A preeminent Renaissance scholar illuminates early modern encounters with books, in which literature became a portal to self-awareness and miraculous communion between author and reader.
The experience of reading is often presented as personal and transformative—a journey of self-discovery and, perhaps, renewal. In A Marvelous Solitude, Lina Bolzoni examines the early modern roots of this attitude toward the readerly act. Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, European men of letters increasingly came to see books as something more than compendia of knowledge: they could also help readers understand the human condition. As Bolzoni shows, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Tasso all presented reading as a private encounter and a dialogue with the author.
For many Renaissance intellectuals, reading was instrumental to the construction of the self, which was enriched by contact with other learned men. These readers imagined the book as a mirror image of its author, with whom they held a secret affinity. In their letters to one another, humanists described the book as a body, reflecting the notion that reading literature placed its author in the room with oneself. Reading the work of a deceased author became akin to a necromantic rite, as the writers of bygone times were resurrected and placed in contemporary conversation. The vogue for hanging portraits of authors in libraries and studios ensured that the image of the creator was never far from his words, cementing bonds of friendship across barriers of time.
These myths—charming, fragile, and powerful—invested the readerly encounter with miraculous properties that lingered in the hearts of the Romantics. And something of those wonders persists today, in the intimate feeling that reading yet provokes.
A Marvelous Solitude is a marvelous book: erudite, accessible, elegant. Bolzoni focuses on the intricate web of myths and metaphors that early modern thinkers spun around the activity of reading, yet there is much here that still whispers to our experience as readers today.
This stimulating book offers a vivid survey of illustrious readers from Petrarch to Proust, woven in a dazzling verbal and visual tapestry that will delight the mind and eye of contemporaries still dwelling in the Gutenberg Galaxy.
Lina Bolzoni’s magisterial book is about reading, but it’s also about writers presenting themselves as readers who converse with the past, other texts, and other worlds through books—and then write their way out of these ‘theaters of reading.’ How many readers emerged as writers from the crucible of these reflections? How many more will by reading this book?
Lina Bolzoni’s love affair with books is palpable in these pages dedicated to a remarkable cohort of writers and readers from Petrarch to Proust. Books in early modernity took on lives of their own, as readers saw in them opportunities for dialogue with the absent and the dead—and were often inspired to add to the conversation themselves. Bolzoni demonstrates that the marvelous—if occasionally risky—thing about the solitude of reading is that it’s never solitary, but full of friends.
- 256 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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