Bodies and Books

My good friend Julia Kasdorf wrote a book called “The Body and the Book,” broadly taking up the theme of contrast and connections between intellectuality/textuality and embodiment/materiality.  Karin Littau seems tolittau-theories-of-reading be mining a similar territory in Theories of Reading:  Books, Bodies and Bibliomania, a book I just started in on, though Littau is explicitly interested in reading as a bodily or material act, one in which affect more than cognition takes a center stage.

A couple of quotations and impressions from the early going:

Discussing early perspectives on novel reading on page 3–“William Wordsworth saw [the novel providing] ‘deluges of idle and extravagant stories.’ Insofar as ferocious novel reading also fostered disconnected and ‘higgledy-piggledy’ practices of reading (Schenda 1988: 60), it was thought that, ‘if persisted in’, it would have the effect of ‘enfeebling the minds of men and women, making flabby the fibre of their bodies and undermining the vigour of nations’ (Austin 1874: 251).  Like all addictions, those afflicted demanded more and more of the same:  more to read, more excitement, more tears, horror and thrills.  Bibliomania is therefore part of a larger cultural malaise specifically associated with modernity:  sensory overstimulation.  From the perspective of a theory of reading it shows that reading, insofar as it is either bad or good for the reader’s health, is in both instances conceived in physicalist terms.”

I think Littau is right here.  One of my commenters on yesterdays post apparently objected to the notion that we require permission to read.  But I really think I’m write about this for a big swath of Middle America.  There’s a long history of reading being seen as deleterious and slothful.  So in some sense we had to turn it in to a moral activity.  We had to quit reading for pleasure plain and simple and had to start reading for aesthetic experience, or meaning, or as a form or religion, or in order to improve ourselves.  This is deeply endemic to English deparments, and, I think, is one of our biggest failings;  we fail to account adequately for the grosser affective pleasures of narrative art which bring us our students in the first place.  Instead we have to imagine how literature improves their minds in order to justify our budgets.

I think that although I would grant Littau her premises here, that I would go beyond her simple statement of reading’s physicality to point out that these early and later continuing critiques of excessive reading have a moral dimension to them.  The sense that reading might have deleterious effects on the body, or, alternatively, that it awoke the passions and so had a deleterious effect upon self-control, both spoke to a much broader ethos than the simplistic enlightenment division between mind and body really captures.  There is a certain morality of the body associated with Christianity that isn’t captured in the simplistic notion that Christians despise the body.  Rather the body is to be situated and used and built up in particular kinds of ways because it is the temple of the holy spirit, and so forth.  Thus the physicality that Littau notes occasions a moral dilemma for the reader–one, frankly, that I still experience in a way.  Well, I’m reading, but I could really be out helping the homeless, or stumping for Obama, or doing other good works.  Or, more basically, I could be working out and trying to shave off all the pounds that I’ve put on over the course of my 49 years.  I truly suspect that if I read half as much and used the time to work out, I would be healthier (perhaps wealthier, perhaps wiser).  This is a judgment of relative goods, but the critique of reading isn’t as dumb and outmoded as it first appears.  How we use our time is an ethical conundrum, and so the fact of reading isn’t self-evidently justified, however many good moral benefits we may tend to attach to it as devotees of books.

From page 10–“Thus, the bulk of twentieth centiury reader-oriented theories, with some notable exceptions from within feminist theory, are concerned predominantly either with how readers make sense of a text (Culler, Fish, Iser, Jauss, Gadamer), how texts frustrate readers’ attempts at making sense (de Man, Miller, Hartmen, Bloom, Derrida), or how readers resist the meanings of certain texts (Fetterley, Radway, Bobo).  Thus, even when theorists turned away from an overly textualist approach to a more contextual, or politically engaged, approach, the production of meaning is still the primary concern.  By contrast, theories of reading before the twentieth century were also concerned with readers’ sensations.”

I think Littau is really on the mark here.  I remember sitting around with Jim Berger at a coffee shop called Kiari’s when I was teaching at George Mason University.  Jim and I would reflect on the fact that we didn’t know how to talk with students about the pleasure of literature, and didn’t quite know how to lead students into taking pleasure in more complicated and difficult texts.  I know that one of the great benefits of my undergraduate education was certain the ability to make and discover meaning in texts.  However, another huge benefit was learning how to take pleasure in things I could never before have imagined as pleasurable (Joyce’s Ulysses is NOT a natural taste).  I think we’ve shied away from pleasure as beneath the “serious” pursuit of ethical and metaphysical views of literature, but I wonder whether there isn’t an ethical dimension to the means and manner and ranges of our pleasure.  Finding ways to take pleasure in things that aren’t in our inherited bad of tricks is, it seems to me, a sign of growth and maturity and even, in some sense, an act of opening the self to otherness, a kind of ethical stance in and of itself.

I’m interested in how to take our pleasures seriously, how to learn our pleasures and how to learn from them.