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Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 40, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 142-144 | 10.1353/lit.2013.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Silverman, Gillian. 2012. Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. $55 hc. 256 pp.

Since Benedict Anderson claimed that “community in anonymity is the hallmark of modern nations” (1991, 36), studies in book history have focused on the ability of print media to foster impersonal connections among strangers. In Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America, Gillian Silverman counters this narrative by considering the book “as a technology of intimacy” (19). Silverman draws on an impressive array of textual and contextual evidence to show how “the creation of impersonal community was hardly the most significant aspect of nineteenth-century reading practices” (15). Silverman focuses instead on the book’s ability to foster unique, intense attachments among particular individuals, which she claims is a transhistorical property of print that became particularly important in the rapidly industrialized nineteenth century. By analyzing accounts of reading left in journals, letters, autobiographies, and novels, Silverman shows how nineteenth-century subjects often experienced reading as an opportunity for a type of ecstatic communion.

Silverman’s is a theoretically ambitious study that threatens to take on too many discourses simultaneously. Though Silverman’s book makes an intervention in the field of book history, her argument comes out of debates in psychoanalytic criticism about paranoid and reparative modes of reading. In particular, Silverman’s thinking is indebted to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling (2003) and Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit’s Forms of Being (2008). Sedgwick’s work questions the agonistic model of reading, in which a reader struggles to master a text’s meanings. The paranoid reader, in Sedgwick’s framework, attempts to defend against epistemological surprises and to control her experience of a text, while the reparative reader is open to alterity and to non-binary modes of thinking and feeling. In a similar vein, Bersani and Dutoit argue that psychoanalytic criticism has been too focused on how individual egos are consolidated and defended, and has thus missed the ways in which self-disavowal can allow for a radical openness to difference.

Silverman regrettably does not spend much time unpacking these dense arguments. Instead, her first two chapters attempt to establish an empirical basis for the claim that the act of reading can create profound and surprising bonds between readers, books, and authors. Silverman draws on phenomenology, cognitive science, linguistic history, and book history to establish that different approaches to reading “authoriz{e} and activat{e} different subject positions” for readers, and that some of these positions involve an extreme openness to other [End Page 142] individuals (24). Silverman’s search for objective ground in the study of affective connection seems beside the point, especially given how strong her claims about reading in the nineteenth century ultimately are. She goes on to point out that studies of novel reading such as D.A. Miller’s The Novel and the Police (1988) and Nancy Armstrong’s How Novels Think (2005) have overemphasized the ways in which novels help to discipline and consolidate the modern bourgeois subject, and that our critical paradigms (in which author, text, and reader are kept rigidly separate) contribute to this sense of reading as an agonistic struggle for mastery of a text’s meaning.

This observation has far-reaching implications for critical studies of individual authors, and Silverman is at her best in her chapter-long readings of Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, and Susan Warner. Silverman argues that Melville studies have focused almost exclusively on “Melville as {a} transgressive literary pioneer” who was opposed to popular sentimental literature (88). But Melville was also interested in the intense personal connections that texts could foster, and Silverman demonstrates that his investment in “author-reader attachment,” which she calls “textual sentimentalism,” tempers the “staunch individualism expressed by Melville at other times” (85). Silverman provocatively contends that Pierre, which is most often read as parody, is in fact more closely related to sentimental fiction than to any mode of literary irony. She argues that this novel uses the trope of incest as a way to imagine “the intensity of author-reader relations,” and to picture...