the book logo

The Book as a Reader's Experience: Personalized Books

Commonplace books were used to compile knowledge particularly in Early Modern Europe. They began as collections of sayings and grew into collections of thematic materials. In many cases they became scrapbooks filled with letters, quotes, recipes, formulas, notes, and other items.

According to Cormack and Mazzio (2005), a commonplace book

"A commonplace book is at once a book form and a method of reading. Commonplacing was a system of using books in which readers digested the books they read by extracting, ordering and recording particular phrases or passages in notebooks of their own. This process encouraged readers to atomize books by isolating units that might later be useful in one or another discursive context. While the commonplace book allowed readers to personalize their reading by making it useful, this process of textual engagement was also highly prescribed, "common" in the sense that it filtered one's reading through social norms that determined what was textually significant and what not."

During the 15th century, the creation of a zibaldone developed as a scholarly activity. This "hodgepodge" book was a small paper codex that contained author notes, poetry, prose, and sketches. The book might contain a mixture of technical and literary texts.

By the 17th century, commonplacing was taught to college students as a way to organize their student materials. At universities like Oxford and Harvard, students learned to select, condense, and organize useful information ideas.

In 1958, author Virginia Woolf wrote about her notebooks,

 "[L]et us take down one of those old notebooks which we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning. Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing. Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink." (Woolf, 1958, 25).

randolphA few commonplace books were published. Most were published after the death of the commonplacer.

Try It!
Explore Southey's Common Place Book. Notice the wide range of topics covered.

Although most weren't formally published, many authors and scholars viewed their notebooks as quasi-works. A number of well-known authors and scholars kept commonplace books. Explore some examples:

Commonplace books can provide interesting insights into the individual compilers. What were their interests, preferences, concerns, and organizational strategies?

Today, activities like blogging are viewed by some as a form of commonplacing.

Commonplacing provides an interesting way to think of the cycle of a book from author through to reader and back to author again.

Book Bindings & Embellishments

bindingIn the early history of printed books, printers often sold books without bindings. The binding selected reflected the status of the owner as well as their devotion to the book. For instance, individuals often decorated their Bible with embroidery.

Even after bindings were commonly placed on books, owners continued to embellish their books.

The image on the right shows an embroidered bookbinding from the 16th century.

While some book embellishments were done professionally, others were created by the individual owners depending on their skills and tastes.

Fore-Edge Painting

Fore-edge painting is a decoration painted on the edge of a book's pages. The fore-edge is not the spine, top, or bottom of the book. Instead, it's the outside edge of the book. Some artists hide their painting so it can only be viewed when spreading out or thumbing through a book.

As early as the 10th century, examples of fore-edge painting have been found. In the 16th century, Cesare Vecellio began painting the fore-edge of books for beautification. The Queen's Binders expanded the skill to include hidden images and a gilded edge giving the illusion that the painting would appear and disappear.

To explore some examples, go to the Boston Public Library.

The example below is titled Jerusalem Delivered and contains a gilted images with a painting when fanned out.


Commemorative Books

After World War I, commemorative war books were produced. The People's War Book and Pictorial Atlas of the World includes official war reports, articles, war maps, charts and diagrams, and hundreds of illustrations. Published in 1920, readers were invited to add their own image to the "Roll of Honor" at the beginning of the book.

The image below shows the "Roll of Honor" where readers could enter their own information into The People's War Book and Pictorial Atlas of the World (1920).

roll of honor

Interactive Books

In many cases, authors invite readers into the world of their books.

In Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700, Cormack and Mazzio (2005) provide examples of the relationships between books and their users. In Albrecht Durer's The Art of Measurement (1525), paper fold-outs invite readers to place themselves in the illustration to understand how to draw a solid object and its shadow.



Anderson, Jennifer & Sauer, Elizabeth (2002). Books and Readers in Early Modern England: Material Studies. University of Pennsylvania Press. Preview Available:

Baron, Sabrina A. (2002). The Reader Revealed. University of Washington Press.

Beidler, Philip D. (1995). Scriptures for a Generation: What We Were Reading in the 60s. University of Georgia Press. Preview Available:

Bennett, Harry Stanley (1969). English Books and Readers 1: 1475-1557. Cambridge University Press. Preview Available:

Bennett, Harry Stanley (1965). English Books and Readers 2: 1558-1603. Cambridge University Press. Preview Available:

Bennett, Harry Stanley (1970). English Books and Readers 3: 1603-1640. Cambridge University Press. Preview Available:

Carswell, Beth. Fore-edge Paintings: Beauty on the Edge. AbeBooks. Available:

Cavallo, Guglielmo, Chartier, Roger, Cochrane, Lydia G. (2003). A History of Reading in the West. University of Massachusetts Press. Preview Available:

Cavell, Janice (2008). In the margins: regimental history and a veteran's narrative of the first World War. Book History, 11, 199-219.

