Why Do We Read?

Joshua Rothman searches for an answer in Deidre Shauna Lynch’s Loving Literature: A Cultural History. How reading has changed:

For a long time, people didn’t love literature. They read with their heads, not their hearts (or at least they thought they did), and they were unnerved by the idea of readers becoming emotionally attached to books and writers. It was only over time, Lynch writes—over the century roughly between 1750 and 1850—that reading became a “private and passional” activity, as opposed to a “rational, civic-minded” one.

To grasp this “rational” approach to reading, Lynch asks you to transport yourself back to a time when, in place of today’s literary culture, what scholars call “rhetorical” culture reigned. In the mid-seventeen-hundreds, a typical anthology of poetry—for example, “The British Muse,” published in 1738—was more like Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations” than the Norton Anthology. The poems were organized by topic (“Absence,” “Adversity,” “Adultery”); the point wasn’t to appreciate and cherish them but to harness their eloquence in order to impress people.

According to Lynch, the “invention that disrupted this rhetorical world was the canon”:

Some readers read because they want to know about the here and now. But, when a young person’s favorite book is “The Great Gatsby” or “Jane Eyre,” something else is going on. That sort of reader is, as Lynch puts it, “striving to bridge the distance between self and other and now and then.” And, from that sense of striving, a whole set of values flows. In rhetorical culture, the most important writing was au courant, and the “best” readers made use of it to enhance their own eloquence. But in an appreciative, literary age, the most important books are the ones that have outlasted their eras, and the “best” readers are people who are especially susceptible to emanations from other times and places. Being a reader becomes an identity unto itself.