and fills cultural space.

There is no better time and place to appreciate the importance of books than the Dutch Republic during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The subject should appeal to English readers because it combines the familiar with the foreign, and it is hidden in plain sight. Look at any genre painting by a seventeenth-century master (Rembrandt, for example, who made a number of portraits of old women reading), and you are likely to see a book. Look more closely, and you will notice that the paper has the appearance of cloth—thick and sinuous rather than crisp and flat. Paper made by hand from pulped rags has a different texture from machine-made paper manufactured from wood pulp. Paper usually accounted for at least half the manufacturing cost of a book (excluding binding; publishers normally sold books unbound before the nineteenth century), and it figured prominently in advertisements for books since readers cared about the material base of literature—its color, density, and feel to the fingertips. Books four centuries ago differed greatly from what they are today. They existed everywhere in the material and intellectual culture of the Dutch Golden Age, yet most of us would be hard-pressed to mention a single work of fiction from that era. Who can name one Dutch poet or novelist from the seventeenth century? If anyone comes to mind, it is likely to be Joost van den Vondel, but most foreigners probably associate his name only with a park in Amsterdam.


We know the culture of the Golden Age primarily through its paintings. They certainly were valued by the new rich of the prosperous new state that came together during the Eighty Years’ War against Spain (1568–1648). Yet as Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen point out in their excellent contribution to book history, The Bookshop of the World: Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age, the Dutch produced perhaps three million paintings and engravings and 300 million books. Book production per capita was ten times as great as that in France and Spain. Unlike the lower classes elsewhere in Europe, who never owned books, ordinary Dutchmen—artisans and shopkeepers, if not workers—bought as many as three or four books a year. Wages were relatively high, reading matter cheap. A pamphlet or a chapbook often cost a fifth of a day’s wages, the equivalent of a mug of beer.

The seven autonomous provinces that constituted the Dutch Republic had a population of less than two million, about a tenth of that of France, but it was very dense, especially in the heavily urbanized province of Holland. Schools were everywhere—not free, not required, and not run exclusively by the Dutch Reformed Church, but so numerous and inexpensive that most children attended school long enough to learn to read and often to write and to manage some arithmetic as well. In 1650 two thirds of the men in Amsterdam could sign their names. As writing was taught after reading, it can be concluded that the male population of the city was largely literate by the end of the century. Women and peasants in outlying provinces had lower rates of literacy, but the Dutch were capable of supporting a vibrant domestic book trade.

The expansion of the Dutch economy that sustained the publishing industry involved many factors—improved agronomy, a brisk market in textiles and herring, overseas trade, entrepreneurship, and a Calvinist work discipline (Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has attracted so many refutations that, in my view, it has stood the test of time). But an important ingredient, according to Jan de Vries, the leading expert on the subject, was canals—canals as an inexpensive mode of transportation and as an integrating force of an information society. Canal barges linked every city in Holland. They kept to a schedule as busy and more reliable than some buses today, carried mail as well as passengers and merchandise, and were cheap: you could get from Amsterdam to Haarlem in two hours for five stuivers (a fraction of a day’s wages). Transportation was a heavy burden in the book trade. Dutch canals carried books at bargain rates compared with the costs of overland shipments from Leipzig, Paris, and Geneva. The warehouses of Amsterdam stored enormous bales of unbound sheets that Dutch ships diffused around the world, to Indonesia, Brazil, and New Amsterdam as well as European ports. By 1700, the commercial fleet of Holland was greater than those of France and England combined, and Dutch publishers outdid their competitors in Paris and London.

Conditions changed in the eighteenth century, but the decline of the Netherlands has been exaggerated. It should be understood in relation to the eighteenth-century revival of the great powers, which had suffered from war, rebellion, famine, and disease during the seventeenth century, while the Dutch had ridden on waves of prosperity. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) devastated Germany so badly that the output of books, as measured by the catalogs of the fairs at Frankfurt and Leipzig, did not reach the level it had attained in 1618 until 1768. The Golden Age of the Dutch Republic therefore deserves to be studied as a high point in the early modern history of books, and its experience raises important questions. What exactly was the Dutch “book world,” as Pettegree and Weduwen call it, during this extraordinary era? How did it function and touch the lives of people in all strata of society?


Dutch historians have worried these subjects for decades. Pettegree and Weduwen bring that scholarship together with research of their own in an authoritative synthesis that makes this crucial period in the history of books available to English-language readers. Their work represents book history at its best—and it does so in the face of formidable difficulties. Despite the ubiquity of books, the sources that reveal the modes of their production, diffusion, and consumption are disappointingly thin.

