- Overwhelmed: Literature, Aesthetics, and the Nineteenth-Century Information Revolution by Maurice S. Lee
Early in Our Mutual Friend, there is a striking reflection upon the complexities of our physical and emotional relationships to books. When Mortimer Lightwood meets Charley Hexam for the first time to receive the dramatic news that John Harmon has been found drowned, the space chosen for this information is a room full of texts: the Veneering library, filled with "bran-new books, in bran-new bindings liberally gilded." In assessing his unusual messenger, Mortimer becomes aware that there is a dissonance between his sense of Charley's supposedly "coarse" appearance, and Charley's engagement with the space that they are in and the books that surround him. As Dickens's narrator observes, "[Charley] glanced at the backs of the books, with an awakened curiosity that went below the binding. No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot" (18; bk. 1, ch. 3).
The scene considers the relationship between a book as a material object [End Page 200] and a book as a gateway to something more, but in reading Maurice S. Lee's excellent new work, Overwhelmed, this scene took on a fresh, intriguing turn for me: namely, how do we look at books when faced with a library full of them? How do we organize and make sense of those whose contents "awaken" our curiosity, and those that do not? When "all Print is open" to us, to use Mr. Boffin's phrase, how might this change the ways that we read, and the elements or amounts that we can take in? These questions and many more are explored in Lee's fascinating study, which reflects, via a range of avenues, on how approaches to literature shift in the context of an "information revolution" (3).
The book is structured around four actions – reading, searching, counting, and testing – and considers how nineteenth-century writers and thinkers explore the relationship between literature and information in ways that anticipate and illuminate our current anxieties about the effect of the digital age on conceptions of the literary. Lee's central premise is that rather than creating an opposition between literature and information, emerging technologies of the period serve to position the two as overlapping in productive ways. As Lee suggests, "it is not only that authors wrote about information overload (though they certainly did); the managing of literature within information systems influenced aesthetics, archival practices, reading habits, and the production of literary knowledge" (4).
The first chapter takes us through the concept of "intensive reading" (109), considering how the question of what to read in an age of mass print both troubled and energized writers and readers of the period. Lee uses a range of responses to Robinson Crusoe as a starting point, suggesting that these demonstrate how "nostalgia for immersive childhood reading became acute at a time when textual superabundance drove the accounting of literature" (111). The chapter explores and contrasts responses by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson towards "textual excess" (what we might today term "information overload"), and suggests how these responses inform our current "anxieties about the status of literature in our information age" (21).
Chapter Two moves to the action of searching texts, considering a range of "mid-nineteenth-century fictions obsessed with methods of interpretation and searching, reading and nonreading" (89), including scenes from Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter and Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend. The chapter also roves over strategies for ordering and searching literature, exploring the fascinating history of the journal Notes and Queries and the compendium Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Such practices fruitfully complicate the boundaries between "the informational" and the "literary" – as Lee argues here, these journals and texts "meet from opposite directions on a middle ground where the informational and the [End Page 201] literary are difficult to distinguish" (106).
One of the most striking aspects of this particular chapter...