- A Reader’s Love
Deidre Shauna Lynch
University of Chicago Press
352Pages; Print, $40.00
What kind of thing is a reader’s love? It is the achievement of Deidre Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History to offer a series of vividly realized answers to the question while simultaneously deepening its mystery. Lynch’s central argument is that the period that invented “English literature” in its modern sense (c.1750–1850) also gave rise to new emotional bonds between readers and their books. In this era’s “records of reading,” Lynch writes, “the language of approbation or admiration is found insufficient,” and instead “recourse is had to the stickier, subjectivity-saturated language of involvement and affection.” Thus, as the canon crystallized alongside new protocols for literary study, reading underwent not only a “professionalization” but also a “personalization.” Below I suggest that Loving Literature can be read as an important, if deliberately oblique, contribution to current conversations about how we study literature. In lieu of deracinated concepts or attitudinal prescriptions, Lynch offers a wry historicization of bibliophilia. Her historicist approach as well as the book’s particular claims have, I think, something to say to how we talk about literary study today.
But before I make the interpretive leap to what Loving Literature means for us now, it is best to attend to what it reveals about readerly intimacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Lynch starts her history with the shift (identified by Trevor Ross and others) from an earlier “rhetorical” culture of reading, when older texts were seen as resources for ongoing literary production, to one of “appreciation,” dedicated to the close study of aesthetically exalted “classics.” It is in the midst of this gradual shift and its aftermath that, according to Lynch, literature became available “to readers first and foremost as private, passional persons rather than as members of a rational, civic-minded public.” While the thesis of Loving Literature can be readily summarized—like “literature,” readerly affection is neither self-evident nor ahistorical—the itinerary of the book’s argumentation is intricate, moving through thickets of archival example and recent scholarship. Over six chapters Lynch unfolds in satisfyingly dense prose “how the literary affections have a history.” These chapters are overlaid by the book’s division into four parts, “devoted, respectively, to grateful love, to possessive love, to love that is habitual, and finally to loving and losing.”
The opening chapter focuses on Samuel Johnson, author of Lives of the Poets (1779), who, despite being among the most famously dedicated of readers, shows a surprising ambivalence toward literary love. When Anna Seward responded to Johnson’s legacy in the later eighteenth century, her complaint was that Johnson, driven more by reason than by feeling, did not love literature enough. Chapter Two turns to the emotional life of historicism. Lynch shows us the well-known Oxford scholar Thomas Warton engaged not only in the labors of scholarship that sealed the romance genre in the literary past, but also in the private enjoyment that such esoterica afforded him. Chapter Three then considers the early nineteenth-century fad for book collecting, “the bibliomania,” which personalized the canon by transforming it into exquisite private property. In Chapter Four, Lynch attends to the daily rhythms of reading and how these echo the cadences of companionate marriage and domestic economy. Chapter Five takes up the book’s final variety of love, “that elegiac love that has an investment in the loss of its object.” Lynch illustrates how gothic romances—both in the ancient documents so key to their plots and in the epigraphs that ornament their chapters—cast literature, and especially poetry, as the dearly departed. Chapter Six examines literary reminiscence, especially Victorian editions of the Romantic poets. Loving literature, in this retrospective mode, means savoring the melancholic pleasures of loss.
Loving Literature is a scholarly book, and the majority of Lynch’s interlocutors are specialists of eighteenth-century literature and Romanticism. Yet she also makes a significant contribution to the broader project of historicizing literary criticism, a reflexive...