Timothy Brook

Timothy Brook

Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Visiting Professor
John Selden’s Library of the World, 1618-1654


Timothy Brook is a Canadian historian of China from the  thirteenth century onward. Since completing his doctorate at Harvard in 1984, he has taught at Toronto, Stanford, and Oxford, and currently holds the Republic of China Chair at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on the Ming period (1368-1644), but his writing contextualizes China in the world. Brook's books include The Confusions of Pleasure, Vermeer’s Hat, Mr. Selden’s Map of China, and Great State: China and the World (in French as Le Léopard de Kubilai Khan). Editor or co-editor of another nine titles, he also served as editor-in-chief of Harvard University Press’s six-volume history of imperial China. Harvard will publish A History of Ming China in 777 Prices in 2022.

Project Summary

In the seventeenth century, it became possible to access a broader knowledge of the world than ever before. Whether the observer was in Shanghai, Rome, or London, the world was coming into view, albeit in different ways. Brook’s earlier research has focused on observers in places like Shanghai, though he has also examined observers in Rome and London, and among the latter, John Selden (1574-1654). Son of a fiddler, Selden rose to become the legal counsel to both houses of Parliament, the most formidable legal historian and constitutional theorist of his generation, England’s first Oriental scholar, and the collector of that century’s largest private library of books and manuscripts. Brook is reconstructing Selden’s library of over 8,000 books and manuscripts donated to Oxford on his death, as well as the physical placing of his collection in his home, to use as a roadmap of the paths Selden took to survey the expanding world. At I Tatti, Brook will explore Renaissance Italy’s role in facilitating Selden’s knowledge acquisition, as hundreds of books in his possession were published in Cremona, Florence, Genoa, Mantua, Milan, Naples, Padua, Palermo, and Rome. His goal is to understand how a European of Selden’s era made sense of the larger world coming into his ken; or more abstractly, what constituted English/European Renaissance knowledge of the world. If there was a global Renaissance, this research, starting from outside Europe, may help to specify what it was.