THE FEELING OF READING: AFFECTIVE EXPERIENCE AND VICTORIAN LITERATURE by Rachel Ablow, ed., Reviewed by Susan Bernstein
 

THE FEELING OF READING: AFFECTIVE EXPERIENCE AND VICTORIAN LITERATURE
Ed. Rachel Ablow
(Michigan, 2010) 216 pp.
Reviewed by Susan Bernstein on 2011-07-27.

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How did Victorians feel about reading? How do we read--and feel about--those readerly feelings? These are the crucial questions that frame this robust collection of nine essays, headed by an introduction in which Rachel Ablow poses a trio of queries: "How did nineteenth-century readers and writers think about the experience of reading? What did they regard as its pleasures and dangers? And what does that tell us about the texts themselves?" (3-4). Ablow draws a parallel between the circulation of literature in the Victorian age and the paradigmatic shift in our own reading practices. Just as we have been turning from the printed page to the digital formats of Twitter, Web, and Kindle, Victorians found new reading environments as print technology produced cheaper and more varied forms of literature that traveled more rapidly across the globe. Ablow wonders "how those distant reading experiences are restaged in attentive acts of reading in the present" (4) by the impressive group of scholars in this volume. In surprising ways, the ensuing essays show us how Victorians felt about reading, and how they understood the forms and meanings of the feelings generated through literature. Collectively the articles examine fiction (Nicholas Dames, Kate Flint, Leah Price, Stephen Arata, Ablow, Garrett Stewart) poetry (John Plotz, Catherine Robson, Herbert Tucker), and nonfiction prose (Dames, Plotz, Ablow).

The reader evoked by this book is a sentient body. While we might define "affective experience" as a psychological phenomenon, the collection as a whole construes reading as an embodied as well as emotional activity. Some of the essays stress the sensory stimulation of reading, some stress its emotive effect, and a few combine these two ways of parsing "affective experience." This third, hybrid category occupies Kate Flint, who has delved into visual and textual depictions of reading in The Woman Reader (Oxford 1991). Speculating on reading as transportive in mind and body, or as doubly dislocating, her "Traveling Readers" probes both the experience of reading while in physical transit and the feeling of being carried away by reading itself-- to imagined places. As Flint provocatively asks, "What difference...might it make where one reads a book?" (30).

Or what difference might it make if one reads it not at all? As an alternative to close reading, Franco Moretti has proposed what he calls "distant reading," or grasping literature through accumulated data on a vast number of books. Although none of the contributors cite Moretti, Leah Price examines novels that show how to do things with books besides reading them, and how those collateral actions are linked to feelings. Novels, she writes, drive a "wedge . . . between the outside of books and the interiority of readers, or between material cover and verbal content" (64). In the novels of Trollope, for instance, books operate as props to mediate relationships. Objects of what Price calls "pseudoreading" (50), they furnish clues to the status of a marriage or the vicissitudes of courtship. Like Price's essay, Nicholas Dames's account of the extended excerpt as a standard feature of the Victorian book review suggests another permutation on Moretti's distant reading. Detached from plot lines and the unfolding lives of characters, Dames asks, can these embedded passages "elicit an affect" (20) strong enough to prompt the reader of a review to read the entire novel? Thus both Dames and Price investigate kinds of reading that take place outside the pages of a novel, whether it's an unread prop "pseudoread" by the characters around it or an unread source from which only a long extract reaches the reader of a review. In titling his essay "On Not Close Reading," Dames recalls not only Moretti's "distant reading," but also Michael Warner's "Uncritical Reading" (in Polemic; critical or uncritical [Routledge, 2004] 13-38), an essay cited nowhere, surprisingly enough, in these exuberant contributions on the affective life of reading. Perhaps the essay goes unmentioned because it chiefly examines not Victorian readers but rather the reading habits of modern undergraduates, whose ways of reading are sometimes "uncritical." Unlike professional scholars of literature, Warner contends, our students read for the sake of "identification, self-forgetfulness, reverie, sentimentality, enthusiasm, literalism, aversion, [and] distraction" (15), a menu that might dovetail suggestively with affective reading. According to Ablow's introduction, affective reading excites "the pleasure to be derived from the disconnection--as well as the connection--between world and text" (4).

Several of the contributors treat reading as a process of identification--or anti-identification. Plotz considers John Stuart Mill's theory of reading as "mediated intimacy" (70), nothing less than a "new form of social interaction" (71) which is crucial to Mill's concept of liberalism. For Mill, insists Plotz, reading can facilitate the building of character because this "form of absorption in the emotional content of poetry...depends on the reader's knowing that the emotions of others are accessible only through the print public sphere" (74). Exploring Pater's Marius the Epicurean, Arata formulates a corollary to Plotz's "mediated intimacy": the paradoxical concept of "impersonal intimacy." Unlike realism, Arata argues, which asks readers to accept fictional characters as if they existed outside books, Pater asks readers to construe fictional characters "as aesthetic objects made from words" (132). By this means, according to Arata's fascinating analysis, Pater prompts readers to apprehend characters through "impassioned contemplation," a phrase Pater uses to highlight the importance of reading through both engagement and detachment. Like many other contributors to this volume, Arata seeks to explain how the writer's affective language bridges the gap between himself and his distant reader: "The writer is engaged in a constant struggle--at once thrilling and hopeless--to find the arrangement of words that will transmit with utmost precision his sense of the world he moves in and how that world in turn shapes his subjectivity" (151).

