Overwhelmed: Literature, Aesthetics, and the Nineteenth-Century Information Revolution, by Maurice S. Lee

Eleanor Lybeck explores the striking links between ‘textual overproduction’ in the 19th century and today

November 14, 2019
Book tunnel
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The writer William Law Symonds prophesied in an 1864 article for the Atlantic Monthly that new writing would soon be impossible, since “letters are only capable of a certain number of combinations”. Imagining a future in which “the green earth will be transformed into a wilderness of books”, Symonds’ fallen man would lose the capacity for inspiration and independent thinking and be reduced to a mere bookworm, digesting the concepts of others.

This warning against the perilous over-production of textual information haunts Maurice S. Lee’s Overwhelmed and confirms the book’s contemporary relevance. When grant proposals on niche topics are bound by social-media-style character limits, students rehearse for standardised entrance tests and university libraries cast users into the disassociated universe of the e-book, we might wonder if there isn’t some truth in Symonds’ feverish prophecy.

Lee is an exceptionally patient reader of texts. Both the literary and the informational, as he conceives of them, are well matched in their breadth. He considers canonical works of 19th-century British and American literature, adventure novels, children’s fiction and antiquarian journals. In so doing, he dramatises his own subject, making clear the vastness of what we, as readers and critics, might legitimately attempt to compute.

In a book so preoccupied with the mass production of information, Lee is impressively attuned to fine details. His arguments telescope out from exquisite close readings of sources as distinct as literary misquotations, unfinished watercolours and reader reviews from the 19th century right up to the present day, to confront issues as huge as the crisis of the humanities, the politics of the canon, the systematisation of education and the future of literature itself. Lee is an unfailingly sensitive critic who in effect personalises each of the case studies he offers. His analysis of the careful inscriptions left by, or on behalf of, one young reader in her copy of the 1831 Key and Mielke edition of Robinson Crusoe is a poignant case in point. But his sensitivity is tempered by a sense of humour, conveyed through anecdotes and well-placed interjections, that is charming and quite wicked. The scene of the literary professor who invokes Frederick Douglass’ reminiscence of learning to read as a slave “when his kids are insufficiently enthused by the books they get for their birthdays” could have been lifted from a Noah Baumbach screenplay.

From these sources and these readings, Lee responds to questions in literary criticism that, he shows, have been pressing since at least the 1800s. What place does technology have in the creation of literature and the practice of criticism? Should we read widely or deeply? And have we ever been able to speak in terms of accuracy when it comes to measuring and expressing our reactions to a text?

In considering all this, Lee is relentlessly – even endearingly – optimistic. He refuses to share in something like Symonds’ dystopic vision, but takes comfort in those 19th-century texts that convey, to him, similar concerns over the relationship between information and literature that worry us today. He remains convinced that the spontaneity of feeling that literature, in its broadest sense, inspires in its readers will never go away, no matter how technical our methods of reading or critical assessment might become. This is a comforting thought in itself.

Eleanor Lybeck is a lecturer in English and Irish literature at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies.

Overwhelmed: Literature, Aesthetics, and the Nineteenth-Century Information Revolution
By Maurice S. Lee
Princeton University Press
296pp, £34.00
ISBN 9780691192925
Published 10 September 2019


Print headline: How many is too many books?

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