- Bodies and Books: Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America by Gillian Silverman
Jacques Derrida writes of the deceased Louis Marin in The Work of Mourning: “In my relationship to myself, he is here in me before me, stronger or more forceful than I” (160). Derrida is describing the activity of reading the deceased Marin’s writing, in a moment that he will later describe as achieving psychic simultaneity with Marin in the shared space of the book. Derrida’s description of bodily boundaries made variously pliant—“he is here / in me / before me”—by the act of reading is a phenomenon well articulated by readers of the nineteenth century. Gillian Silverman’s book Bodies and Books is a careful investigation of these corporeal reading practices felt, experienced, and theorized by these readers.
Silverman’s book chronicles readers’ representations of bodily engagements with the psychic and textual presence of the author. It is a thorough examination of nineteenth-century reading practices that situate the book as a “technology of intimacy” (19). Bodies and Books is made up of two chapters that historicize the act of reading within the contexts of technology and intimacy in nineteenth-century terms, followed by three case study chapters that read Herman Melville’s Pierre, Fredrick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative, and Susan Warner’s Wide, Wide World as reflective of different variations of this intimacy. Silverman’s insistence that the relationships encouraged by the book were communions and not communities opens [End Page 139] up these variations to relationships that cross bodily boundaries normally restricted by death, questions of race, gender roles, and familial relations. The case studies reveal tangled incorporations within the narratives themselves, usually driven by representations of reading or other textual consumption.
Chapter one situates the reader within nineteenth-century reading practices shaped by technological advances that increased a reader’s access to texts. Silverman sees two distinct trends in reading that she calls “Railroad Reading” and “Wayward Reading”. Railroad reading reflected the period’s obsession with productive time, especially as it is found in conduct manuals directed toward women. Idle thinking and reading were considered antithetical to the efficiency reflected by the railroad model, which prioritized the mastery of the reading material and the betterment of the self. Wayward reading, in Silverman’s words, can be characterized by its “value of self-forgetting and to the gratifications of imagined contact with another” (24). This chapter’s thorough review of primary documents — nineteenth-century conduct manuals, reading studies, letters, journals, and works of fiction — is enhanced by Silverman’s careful synthesis and analysis that teases out the period’s anxieties around modernization and suggestive correctives to its chaos. Further, she suggests that the relationship formed between the text and the wayward reader is one of consumption, where the boundaries between reader and text/author are significantly crossed, resulting in their merger.
The second chapter, “Books and the Dead”, examines the intimate relationships between “haunted” books and their readers. These relationships were formed with the dead author of the text, and often conceptualized communion via psychic connection, conjuring or total absorption of the authorial persona or point of view. In this section texts are consumed with anything but productive learning or thinking in mind. Readers form intimate spiritual bonds with the dead and are affectively drawn to their texts via the material body of the book. These bonds have their roots in the popular 19th century practices of mesmerism and séance spiritualism. Silverman frames the transgressive relationships readers formed with their texts as reactive to “antiseptic restrictions placed on nineteenth-century social life”, a point she fleshes out further in her case study chapters (68).
In the case study chapters, Silverman focuses on the literature, letters, and journals of Melville, Douglass and Warner. Chapter three, “Textual Sentimentalism: Incest and the Author-Reader Bond in Melville’s Pierre” makes connections between Melville’s desire for literary originality on a linguistic level and his narrative play with...