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  • Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America by Merve Emre
  • Michael Benveniste
EMRE, MERVE. Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 304 pp. $85.00 hardcover; $27.50 paper; $10.00 to $27.00 e-book.

In Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America, Merve Emre aims to broaden our notions of how and why literature has been read in the United States, linking historical practices of reading to programs of institutionally-sponsored self-cultivation and international communication. Emre uses the term “paraliterary” to designate methods of reading (and writing) outside of institutionalized critical norms, identifying the paraliterary “as a genre, a reading practice, and an international domain” (7) that is other-than-literary and pursues non-academic ends for literature. As the book and chapter titles indicate, the central object of inquiry is reading, suggesting that what [End Page 586] writing does depends heavily on how readers (are taught to) read. In surveying the practices of “bad readers”—readers who take the text at face value, reading literally or responsively, rather than suspiciously, critically, closely, or like writers (2)—Emre seeks to identify ignored and overlooked literacies and advance her “primary interest”: “how distinct, but historically interconnected, institutions of international relations imagined the relationship between paraliterary reading and the production of international subjects” (11).

The book’s initial chapters, which focus on pedagogical initiatives that advanced specific protocols of reading, robustly support this end, elucidating the codification and dissemination of paraliterary practice to readers. In “Reading as Imitation,” Emre links the normative projection of an internationalized female subject to Henry James’s notions of gendered, imitative reading via the “institution of the women’s college” (19). When college administrators sought to “institute highly regimented and repetitive practices of international communication” (20), they found that James’s 1905 lecture tour and “fictions had already laid the blueprint for how international communication ought to look—and sound” (22). In Gertrude Stein’s novella Fernhurst, or the History of Philip Redfern, and Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America, these notable alumnae represented this imitative subject in order to critique the very political and stylistic limitations of the performative femininity that women’s college study abroad programs sought to produce.

“Reading as Feeling” traces the “feeling rules articulated by the Fulbright Program” and internationalized American Studies (59), which sprang from the passionate pedagogy of critics like Alfred Kazin and F. O. Matthiessen, and aimed to make their international subjects feel in the right way. Framed thus, Emre identifies Sylvia Plath’s relationship with the poet Howard Hughes, and her writing (in particular “Stone Boy with Dolphin”), as evincing the conflict inherent between public and private affect for the institutionalized subject, and revealing “how thoroughly institutionalized feeling rules tend to normalize certain forms of emotional expression while sanctioning others as inappropriate, perverse, abject, or immoral” (80). In grappling with effects of reading for feeling, Plath’s writing exposes the contradictions of a deeply felt but depersonalized public self.

In the remaining two-thirds of the book, Emre moves more decisively afield, examining “institutions” that are less materially or ideologically well-defined. Absent the obvious pedagogical or infrastructural apparatuses for reproducing their protocols, Emre argues that a particular logic of reading and subject-hood inheres in a given form or genre. Chapters 3 (“Brand Reading”) and 4 (“Sight Reading”) scrutinize the literacies necessitated by American Express’s public image and National Geographic’s photojournalistic epistemology. Analyzing the logic of the traveler’s cheque and the company’s public image in “Brand Reading,” Emre suggests that “to read the brand name of the American Express was not only to encounter the company’s myriad narratives of family formation but also to be socialized into these narratives’ temporal and spatial forms” (108). Thus, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Gregory Corso’s The American Express reject heterosexual, middle-class and middle-brow normativity by simultaneously invoking and subverting the brand as semiotic foil. “Sight Reading” invokes antecedent theories of visual literacy and the sight writing of military intelligence to contend that National Geographic formally enjoined readers to apprehend cultural and ethnographic knowledge...


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pp. 586-588
Launched on MUSE
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