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  • The Affectual Distinctiveness of Big Books
  • N. Katherine Hayles (bio)

In addition to the formal characteristics of maximalist novels noted by Stefano Ercolino, “big books” (as I like to think of them) have an affective dimension distinct from other genres. I stumbled upon this discovery some years ago when I realized that, because I read so much professionally, I had all but given up reading for pleasure—an ironic realization, given that my pleasure in reading is what drew me into literary criticism in the first place. I resolved to recover that pleasure by reading for half an hour or forty-five minutes every evening before I went to sleep. My only requirement was that the books could have no obvious relation to the projects I was working on at the time. Since I enjoy big books, it was inevitable that sooner or later I would choose one of them for my bedtime reading. So it was that I made my discovery.

Because of their size and complexity, it is a physical impossibility to read a big book in one sitting. If read in small doses over a period of days and months, a big book begins to occupy a distinctive position in one’s imaginative life. Lauren Berlant has described genre as a “loose affectual contract with the reader,” and the affectual contract that big books offer their readers tend to have the characteristic properties of world-dwelling, recursive connections, and addiction.

World-dwelling occurs when the text begins to take on the contours of a world into which the reader enters, with landscapes, characters, and stories that together comprise increasingly detailed environments rich with memories and complex histories. As the imaginative world grows in complexity and size, the reader finds it intruding upon everyday phenomenal experience, so that thoughts such as “Oh, that’s just like the scene in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) where”—occur with increasing frequency. On a personal note, I suggest that reading before sleep is a particularly potent evocation of this property, for then the imaginative world enters into one’s unconscious mind and is processed there along with the day’s usual events.

The infusion of the imaginative world into waking experience leads to the second property, recursive connections. Not only does the imaginative world encourage the reader to see connections between disparate events; it also has the effect of opening out the waking world to those connections as well, so that the imaginative and waking world begin, at least to some extent, to fuse into one another.

The final property of addiction results when one feels one’s day is not complete without an encounter with the big book’s imaginative world. Neuroscientists have long realized that small habitual actions have the greatest neurological consequences, and reading, when done habitually in small doses, is no exception. As the book begins to re-arrange the reader’s neural circuitry, the reader may experience meta-recursions; for example in reading Infinite Jest (1996), a book about addiction, the reader realizes she is experiencing the book itself as a form of addcition, or in reading Gravity’s Rainbow, the text may so dominates the reader’s imagination that she becomes paranoid about the act of reading.

These affects may help to explain why big books legitimately constitute a distinct generic form, why they so disproportionately affect our sense of what constitutes the literary, and why they exercise a fascination all their own. [End Page 15]

N. Katherine Hayles

N. Katherine Hayles is the James B. Duke Professor of Literature at Duke University. She teaches and writes on the relations of science, technology and literature in the 20th and 21st centuries. Her book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999) won the Rene Wellek Prize for the Best Book in Literary Theory for 1998-99, and her book Writing Machines (2002) won the Suzanne Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship. She is presently completing a book manuscript entitled You Are More Than You Think: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious.



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