MAY 1, 2015
AS SO OFTEN these days, I’m on a plane with a book on my knee. I’ve relished planes more since they emerged as nooks in which to read offline and have come to do my best reading detached from the earth. In this case I’ve been scribbling away in my copy of Deidre Shauna Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History for a while when the business-suited man next to me interrupts. “You really like that book, huh?” I stop, a little annoyed. Is that how my reading looks to him? As if I like it?
As it happens, I like it a lot, but that’s really not the point: the point is, I’m working. This man’s response wouldn’t seem a plausible reaction to other scenes of work: he wouldn’t ask a doctor if he “really liked” a patient’s body, and I wouldn’t ask him if he “really liked” his flowchart. What is it about my profession, reading and thinking about books, that makes the categories of love and work so vulnerable to confusion?
Posing this question in historical terms, Lynch, her reputation as a meticulous and original critic well established, takes on a major piece of cultural history. But her investigation into the way late-18th- and early 19th-century readers felt and expressed their love of books is beautifully focused. This is largely because she doesn’t even try to explain the relationship at its most likely site: as a function of the novels and characters and plots so many of us are attached to. We can’t explain the association of literature and love through novels, she argues, because novels generally caution against moods of devotion: “It is as though those on the side of the love of literature had forgotten what literary texts themselves say about love’s edginess and complexities.”
Instead Lynch turns to biographical material from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, a period when many modern possibilities of affection for people and of people for objects were established. Loving Literature’s subject, then, is neither literature itself nor the long history of reading. Rather, it’s the reader who feels the tug of books personally as one enlisting him to hold them fondly and tightly, curled into a seat with the world at his back. And Loving Literature’s subject is also the man in the seat next to me, who, even at a glance, registers my reading as a posture of affection.
Loving Literature draws its evidence from prefaces, pocket books, essays, almanacs, treatises, biographies, and Victorian editions of Romantic poetry. This is a largely nonfictional archive (although Gothic novels and Wordsworth’s Prelude make appearances). But sometimes history is as rich with characters as novels: the Reverend Frognall Dibdin, book-kisser and bibliophile; Isaac D’Israeli, father of the prime minister, reputed to have read Pride and Prejudice 17 times; Thomas Warton, whose borrowing at the Bodleian in the 1750s was so excessive that it earned him special desk space; and the teenage Thomas De Quincey, who styled himself as Wordsworth’s fan. Lynch is wryly funny about this bunch of literary oddballs; she wittily relates, for instance, the story of William Shenstone, a child so dependent upon the regular gift of books that he had to be mollified in bed at night with a book-shaped piece of wood wrapped in cloth if no real book turns up. But her conclusion is fascinating: while I’m not sure what our contemporary archetypal book-lover might look like, it’s provocative to read Lynch resurrect these particular obsessive, misogynist, possessive men of privilege as the progenitors of our modern intimacy with texts.
Are these men my people? It is easy to see how their strange habits of affection haunt a certain kind of declaration of book love audible in English Departments today: in Facebook postings from the archive, gifts of obsolete editions, and our enduring tendency to grasp literature nostalgically, as if it were in danger of obsolescence. But Lynch provides good reason for questioning whether we really want to belong to this book-lover’s tribe, even if being female no longer automatically prevents this. She is sanguine about authorial fandom as potentially “pathetic and one-sided.” She readily damns the collector who “has a knack for arranging things so that the particularism of his relation with a specific copy of a text upstages his commonality with that text’s fellow readers.” And what is more moribund, Loving Literature seems to ask, than a bunch of men who have spent the last two centuries declaring the end of an era, the horrors of the mass market, and public access to books as a threat to their way of life? The posture of literature’s first lovers — the backward glance of the male head, the elbow raised protectively around the book — comes across as fundamentally unappealing even as Lynch displays gentle fondness for her subjects.
It’s worth noting that Lynch’s story doesn’t extend to the more recent past, where other postures of loving complicate the professional commitment to culture. My own biography, to indulge for a minute, might be useful here. Although I grew up reading the canon, I did not grow up loving it: mostly, I read my parents’ old books resentfully, mindlessly, in lonely and boring stretches of adolescent time, resenting how little access I had to popular culture and how little money I had to buy things like magazines and cassettes. In the same spirit, I made my way through a first degree in English and politics at a third-rate university, confirming my suspicion that novels were not things to care much about. My falling in love with books came later, when I discovered theory and the people who brought it to life politically in the redbrick universities that now competed with the temples of old-style bookishness in Britain.
In the years since then, I’ve remained a much truer and more enthusiastic reader of paperback theory than of old books. I often choose to teach primary texts that seem unfriendly and odd to students. I have avoided Jane Austen, and turned down perhaps one too many an application to graduate school from students oozing love for books. Coming back to teach in the UK after a decade in North America has pushed me even further from book-love because of the extent to which historical and hagiographic book scholarship now seem to be so strongly associated with tradition and class privilege.
