Sunday, October 07, 2007

Book Review: "Books of Secrets"

CUNY history professor Allison Kavey's Books of Secrets: Natural Philosophy in England, 1550-1600 (University of Illinois Press, 2007) offers a detailed analysis of a fascinating genre of cheap printed books during the late sixteenth century - books of secrets, designed to provide their readers with ways of understanding and dealing with the natural world (through alchemy, meteorology, cookery, medicine, &c.). Building on earlier work in the field by William Eamon and others, Kavey discusses various aspects of the genre, making linkages between the printers who issued these sorts of books, examining the authorities behind the texts, and delving into a structural analysis of the books to understand how they were created, packaged and marketed to readers.

Kavey's final two chapters analyze two types of books in particular: those marketed to women, and Gervase Markham's horse care manuals (which she argues were marketed to gentlemen but would have been most useful to the grooms actually dealing with the horses). While I'm not sure I agree entirely with all of Kavey's answers to the questions she poses, she has certainly provided an intriguing look at this genre of books and laid a good foundation for future scholarship in this area. By utilizing a wonderfully interdisciplinary approach, Kavey provides a good example of how book history can both inform and be informed by other fields.

In her concluding section, Kavey writes "print scholarship benefits from considering books in their own context, by placing them next to similar books by similar printers and attempting to locate them within the print marketplace" (p. 159). She's done a good job of that in this book.

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