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Rachel Ablow, ed.The Feeling of Reading: Affective Experience and Victorian Literature. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-472-05107-6. Price: US$29.95

  • Adela Pinch

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  • Adela Pinch
    University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

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A historical understanding of reading has, for some time now, been a kind of Holy Grail of literary studies. As our discipline has, over the past decades, shifted its focus away from the individual author or text as unit of analysis, and--even more recently--away from close reading and the hermeneutics of suspicion and other onion-peeling, lemon-squeezing methods of analysis, towards alternatives sometimes termed distant reading, just reading, or surface reading—the spotlight has focused on experience of the ordinary reader. Recent scholarship on reading differs from the reader-response criticism of the 1970s and 1980s, and from the phenomenological literary criticism of the 1960s (though several of the critics featured in the collection under review tip their hats to Georges Poulet) chiefly in two ways. The first is an emphasis on reading as above all an emotional, rather than cognitive or interpretive experience; and the second is a commitment to history. All of the critics collected in The Feeling of Reading demonstrate persuasively not only that beliefs about and experiences of reading are highly specific to their own historical moment, but also that among the rewards of probing another era’s conceptions of reading is a renewed critical purchase of those of our own era.

This outstanding collection, edited by Rachel Ablow, seems designed to probe the intuition that the Victorian period was an especially formative moment in the history of modern private reading as we know it: reading as an absorbing experience conducted silently and alone, in intimate situations, in rooms, libraries, and landscapes, which makes us feel that we are indeed subjective beings. As a whole, the collection is dedicated to the idea that the history of reading is part of the history of emotions, and that the history of peoples’ relations to books is completely bound up (as it were) with the history of peoples’ relations to each other.

The Feeling of Reading is able to do such a terrific job of reaching the Holy Grail of a historically sensitive, rich account of the experience of reading because all of the scholars involved describe with such intelligence and innovation the considerable methodological difficulties of approaching this elusive object. What, exactly, is the object of study for the scholar of reading? Is the experience of reading to be inferred from the text, or it rather the swiftly vanishing trace of someone’s encounter with it? How do we capture that? What would be archive of the experience of reading look like? One ambitious and innovative attempt to imagine such a thing—which is worth looking at alongside Ablow’s collection—is the Open University’s online “Reading Experience Database. 1450-1945.” On their page “What is a “Reading Experience?”, the curators of the database admit, “We are aware that ‘reading’ can mean many things, from reading a book aloud or silently, to the critical ‘reading’ of a text” [http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/RED/experience.htm]. Many of the contributors to The Feeling of Reading draw attention to the multiple meanings of “reading,” to the ways in which “the experience of reading” can been conceived of narrowly or broadly (to include, in Leah Price’s essay, sitting with a book and studiously nonreading, or, in Catherine Robson’s essay, memorizing a poem). Above all, they draw attention to the gap between “reading” as a practice and “a reading”—the interpretive product that is the coin of the realm in most traditional forms of literary criticism. They all, in different ways, point to ways of getting beyond the impasse between the methodologies of reading history and a literary criticism still emotionally wed to close readings.

For example, Nicholas Dames’s “On Not Close Reading” asks us to take seriously the Victorian book reviewer’s practice—which seems so lame and dorky to us—of making a review out of a string of extended excepts. What if we were to probe the literary theory—as a kind of enacting of the reading experience in all of its affective duration—behind such a practice, instead of writing it off? Leah Price’s delightful (and delightfully illustrated) essay, “Reader’s Block,” centers on Trollope but unfolds as a canny guide to “how to do things with books” in which reading and not-reading become allies rather than opposites. It is surely no accident that the two essays in Feeling Reading on poetry are remarkably effective in estranging and complicating our assumptions about what reading felt like in Victorian England. Catherine Robson’s “Reciting Alice” asks us to think about the ways in which, for most Victorians, the experience of reading a poem quickly morphed into memorizing and reciting it, while Herbert Tucker’s essay on “poetic fatigue” explores the ways in which reading could feel like work, like rest, and like the relation between the two.

Each one of the essays in this volume benefits from being in the company of the others. Some tackle materials and questions that mark them as contributions to reading history, while others are really more traditional “readings”—interpretations of individual texts or authors, with an eye carefully trained on how those authors represent the act of reading, how they conceive of reading, or on how they demand to be read. But as with all superior edited collections, it is the provocative interplay among the essays that is most rewarding, and it is fascinating to see certain motifs repeated. The conjunction of reading and love runs throughout. As Garrett Stewart argues in his moving essay on The Mill on the Floss (1860), “‘feeling read’” by Philip Wakem “rightly is Maggie’s only way of having been loved” (204). Both Price’s essay, and Kate Flint’s rich exploration of the way the notions of reading as travel and as home actually functioned in the British Empire, reveal a telling motif: the bookworm on her honeymoon, torn between the demands of her husband and those of her book. Indeed, one of the most fascinating threads running throughout Feeling Reading is that, while the feeling of reading was often seen as analogous to love or human connection, it as frequently served as a figure for a strange kind of detached, or semi-detached, non-connection to the world. Stephen Arata’s essay on Marius the Epicurean (1885), which is one of the best things ever written about that book, rightly stresses that book’s resistance to reading as empathy or identification; in her excellent essay on Oscar Wilde, Ablow stresses Wilde’s insistence on the separation between the world of reading, and the real world. John Plotz hits the nail on the head in his essay on John Stuart Mill, arguing that for Mill (and I would venture, for many other Victorian writers and readers), the experience of reading—both attached to yet detached from the real world—provided the affective ambivalence he felt towards sociability itself. As Leah Price puts it in her essay, for many Victorians (and I’d add, for us), “reading becomes most social when it’s least sociable” (57).

Not only is feeling reading the subject of the essays in Feeling Reading, but each essay in this volume has, in a remarkable, noteworthy way, a deeply felt quality. All literary scholars were readers first, and it is hard to imagine any of us who would not find the discovery of innovative, rigorous ways to study the feelings of reading to be of great interest. Feeling Reading deserves to get the attention, not only of Victorianists, but of all literary scholars interested in the methodological challenges and possibilities of a literary criticism of reading.

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