Publishers, printers, and booksellers can be identified, but none of their correspondence and account books have survived. We can observe readers in paintings, yet we have little evidence about who they were and the ways they read. Scholars have not turned up many commonplace books, where readers copied out passages that interested them. The Bookshop of the World discusses only one reader’s diary. It belonged to David Beck, a schoolmaster in The Hague in 1624. He learned about world events from newspapers, but his view of the world is difficult to discern, and he got most of his information from gossip and the mail.

Trompe l’oeil, Board Partition with Letter Rack and Music Book, 1668; painting by Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts

Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts: Trompe l’oeil, Board Partition with Letter Rack and Music Book, 1668

The books themselves contain clues to the way they were used, especially when they have notes in the margins. Yet the ones available today are the least representative of former reading habits because they are stately folio and quarto volumes with fine bindings, the kind collected by the wealthy elite more to be admired than to be read and that sit in splendor on the shelves of rare book rooms in modern libraries. Ordinary people read inexpensive works in small formats—devotional tracts, pamphlets, and all sorts of ephemera that never made it into libraries, partly because they were disdained by collectors, partly because they were read to tatters and disappeared. Pettegree and Weduwen argue that there is an inverse correlation between the holdings of libraries today and the reading preferences of the Dutch three to four centuries ago.

Many libraries existed in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, yet they, too, are a disappointing source for the book historian. University libraries frequently contained fewer books than the private collections accumulated by professors. They were not intended for use by students, who were usually allowed in only for a few hours one or two days a week. The libraries mainly stored Latin dissertations and provided reference works for occasional consultation by the teaching staff. Students had to submit printed dissertations to get a degree, and they were required to have a degree in order to practice law and medicine. As printer to the University of Leiden, the famous firm of Elzevier monopolized the printing jobs. It charged hefty prices for producing the dissertations, which, as far as one can tell, virtually no one read.

The Dutch had access to municipal libraries, yet they, too, were underused. Created to house books confiscated from Catholic institutions during the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, their tomes of Catholic theology, all in Latin, had little appeal to the Protestant man in the street.

Where, then, if not in libraries or diaries or publishers’ correspondence, can a book historian penetrate the world of print as it was experienced by the Dutch in the seventeenth century? Pettegree and Weduwen cite a list of books to be used by the crew during a voyage to the Dutch East Indies in 1622 as an example of a revealing source. All were in Dutch, and all were devotional. One, Christelijcke Zee-vaert (Christian Sea Voyage), contained sermons, prayers, and hymns for use by the men during regular, shipboard services, in which the illiterate received help from sailors who could read. A best seller, it went through at least twelve editions, of which only two copies have survived.

To understand the impact of print, therefore, it is essential to form an idea of what has not endured. The authors constantly remind the reader of the importance of ephemera. They estimate that administrative bodies, including seventy-nine municipalities, issued so many ordinances and proclamations that the total came to more than thirty million printed sheets, nearly all of them now lost. Pamphlets flooded the streets, particularly in times of political crisis. Posters could be found everywhere on walls. Newspapers were available five days a week. Above all, psalm books, catechisms, and devotional tracts were carried to church, declaimed at home, and thumbed to pieces.

Although few of those artifacts have survived, they made up most of the printed matter that the Dutch encountered in their everyday lives. Pettegree and Weduwen attempt to reconstruct this lost typographical environment. In earlier studies, they had already taken the measure of newspapers, which proliferated in the Dutch Republic as nowhere else in Europe. Pettegree also directs the Universal Short Title Catalogue (USTC), a database available from an open-access website* hosted by the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where he is a professor and Weduwen a research fellow. The USTC covers 740,000 separate editions of works printed between the 1450s and the 1650s. Drawing on books located in 8,500 libraries and archives, it deserves to be celebrated as a triumph in digitized Big Data. Yet 30 percent of the books it mentions exist in only one copy. Many other books must have vanished altogether. What were they?

Pettegree and Weduwen were able to form a rough idea of the dimensions of print culture in the Golden Age by combing through advertisements in newspapers, auction catalogs, and booksellers’ catalogs. The Dutch invented the book auction as a way to dispose of the surplus stock of booksellers as well as the collections of individuals. Auctions, of which there were about four thousand in the seventeenth century, took place almost every day and recycled about four million books.

In 1674 Daniel Elzevier published a catalog of the stock in his Amsterdam business. It ran to 770 pages and listed 18,000 editions, none in Dutch. The Elzeviers led the way in the Dutch conquest of the international trade in learned literature, which then was printed almost exclusively in Latin. The small, beautifully printed Elzevier editions of the classics became a staple among the educated elite everywhere in Europe. They sometimes appear in paintings of the Dutch oligarchs—a dainty volume clasped in the hand of a burgomaster or a wealthy merchant.

