Monson's latest book is Habitual Offenders: A True Tale of Nuns, Prostitutes, and Murderers in Seventeenth-Century Italy.
Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Monson's reply:
I’m certainly not alone in having discovered the utility of Google Books’ Library Project. As a writer of history, I spent decades planning research trips around libraries likely to contain specific volumes. (Before online catalogs it could be difficult even to discover where copies might be.) If I was lucky, my target library (usually in a major Italian city) would own a copy. If I was not, it did not—or the volume had been lost, misshelved, reserved for restoration or rebinding. Modern-day, in-house digitization isn’t always a solution to such problems. Last month I arrived at a Roman institution to discover a fragile collection had been digitized: at the click of a mouse, the manuscripts would be accessible on the institution’s computers; the originals had been permanently withdrawn from circulation. Alas, the digital copy had somehow contracted a virus. Until funds for disinfection become available—unlikely, given the state of the Italian economy—these sources remain out of reach.Learn more about Habitual Offenders: A True Tale of Nuns, Prostitutes, and Murderers in Seventeenth-Century Italy.
Small wonder, then, that Google Books’ Library Project seems like some sort of miracle. I am regularly amazed, not only by how wide the enterprise has cast its net, but especially by the small fry caught up in it. (How many other readers go looking for Johann Jacob Wepfer, Cicutæ Aquaticæ Historia et Noxæ  or Gregorio Leti, Il Puttanismo Moderno con il Novissimo Parlatorio delle Monache ?) Since what isn’t there today may (and often does) pop up a few months later, one repeatedly turns to the website with a sense of optimism.
Apart from its rich assortment of such determinedly arcane titles, the Library Project’s wide variety of early modern travel literature strikes me as broadly useful, diverting, and often both. Recognizing the usual caveats about taking such writings at face value, I still think one can profitably mine them for descriptions of contemporary sights, sounds, and attitudes—what educated and imaginative writers thought was worth talking about to their own contemporary readers. Eighteenth-century music historian Charles Burney’s The present state of music in France and Italy, or The journal of a tour through those countries, undertaken to collect materials for a general history of music (1771), for example, need not be merely of musicological interest. There is much—very much—about music, of course, but written in comparatively untechnical terms and stressing what 18th-century listeners (and readers) would have found interesting. If Burney goes on too long about it, modern readers can skim to something different: Burney has plenty to say about cityscapes, art, architecture, interesting and/or famous people, manners, quirks of the locals.
It is useful, for example, to have detailed descriptions of the layout of every opera house Burney visited. It is even more enlightening, perhaps, to discover that the fourth tier of boxes in the Milan opera house included a faro table at each end of the gallery, where play did not stop during performances, and that between acts people of the meaner sort came up from the “pit” to wander around the galleries among their betters. “The noise here during the performance was abominable,” Burney reports, “except while two or three airs and a duet were singing, with which every one was in raptures.” And undistracted by cellphone ringtones.
And Burney’s experiences continue to resonate with library hounds like me: “Upon my enquiring for the catalogue of MSS. I was told it was not usual to shew it, but I might see any one in the collection, if I would ask for it by name; but I knew no more the name than the contents. ... This morning a solemn procession of St. Ambrose, to pray for rain, on which account the public library was not open, which was a great disappointment to me, being the last day of my residence in this city.” Plus ça change....
The Page 99 Test: Nuns Behaving Badly.
The Page 99 Test: Habitual Offenders.