Bodies and Books
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Bodies and Books
Reading and the Fantasy of Communion in Nineteenth-Century America

Gillian Silverman

240 pages | 6 x 9 | 3 illus.
Cloth 2012 | ISBN 9780812244151 | $65.00s | Outside the Americas £54.00
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"Gillian Silverman's lively study of reading practices in the nineteenth-century United States provides excellent analyses of books and readers alike. By looking at how readers could experience 'communion' as both an absorption in one another and a way to absorb books, Silverman provides a fascinating new understanding of what it means to read. Examining both familiar authors such as Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau and newly reinterpreted authors like Mary Austin and Susan B. Warner, Silverman offers a fresh way to understand the forms of intimacy their works provide."—Shirley Samuels, Cornell University

"This is a wonderful book, clearly written, well researched, and insightful. Silverman shows that reading was conceived as an embodied activity that created an intimate and potentially erotic communion with someone other than the self (the author, other readers, the dead, etc.)."—Marianne Noble, American University

"Original and fascinating. Sure to be influential in the fields of American literature, American studies, and the history of the book. To understand nineteenth-century readers' experience of harmonious union through reading is to alert us to the limits of contemporary theories that represent reading as an experience characterized by opposition, resistance, and hierarchy."—Elizabeth Barnes, College of William and Mary

In nineteenth-century America, Gillian Silverman contends, reading—and particularly book reading—precipitated intense fantasies of communion. In handling a book, the reader imagined touching and being touched by the people affiliated with that book's narrative world—an author, a character, a fellow reader. This experience often led to a sense of consubstantiality, a fantasy that the reader, the material book, and the imagined other were momentarily merged. Such a fantasy challenges psychological conceptions of discrete subjectivity along with the very notion of corporeal integrity—the idea that we are detached, skin-bound, and autonomously functioning entities. It forces us to envision readers not as liberal subjects, pursuing reading as a means toward privacy, interiority, and individuation, but rather as communal beings inseparable from objects in our psychic and phenomenal world.

While theorists have long emphasized the way reading can promote a sense of abstract belonging, Bodies and Books emphasizes the intense somatic bonds that nineteenth-century subjects experienced while reading. Silverman bridges the gap between the cognitive and material effects of reading, arguing that the two worked in tandem, enabling readers to feel deep communion with objects (both human and nonhuman) in the external world. Drawing on the letters and diaries of nineteenth-century readers along with literary works by Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Susan Warner, and others, Silverman explores the book as a technology of intimacy and ponders what nineteenth-century readers might be able to teach us two centuries later.

Gillian Silverman is Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado, Denver.

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