The genius of Lynch’s study, however — and this was the point of my detour — is that it speaks on two fronts to a story like mine. On the one hand, it helps explain why it can be offensive to be told to handle the canon lovingly if one is young and politically minded and inclined to resent the kinds of class and gender privilege that an affective relationship to books connotes. On the other, Lynch’s account speaks to a larger structural predicament in which the lover of theory — or radical authors, or television, or old media — participates just as fully as the lover of old books. For, while it is tempting to imagine a career based on writing about MP3 file formats, Slavoj Žižek, or the post-colonial novel as queer alternatives to old-style love for literature, racier kinds of textual engagement don’t necessarily resolve the disciplinary problem that Lynch shows expressions of love to have produced in the first place. The work of literary scholars, undermined in the public eye by its association with affection, hardly stands to be rescued in these terms by becoming more obviously pleasurable. You don’t get out of book love by being a theory head or working on pornography as a discourse. At best, to the man in the plane, your position looks the same: either way you are loving, not working; you are looking backward, rather than participating in the current moment.
Posture and place, it turns out, have much to do in Lynch’s terms with the creation of texts as love objects. Being at home in literature, sequestering oneself in a novel, feeling encircled by books, are gestures that have given literature its institutional place. This is one aspect of Lynch’s argument buoyed by her scholarly knowledge of the Romantic period. Against the background of her own deep reading, it is fascinating to have Lynch point out that the books championing domestic space and family life at this time were objects for which rhythms of reading had to be found, nooks and shelves built. This commitment of space and time to reading competes not only with the intimacies that books advocate, but with the libraries, coffeehouses, and public universities in which literature might seem more heroically placed.
These private settings inflect the institutional corner in which English professors themselves work: the charmingly shabby offices and historically preserved reading rooms that seem set apart from the laboratories and workshops on other parts of campus. The professorial way of dwelling with books is easily seen as a being at home, even as it remains as other forms of work to impede other kinds of domestic life.
Lynch builds this theoretical argument without explicitly using social theory. Having admitted my love for theory, it follows that I’d have liked more of it here. But I’m also not sure how much it could have improved on an argument so generously engaged with literary critics and disciplinary debates. One connection I kept wanting to make was between Lynch’s account of literature as the object that springs to life when it is given a certain kind of space and time and Bruno Latour’s recent gloss on “Fiction” as a “mode” defined by nothing more than our mindful surrender to the power of objects (be they screens, sets, or pages). Under the conditions of Fiction, Latour argues, in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, we accept that we need things in order to keep our imaginary worlds alive. We also perceive these things, books and theater in particular, as objects we must keep holding if we want them to keep holding us. We work toward their preservation while actively allowing them to carry us away. Lynch and Latour share a willingness to see doing literature as a way of sitting, holding, and spending time with a book rather than as a property of the text in question.
Lynch is interested, too, in the way reading literature has produced rhythm. The second half of Loving Literature documents modes of routine and retrospection associated with reading for pleasure. Here Lynch describes the question of rhythm:
It is tempting to imagine that if we could time-travel and take with us an especially sensitive stethoscope, we might as visitors to Britain around the year 1830 actually be able to hear, as if it were a heartbeat, or a kind of bass line, pounding beneath the louder noise of public history, the rhythm that the inhabitants steadily beat out as, turning pages they had turned before, often at the same time of week or year as before, reciting according to schedule the familiar words they had recited before, they conformed to their bookish routines.
Weeks, days, and the relation between past and present are inflected in this account by the pace and paths of return invited by being with books. Lynch’s angle on the temporality of reading seems even more prescient than her emphasis on spatiality. For if reading books provided the subtle pulse of 19th-century everydayness, what rhythm does the routinized reading of websites and text messages set today?
The temporality of online reading can be measured: peaks and troughs of reading activity for nations and communities and individuals are easily reported. And even if, as media theorists now argue, the machines on which we read now keep time at a register that surpasses human comprehension, Lynch offers an important gloss to this insight by suggesting that printed texts were also mechanisms to which time was granted and timekeeping outsourced.
Loving Literature cautions against any kind of eulogy for literature: “Before signing up for a return to the love of literature, we need to reckon with the numerous historical associations that predispose us to feel in our hearts that literature is never more lovable than when at death’s door.” And yet Lynch’s attention to the way that the loving of literature has commanded time and space opens up some less nostalgic questions about the way love for texts will look in the future. Would my neighbor on the plane have commented the same way on my reading a document on my computer? A Kindle? Would I have read a text as long, or come back to it at the same intervals, or in the same spaces, if it were not on paper?
On an even more forward-looking note, one might simply count the ways Loving Literature is likely to become loved as part of the critical canon. Its argument will, I think, make headlines that address those of us working in humanities departments in danger of being seen as part of the past. Like so many great arguments — Said’s on Orientalism, Anderson’s on the Nation, Butler’s on Performativity —, Lynch’s argument will be loved because it speaks both to and for us, of things we already knew but in terms that are historically astute. But after that, as we keep reading this book, perhaps at a distance that makes Frognall Dibdin even more lovable and confirms Deidre Lynch as the academic celebrity she deserves to be, we may come to love and revisit the labor this book represents: the research that went into it, the many plane rides it will take to do it justice in the reading. This is a good book: let’s go work with it.