The Reading of Books and the Reading of Literature

Forming the English Canon > Canonical Books


This section extends the previous one’s narrative by focusing on volumes that contain a single text. Monumental volumes containing the collected works of a given author may signal their canonicity through size, prefatory material, and other devices. Similarly, books that contain only one text, no matter what their format, also signal their importance through many of the same strategies that lavish folios do. They, too, contain detailed prefatory material, marginal glosses, and other devices. Although the material features of these single-text books attempt to establish their literary stature, something intrinsic to these texts has ensured their lasting power. The texts simultaneously shape and are shaped by the media in which they are conveyed. What these books should prompt us to think about is the interplay between the material and immaterial, which seem to work together to secure these texts’ lasting power in a variety of media.


The texts in this section include a lavish medieval manuscript of Gower’s Confessio Amantis (an illustration from which is shown here), a 1609 Faerie Queene, and a late-seventeenth-century edition of Hamlet. Each of these books self-identifies its literary qualities and greatness.

Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Butler Library, 6th Fl. East / 535 West 114th St. / New York, NY 10027 / (212) 854-5153 /