Sam Sommers, University of California, Los Angeles
“Reading in Books: Theories of Reading from Nineteenth-Century American Literature”
When we read nineteenth-century American literature, we read about reading. From characters depicted with books in hand, to moments of thwarted or interrupted reading; nineteenth-century texts teem with scenes of overt and implied reading. “Reading in Books” turns to depictions of reading in The Sketch-Book (1820), Wieland (1798), Hope Leslie (1827), Clotel (1853), and Moby-Dick (1851) to challenge contemporary theories that over-determine the relationship between reading and the formation of the liberal subject. Seeking an alternative to this model, “Reading in Books” utilizes the collected intertexts, citations, and procedures for reading on display in these works as a set of raw materials from which we can derive multiple and competing theories of reading as an activity whose effects are outwardly realized. My project argues that contrary to the critical narrative of reading as a conduit for self-realization, nineteenth-century American writers represent reading as an activity that facilitates social, rather than self, formation. Moreover, I argue that scenes of reading in fiction teach us to evaluate the relationship between representation and reality that is freshly articulated in every text we read.