History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past
History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past

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History of reading: An introduction to reading in the past

9 Samuel Pepys: diarist, book collector and reader

By Rosalind Crone

In his diary for 10 January 1662, Samuel Pepys wrote: ‘I late reading in my Chamber; and then to bed, my wife being angry that I keep the house up so late’. In many respects this is a mundane entry, and similar to a large number of the reading experiences that he recorded. Yet it is capable of arousing a strong sense of empathy among equally habitual readers. Pepys was in many respects an ordinary reader. Born in London in 1633 and educated at Cambridge, he was a middling professional who worked in the civil service, predominantly for the Admiralty, and lived in the heart of the City. He became famous as a result of his substantial and unique book collection, bequeathed to Magdalene College, Cambridge, but most of all through his diary which he kept meticulously for the decade of the 1660s, presenting a colourful account of events and life in the decade of Restoration, while providing an almost unrivalled insight into the tastes and habits of a 17th century reader.

Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, 1666
© National Portrait Gallery
Figure 21 Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, 1666

The UK RED site contains more than 500 entries of reading experiences collected from Pepys’s diaries, the vast majority of which (more than 400) are records of Pepys’s own interactions with the written word. He was, in many respects, a curious intellectual, with obvious tastes in history and science. Thomas Fuller, author of The Church History of Britain (1655) and History of the Worthies of England (1662), and Robert Boyle, author of (among others) Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours (1664) and Hydrostatical Paradoxes (1666) ranked as two of his favourite contemporary authors, and he read these books several times over the course of the decade. Pepys was, then, an intensive reader, seeking to engage with the text and exploit books to their full potential. As he wrote on the evening of 28 April 1667, ‘mightily pleased with my reading Boyles book of Colours today; only, troubled that some part of it, indeed the greatest part, I am not able to understand for want of study’ (UK RED: 14405 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ).

But he was also an extensive reader, his encounters with text covering the full spectrum of genres and forms of print available in the seventeenth century. Pepys delighted in reading plays, both to himself, and in the company of friends and family. ‘And so by coach home’ he wrote on 20 October 1668, ‘and there, having this day bought the “Queene of Arragon” play, I did get my wife and W. Batelier to read it over this night by 11 a-clock, and so to bed’ (UK RED: 14951). Popular ballads similarly amused Pepys. When presented with some at a funeral in May 1668, ‘I read and the rest came about me to hear; and there very merry we were all, they being new ballets [ballads]’ (UK RED: 14901). Later, he specially bound together a collection of these ballad sheets to be included in his library. However, Pepys did not intend to make all of his reading public. His diary reveals a habit of burning books which he had read, but did not want to be part of his famous library. For instance, on 9 February 1668, after saying farewell to friends, Pepys retreated to his chamber, ‘where I did read through “L’escholle des Filles”; a lewd book … and after I had done it, I burned it, that it might not be among my books to my shame’ (UK RED: 14891).

As Pepys was such an avid reader, books and texts featured in his descriptions of some of the key events of the 1660s. During the period of the Great Plague in 1665, he makes reference to reading the mortality bills pasted on public walls to inform the people of the fatality rates. At the height of the disaster in September 1665, Pepys recorded the following in his diary, ‘Here I saw this week’s Bill of Mortality, wherein, blessed be God, there is above 1800 decrease, being the first considerable decrease we have had’ (UK RED: 12247).

Bill of Mortality from The Great Plague, 1665
Figure 22 Bill of Mortality from The Great Plague, 1665

Books also featured predominantly in Pepys’s descriptions of the Great Fire of London in September 1666. Fearing their house may be in danger, Pepys dispatched their most valuable possessions to the country, including his books. In the aftermath, Pepys records the trouble he was put to in unpacking his collection, but more importantly, makes reference to the great damage done to the bookselling trade located in St Paul’s Churchyard. Almost a year later, he purchased and read with great pleasure William Dugdale’s Origines Juridiciales (1666), a history of English laws and law courts, ‘of which there was but a few saved out of the Fire’ (UK RED: 14399).

Even if a great many of the references to his everyday reading appear, at first glance, repetitive, when examined more closely it is clear that there is nothing dull about Samuel Pepys’ reading experiences. The entries in the UK RED site capture the great diversity and fine texture of Pepys’s relationship with the written word, and in particular, the way in which reading was incorporated into every aspect of his life. For Pepys, reading had a variety of uses, and could be a source of both pleasure and pain. Most of all, Pepys’s diary reminds us that the reading experience is never ‘ordinary’.

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