Sunday, March 30, 2008

On Reading By Candlelight

I turned out and unplugged for Earth Hour this evening, but I was all alone. Apparently my friends actually have things to do on Saturday night. (Who knew?). And mine was only one of two houses on the entire block that went dark for an hour.

So after a much needed day of cleaning, I lit candles and Saffron and I kicked back on the couch with the facsimile of Bacon's essays I'd purchased for $1 at the library booksale, for a little reading early-modern style.

The first thing I learned was that people then couldn't have possibly read in bed or on the couch (if they even had sofas in that period), because you'd have to hold the candle aloft yourself and then wax would get all over your fingers and your book.

The second thing I learned was that sitting at a table was only slightly better illuminated than sitting on the couch, trying to hold a flickering candle steady while it drips wax all over your book and fingers. And that it takes at least five or six substantial candles to provide enough light by which to discern colors (okay, so part of my reading experiment involved the latest CB2 catalogue- I confess it freely). So obviously only anyone who could afford an abundance of candles could afford not to go to bed before 8pm.

The third thing I discovered was that propping the book up on its edges rather than setting it to lie flat on the table afforded it almost twice the amount of illumination. So an early modern book stand or even a slanted book rest (like on a lectern) was really necessary for nocturnal reading.

After a while it got cold and my eyes got tired and I started glancing towards the clock, counting the minutes left until I could turn on the lights again. Then I placed the book back down on the table for half a second and the cat decided to sit on it, and that was the end of that.

This led me to my final revelation: Yes I am roundly in favor of reducing the world's carbon emissions and stopping global warming, but I love electricity. Electricity is my friend. And that is one of the many reasons why I am glad I live in the post - rather than early - modern world.


Anonymous said...

Would it surprise to to know that many early modern readers used mirrors in their studies, especially in conjunction with candles / lamps?

Also, I recommend Roger Ekirch's _At Day's Close: Night in Times Past_.

muse said...

No, not at all surprising, but I was given to understand (from the work of Rayna Kalas and others) that true "Venetian" glass mirrors were new and quite expensive, so my point about being wealthy enough to read after dusk still applies I think. Because in addition to spending money on candles, you'd need to spend more on mirrors.

Thanks for the recommendation- I'll definitely check it out!

Anonymous said...

How did Saffron react to being lit?

And now that the power is back on, why not start playing Scramble?

muse said...

Saffron's reaction was a little funny. She definitely sensed the lack of electricity. Ordinarily when I light candles she doesn't notice them, but this time, she kept jumping up onto the table, going right up to sniff them and then drawing back abruptly. Again and again. And there was much "jump on, jump off, meow" action. She settled down again once the lights came back on. It's strange to think of animals becoming electricity dependent too.