PD Smith

Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature

Times Literary Supplement, 3 September 2004

Elizabeth Spiller, Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature: The Art of Making Knowledge, 1580-1670 (Cambridge University Press), 214pp., £45.00.

Review by P. D. Smith

Nowadays, we tend to think of science and literature as two cultures which have little in common. However, Elizabeth Spiller’s excellent study of Science, Reading, and Renaissance Literature explores an age when these disciplines were united by a “shared aesthetics of knowledge”. Spiller skilfully dismantles our current assumption that “literature is fiction and science is fact”, arguing that early modern writers understood that “knowledge involves form as well as content”. Scientific and literary authors, from William Harvey and Robert Hooke to Philip Sydney and Edmund Spenser, wrote with active rather than passive readers in mind: “reading is almost never simply understood as the acquisition of facts (dates, data) but rather as an act of doing or becoming that is achieved through the experience in some way provided by the text (modelling, repeating, verifying).” The act of reading in both science and literature was originally a creative act.

Spiller offers some fascinating insights into how both imaginative and scientific writers in this great age of discovery used texts to create new knowledge through the process of reading. A fascinating chapter on Galileo Galilei’s The Starry Messenger (1610) and Johannes Kepler’s Dream (1634) historicizes the act of looking by exploring how the new observations of the telescope impacted on the act of reading. Galileo’s paradigm-shifting text was revolutionary in both content and form, introducing “new strategies of reading”. But Kepler’s Dream, “the first fictional work to see the earth from a specifically Copernican perspective”, transformed reading “into the model for all acts of perception.” Spiller’s final chapter develops this point with reference to the work of Margaret Cavendish. In the period 1653-68, reading was gradually transformed from a “form of doing to a way of seeing” and readers became passive rather than active. Spiller concludes that after the early modern period “texts convey facts but cannot produce ‘knowledge’”, and from this arises “the modern assumption that all acts of observation are acts of reading.” Spiller’s perceptive parallel readings of texts usually kept separate is a valuable addition to scholarship on the early modern period, as well as to the study of science and literature.