Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Top 3 English-language books of 1709

Jill Lepore, whose writing in the New Yorker I always enjoy, has a cute article on their website (perhaps also in the print version — I have not yet received the latest issue) listing her top 10 books of 1709. In fact, she only lists 9, reserving 10th place for Benjamin Franklin, who at the time was just three years old.

According to Lepore's data (which I suspect come from the National Index of American Imprints through 1800, also known as the short-title Evans), only 31 books were printed in the British colonies in North America in 1709, and all but 3 were religious tracts printed in Boston.

Her number 1 item is Daniel Leeds' Almanack, printed in New York. She does not mention another Almanack printed that year, in Boston. This one, written by Daniel Travis, has the interesting feature that some copies of it were printed with a different title page, indicating (falsely) that it was printed and (correctly) available for sale in New London, CT. In any case, I wonder what makes Lepore prefer Leeds' Almanack to Travis'.

The reason that so little was printed in the colonies was that printers there could rarely compete against larger, more established and usually more skilled printers in England. Hence they specialized in publications with great local specificity -- almanacs, religious works by locally famous preachers such as the Mathers, and legal proclamations (including, in 1709, official proclamations of a day of thanksgiving :-).

In other words: Lepore's list is a list of top 10 works printed in the colonies that year, not the top 10 works bought and/or read in the colonies. In the latter category, it seems safe to assume that the number one seller of 1709 was the bible (as it was almost every year back then).

What newer works were published in 1709 and available to colonists? Even if we limit ourselves only to English books (though many people in the colonies also read Dutch, French, and German), the number is far greater than Lepore's 31. One of the most important British publishers, London's Jacob Tonson, published, in 1709 alone:

- a six-volume illustrated set of Shakespeare's works
(the first complete edition after the four famous folio editions)
- John Dryden's translation of Virgil
(as well as a play by Dryden, in Shakespeare's style)
- Ovid's Art of Love (also partially translated by Dryden)
- Dryden's "The Indian emperor, or the conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards"
- Richard Steele's "The Christian Hero"
- several plays by Ben Johnson
- poetry by lesser authors such as Matthew Prior and Sir John Suckling (:-)
- a general collection of poetry "by the most eminent hands"
(which included Alexander Pope's first published writings)
- and quite a bit more.

Many of these titles were reprints or later editions. My own top 3 of truly new titles in 1709, printed in English (and almost certainly available in the colonies):

1. Richard Steele's periodical the Tatler, which first saw the light of day on April 12, 1709, and appeared for a total of 271 issues over the course of almost two years. This hugely influential thrice-weekly satirical magazine criticized such (aristocratic) vices as dueling and gambling, while promoting what its authors deemed virtuous behaviour. The paper had a clear political (Whig) agenda. Upon its demise, it was almost immediately replaced by Addison & Steele's even more famous The Spectator. Earlier this Fall, the New York Times ran a short story on the Tatler's present-day successor.

2. From the opposite (Tory) side of the British political aisle, Delarivier Manley's Secret memoirs and manners of several persons of quality, of both sexes. From the New Atalantis, an island in the Mediterranean. Falsely claimed to be translated from the Italian, this work was a in fact a satire on sexual and political corruption among Whig politicians. Manley was put on trial for seditious libel, but argued that her work was purely fictional, leaving it to offended Whigs to prove that she had based her anecdotes on their lives (something they obviously preferred not to do). The work is one of the most famous political romans à clef. The 6th edition of the book is available online through Google books

3. Francis Hauksbee's Physico-Mechanical Experiments On Various Subjects. Containing An Account of several Surprizing Phenomena touching Light and Electricity, Producible on the Attrition of Bodies. With many other Remarkable Appearances, not before observ’d. (Yes, early publishers were big fans of very lengthy titles, as these simultaneously served as precursors of the 'jacket blurb' books often come with today.) Hauksbee, a fellow of the Royal Society, was an acquaintance of Isaac Newton, who suggested some of his experiments. He is best known for his electrical experiments, some of which were essential to the development of neon lighting as well as mercury vapor lights (lights without electrodes).

Honorable mention:
John Lawson's A New Voyage to Carolina, not published in the colonies, but very much about them, a key early work on the natural history of the Carolinas (and the American colonies more generally).