Timothy Brook

Timothy Brook

Francesco de Dombrowski Visiting Professor
John Selden's Library of the World
2023-2024 (January - March)
Timothy Brook


Tim Brook is a Canadian historian whose writings situate China in relation to the world. Among his more popular books are The Confusions of Pleasure (California 1998), Vermeer’s Hat (Bloomsbury 2008), Mr. Selden’s Map of China (Profile 2013), Great State (HarperCollins 2020), and The Price of Collapse: The Little Ice Age and the Fall of Ming China (Princeton, 2023). Brook also served as editor-in-chief of Harvard University Press’s 6-volume history of imperial China (for which he wrote The Troubled Empire), the Chinese translation of which became a bestseller in China. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Getty Fellow, and a member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Recently retired from a career of teaching at the universities of Toronto, Stanford, Oxford, and British Columbia, he now devotes his working time to writing and his leisure time to music, nature, and travel.

Project Summary

John Selden was Stuart England’s leading historian of law, constitutional thinker, and Orientalist. Despite his pre-eminence in his day, Selden's is no longer a name to reckon with, unlike his associates (from Ben Jonson and John Donne to Thomas Hobbes), in part because his commitment to rule by parliament was compromised when England returned to monarchy six years after he died. Selden’s importance lies in his concern to establish the historical foundations of the rule of law, but even more in the extraordinary capaciousness of his ambition to probe the global history of constitutional law. His enterprise began as a classic Renaissance inquiry focused on the case of England, but it expanded into a search for the legal foundations that enabled other cultures to govern themselves. In pursuit of that knowledge, Selden assembled the largest private library in England, some 10,000 volumes in every language known (and unknown) to Europeans. This research project reconstructs his library: what books it contained, how he acquired them, and how he organized them to support his research. The core document is a shelf list drawn that itemizes his books in the order in which they lay on the shelves in his house in London. The goal is to write a biography of a working library that is also the biography of a working intellectual. What knowledge did he seek? How did he amass that knowledge on a global scale? Why did that knowledge matter to him as a constitutional theorist during the civil war? What happened to the enterprise after he died? More provocatively, why does this project and this person merit being remembered in our time, when identity trumps equality and rights have been reduced to private benefit rather than public good? Was Selden’s life of politics, books, and thought pure futility, or is there a better way to locate him upstream in the history that leads to us?