Reading, Society, and Politics in Early Modern England

By Kevin Sharpe; Steven N. Zwicker | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER TEN
The constitution of opinion and the pacification
of reading

Steven N. Zwicker

My subject is the conduct of reading at the close of the seventeenth century, but I want to draw an arc over habits of reading from Renaissance humanism to the mid-eighteenth century in order to set the late seventeenth century within a broad chronology and continuum of social practices and intellectual protocols. Such a context will help us to understand the formation and the long history of reading practices as well as the habits of particular moments. It will also suggest why the creation and prizing of opinion the recognition and the critique of opinion as a sphere of social exchange should emerge simultaneously, late in the seventeenth century, with the fashioning of increasingly passive consumers of texts. Charting the confluence of reading and opinion allows us to explore relations between the consumption and production of texts and ideas, perhaps even to explain how and why different spheres of mental activity get articulated together. Indeed, the creation and valorization of opinion might be seen as intimately tied to and dependent on a pacification and mechanization of humanist habits of reading.

In The Battle of the Books Swift dramatized the contest between the ancients and the moderns, between learning and opinion, as armed conflict on the shelves of the royal library at St James's Palace.1 But some of the most revealing sites of reading and opinion are not to be found within the confines of the library; they are to be discovered instead in the twinned localities of coffee house and theatre, those prized and feared localities of social and intellectual exchange so characteristic of late seventeenth-century London. Not, of course, that the theatre is peculiar to this moment, and even the origins of the coffee house should be dated earlier, to the interregnum rather than the Restoration,2 but the confluence of theatre and coffee house in the late seventeenth century represented new possibilities for social and intellectual mixture and for the production, consumption and exchange of ideas. The late seventeenth-century coffee house was a site, at once commercial and sociable, for drink and talk and news and print. For us

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