If Arata's "impersonal intimacy" illuminates the power of feeling at a distance, Ablow's own essay probes the power of fictional belief. In her investigative reading of Wilde's story "The Portrait of Mr. W.H.," Ablow traces a parallel between belief writ large and the feeling of reading fiction as a form of belief. As she puts it, "Wilde suggests that the beliefs we adopt in reading fiction represent only an extreme version of the beliefs we ordinarily regard as our own" (157-8). In this light, even the religious ideas of John Henry Cardinal Newman--beliefs which Wilde explores and Ablow discusses--are ultimately a kind of fiction. While thus eliciting belief, Ablow suggests, fiction also excites desire--but not in Peter Brooks's terms. Setting aside Brooks's concept of "narrative desire" as a quest for one's "true identity," Ablow maintains that for Wilde and Newman, fiction is valuable because it spurs us "to imagine who we are not" (172). In different ways, then, Plotz, Arata, and Ablow find the affective life of reading oscillating between distance and closeness, detachment and engagement, alterity and identification.

While all contributors evocatively probe the feelings of readers, two consider how those feelings are managed by specific genres, whether lyric verse or narrative. Tucker and Robson spotlight the embodied sensations provoked by the reading of verse. In Tucker's "poetics of fatigue," the formal dimensions of poems reverberate with the reader's bodily exertions; like a metered line with its pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, the reader's body too alternates between activity and passivity, exhaling and inhaling. For Robson, who turns to the hybrid genre of prosimetrum, or the mingling of prose and verse, the Victorian practice of recitation by schoolchildren exemplifies and vivifies reading poetic form through the body. Rather than seeing a sharp distinction between form and content, Robson asks, "When children memorize poems, do they internalize a shape or a meaning?" (105). Analyzing the three poems recited in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Robson concludes that by means of meter and rhyme scheme Alice physically senses the enduring power of each poem's form. In Victorian education, Robson tells us, this practice of memorization and recitation produced "properly prosimetric individuals--selves that were structured according to the forms of poetry as well as prose" (110). Even if her explanation for "prosimetric" subjectivity remains a bit abstract, her speculations about feeling the forms of literary genres add another facet to the collection's investigation of the affective experiences of reading.

Turning back from poetry to fiction, Garrett Stewart examines the powerful pleasure of "feeling read rightly" (204) when the object of reading is not a book as such but a particular character within a book. Like Plotz's "mediated intimacy" or Arata's "impersonal intimacy," this experience of being read or understood "rightly" presupposes some distance between the reader and the one read. In Stewart's account of Philip Wakem in The Mill on the Floss, this character's "distanced intimacy" (184) with Maggie Tulliver leads him to a profoundly apt reading of her: "a sympathetic analysis, compressed, distilled, and totalized by a comprehensive understanding and forgiveness" (184-5). Whether Philip's compassionate perspicacity springs from his own suffering as physically disabled and thus marginalized, as is Maggie, Stewart persuasively shows how this gift of "what Eliot calls the 'transferred life' of human sympathy and identification" (179) best captures both the power of "reading feeling" and of "feeling read" (179). Finally, Stewart argues that Philip substitutes for us as readers who are also distant or excluded from Maggie's life; Philip's reading of Maggie truly and deeply encapsulates what we as readers desire as subjects and objects of this feeling. Whether reading fiction or poetry, then, the affective force ultimately springs from this sense of reading fully or being fully read.

Eliot's earliest fiction grounds her realism in the power of the "transferred life" that knits together character and reader though common feelings. In one of her first stories, "Janet's Repentance," the narrator remarks, "Yet surely, surely the only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him--which gives us a fine ear for the heart-pulses that are beating under the mere clothes of circumstance and opinion" (Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life [Oxford, 1998], 229). Over a century later, as Stewart notes, Georges Poulet reformulates this axiom: "Reading, then, is the act in which the subjective principle which I call I, is modified in such a way that I no longer have the right, strictly speaking, to consider it as my I. I am on loan to another, and this other thinks, feels, suffers, acts within me" ("The Phenomenology of Reading," New Literary History 1.1 [1969], 57).

These compelling essays not only reveal the pleasures of reading world and text together, separately, and alternately; they also show that the feeling of reading and the reading of feeling give us ways to achieve some mediated intimacy with Victorian readers. Though focused on Victorian readers and reading, this book offers delicious wisdom to anyone who cares about the affective life of words. Where Adela Pinch (Thinking about Other People in Nineteenth-Century British Writing [Cambridge, 2010]) has recently offered us the pleasures of "love thinking" while explaining how nineteenth-century writers construed the act of reading another's mind, Rachel Ablow's collection offers a corollary exploration about what it means to read feelings, and to read feelingly.

Susan David Bernstein is Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


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