Chartier, Roger (1994). The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe Between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Stanford University Press. Preview Available:

Chartier, Roger (1989). The practical impact of writing. In, A History of Private Life, Volume 3: Passions of die Renaissance. Belknap Press.

Cormack, Bradin & Mazzio, Carla (2005). Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700. Available:

Darnton, Robert (Summer 1982). What is the history of books? Daedalus, 111, 65-83.

Darnton, Robert (1996). The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France. W. W. Norton & Company. Preview Available:

Davenport, Cyril James Humphries (1899). English Embroidered Bookbindings. Available:

Davidson, Cathy (1986). Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Oxford University Press. Previee Available:

Davidson, Cathy N. (March 1988). Towards a history of books and readers. American Quarterly, 40(1), 7-17.

Davis, Kenneth & Giusto-Davis, Joann (1984). Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America. Houghton Mifflin.

Eyeglasses through the Ages. Available:

Fleming, Juliet (2001). Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England. University of Pennsylvania Press. Preview Available:

Fore-edge Paintings in Lilly Library. Available:

Hackel, Heidi Brayman (2005). Reading Material in Early Modern England: Print, Gender, and Literacy. Cambridge University Press. Preview Available:

Hackel, Heidi Brayman & Kelly, Catherine E. (2011). Reading Women: Literacy, Authorship, and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800. University of Pennsylvania Press. Available:

Howard, Jennifer (December 17, 2012). Secret Lives of Readers. The Chronicle. Available:

Hutner, Gordon (2009). What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960. University of North Carolina Press. Preview Available:

Jackson, H. J. (2001). Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books. Yale University Press. Preview Available:

Johnson, Fridolf (1977). A Treasury of Bookplates from the Renaissance to the Present. Courier Dover. Available:

Kingwell, Mark (1999). Marginalia: A Cultural Reader. Penguin Books.

Knight, Jeffrey Todd (2009). "Furnished" for action: Renaissance books as furniture. Book History, 12, 37-73.

Lommen, Mathieu (ed.) (2012). The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation. Thames & Hudson.

Manguel, Alberto (1996). A History of Reading. Viking.

McDowell, Kathleen (2009). Toward a history of children as readers, 1890-1930. Book History, 12, 240-265.

Myers, Robin, Harris, Michael, Mandelbrote, Giles (2005). Owners, Annotators, and Signs of Reading. Oak Knoll.

Olson, David (1996). The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading. Cambridge University Press. Preview Available:

Price, Leah (2012). How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain. Preview Available:

Radway, Janice A. (1991). Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. University of North Carolina Press.

Radway, Janice A. (1997). A Feeling for Books: The Book-Of--The-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire. University of North Carolina Press. Preview Available:

Rose, Jonathan (Jan-Mar 1992). Rereading the English common reader: a preface to a history of audience. Journal of the History of Ideas, 53(1), 47-70.

Rubakin, Nicholas (1968). Nicholas Rubakin and Bibliopsychology. Archon Books.

Saenger, Paul (1997). Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. Stanford University Press. Google Preview:

Sherman, William H. (2008). Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England. University of Pennsylvania Press. Preview Available: and Project Muse:

Sherman, William H. (1995). John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance. University of Massachusetts Press. Preview Available:

Smith, Martha Nell (2004). Electronic scholarly editing. In S. Schrelbman, et. al. (eds), A Companion to Digital Humanities. Blackwell Publishing.

Spiro, Lisa (2003). Reading with a tender rapture: reveries of a bachelor and the rhetoric of detached intimacy. Book History, 6, 57-93.

Spufford, Margaret (1981). Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and its Readership in Seventeenth Century England. Methuen.

Stern, Virginia F. (1979). Gabriel Harvey: A Study of His Life, Marginalia, and Library. Oxford University Press.

Stoddard, Roger (2005). Marks in Books, Illustrated and Explained. Harvard University Press.

Tribble, Evelyn B. (1993). Margins and Marginality: The Printed Page in Early Modern England. University of Virginia Press. Preview Available:

Woolf, Virginia (1958). Hours in a library. Granite and Rainbow: Essays.

| eduscapes | IUPUI Online Courses | Teacher Tap | 42explore | About Us | Contact Us | © 2013-2019 Annette Lamb

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.