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Discriminating Reading Mary Poovey In 1850, W. H. WiUs, sub-editor for Dickens' Household Words, published a humorous review of what he called a "popular publication," a Bank of England note. Among the remarkable features Wills describes is the perfect fit between die "exquisite fineness" of the bank note's inscriptions and the effect it has on the reader. The bank note "strikes conviction at once," Wills asserts. It dispels all doubts, and relieves all objections. There is a pithy terseness in the construction of the sentences; a downright, direct, straight-forward, coming to the point, which would be wisely imitated in much of the contemporaneous literature that constandy obtains currency (though not as much). Here we have no circumlocution, no discursive pedantry, no smell of the lamp; the figures, though wholly derived from the East (being Arabic numerals), are distinct and full of purpose; and if the writing abounds in flourishes, which it does, these are not rhetorical, but boldly graphic: struck with a nervous decision of style, which, instead of obscuring the text and meaning, convinces the reader that he who traced them when promising to pay the sum of five, ten, twenty, forty, fifty, one hundred, or a thousand pounds, means honesdy and instandy to keep his word: that he willpay it to bearer on demand, without one moment's hesitation. (426) Implicit in Wills' praise of the bank note's "pidiy terseness" is criticism of another kind of "contemporaneous literature," whose "circumlocution," "discursive pedantry," and "smell of the lamp" fail to produce the kind of "conviction" the bank note inspires. More important than the specific target of Wills' complaint is the nature of 10volume 31 number 2 Discriminating Reading the distinctions he draws: some kinds of writing, he insists, ask the reader simply to scan their "figures" because they straight-forwardly mean what they say; other kinds demand interpretation because their "flourishes" obscure whatever meanings they might yield. Wills' distinctions ought to be familiar to modern readers, for they constitute the basis for the great divide that now separates informational writing from its imaginative cousin and mere perusal from the more laborious work of interpretation.1 While the differences between information and imaginative writing might not have been so clear to Wills' audience, this difference was already being naturalized by 1850, as part of the gradual specification - and separation - of distinct domains of social production. Among the products of this historical process were what eventually emerged as the relatively autonomous textual domains of economic theory and financial writing , on the one hand, and aesthetic or literary writing, on the other.2 In this essay, I discuss the sense-making activity that is common to both domains - which contemporaries repeatedly called "reading" - and I show how a practice that the two domains shared was gradually divided up so that reading came to seem internally differentiated and its variants to be natural responses to various modes of writing . As part of this process, one kind of reading - apprehending the value of a bank note, for instance - seemed to lose the evaluative component it had initially entailed, while the other - deriving meaning from a literary text - acquired levels of complexity so great that literary interpretation now seems to demand theoretical elaboration to explain and university training to practice. While I do not offer my own interpretation of a literary text in this essay, then, I do describe the historical process that helped give such interpretations the character they now assume, alongside and by contrast with another kind of reading that literary critics have tried to leave behind. Reading Financial Instruments Despite Wills' cheerful assertions, in the middle of the nineteenth century, it would have been obvious to most Britons that all financial instruments - even Bank of England notes - required more than a Victorian Review (2005)1 1 M. Poovey cursory perusal. While they might not have required interpretation, or an elaboration of their meaning, they did demand evaluation, or an assessment of their authenticity. To a certain extent, this was simply an effect of the epistemological role financial instruments play in any credit economy: because value is abstracted from the treasure it theoretically represents and circulated in various paper...


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