To discover what books fell into the hands of humbler readers, it is necessary to consult catalogs representative of the domestic trade. One of them, published in 1647 by the Amsterdam bookseller Hendrick Laurensz, contains 8,300 titles along with their prices. Pettegree and Weduwen divide them into four categories by price and then make hypotheses as to the purchasers. The cheapest were devotional pamphlets such as the Christian ABC, psalters, catechisms, songbooks, and manuals on arithmetic. They cost the equivalent of a day’s wages, or slightly less for a skilled artisan. Did artisans and shopkeepers buy them? Probably, but The Bookshop of the World can only offer guesses.

Auction catalogs of personal libraries suggest the reading habits of ministers, lawyers, doctors, and professors. These highly educated collectors favored the Latin classics, history, and travel literature, as could be expected in a country that was extending a commercial empire everywhere in the world. Yet the great majority of books concerned religion: Bibles, of course, and pious tracts ranging from theology to prayer books. Nowhere among the thousands of titles is there evidence of what historians and literary scholars seek so often in the past: the rise of the novel, secularization, the disenchantment of the world.

A few catalogs contain a separate section at the end labeled “libri prohibiti,” or banned books. They openly advertised works by Spinoza, Hobbes, Remonstrants (those who denied predestination and other doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church), and Socinians (deniers of the existence of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ). Prepublication censorship did not exist in the Dutch Republic. The Reformed Church often demanded that books be prohibited and authors punished, but it had limited power, and a bookseller menaced in one city could easily load a barge with the offending works and sell them in another.

So many immigrants from different faiths flooded the seven northern provinces of the Low Countries that toleration became a norm—not in principle (there were no declarations proclaiming freedom of speech and worship, and preachers never ceased to rail against heretics and schismatics) but rather in practice, because the diverse political authorities had no interest in persecuting minorities. In 1650 nearly half the population of the Dutch Republic was Catholic, and the Jewish community in Amsterdam was large enough to support the first Yiddish newspaper. Publishers were happy to sell books to anyone who would pay. To the astonishment of the rest of Europe, the Dutch published the period’s three great challenges to dogmatism: Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Descartes’s Discours de la méthode, and Galileo’s Discorsi e Dimostrazioni Matematiche.

Those revolutionary works have attracted the attention of previous scholars. What distinguishes the work of Pettegree and Weduwen is their attempt to map the entire Dutch book world. They take “book” loosely to mean anything that was printed, from Bibles to lottery tickets. That definition seems dubious, although it has been used by other book historians. But it has the advantage of leaving room for all varieties of the printed word.

By accumulating information about everything that came off Dutch presses, the authors show that print pervaded Dutch society, ebbing and flowing according to the tides of events. During the Spanish siege of Leiden in 1573 and 1574, the local authorities directed the resistance with printed ordinances issued nearly every day. The “Disaster Year” of 1672 brought another such surge when half the country fell to invading troops from France, and Johan de Witt, the grand pensionary who had dominated politics for nineteen years, was overthrown and lynched; the output of pamphlets came to more than a million copies, one for every adult in the Republic.

Most printed matter circulated outside commercial channels. Administrative decrees penetrated everywhere and covered everything, from the price of cheese to William III’s Declaration of 1688, printed at a run of fifty thousand copies, which justified his claim to the English throne when he seized power in what became known to the English as the Glorious Revolution. Academic dissertations were not sold, nor were the countless poems and orations printed to perpetuate the memory of special occasions such as funerals and weddings.

Print was heavily pictorial. Engravings celebrated victories at sea, etchings decorated walls, maps illustrated colonial conquests, and atlases revealed the hegemony of the Dutch East India Company. At the same time, print interacted with oral circuits of communication. After the town crier announced a new ordinance, the local affixer would paste up broadsheets at specified locations. Newspapers shied away from reports on domestic politics, which could cause trouble from local authorities, so political news spread by gossip amplified by pamphlets. Word of mouth also drove the lively Bourse of Amsterdam. Commodity prices were determined by face-to-face transactions at designated locations around the Bourse’s forty-two pillars. Although lists of prices were printed once a week, the Dutch never developed a business press. The famous tulip mania of 1636–1637 provoked a torrent of pamphlets, but the Bourse shrugged it off without a single bankruptcy.

The missing element in the flood of print was literature—that is, imaginative writing and belles lettres of the kind that figure most prominently in the history of other countries. Pettegree and Weduwen concentrate on the printed matter that those histories fail to mention, especially ephemera; they do not celebrate any masterpieces. The Dutch Golden Age corresponded to the era of Shakespeare and Milton in England and Racine and Molière in France. It was intensely prosaic. Yet there was nothing ephemeral about Dutch art, Dutch self-government, and the ability of the Dutch to fight off the Spanish and the French, and to “invade” England successfully in 1688. They were a small nation that became a great power. The power of print helped make them great. For the first time in history, print became an ingredient of daily life for an entire population. The Bookshop of the World shows how that change actually took place.