Fever Reading: Affect and Reading Badly in the Early American Public Sphere

Article excerpt

Fever Reading: Affect and Reading Badly in the Early American Public Sphere. By Michael Milner. (Hanover, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, 2012. Pp. xxii, 188. $85.00.)

In this book, students of US intellectual and civic life will be glad to see sustained probes of genres as unexpected as pornography and scandal. Fever Reading demonstrates how certain subsets of genres that pundits have long indicted for eroding moral fibre, swamping the intellect, or otherwise imperiling the rational social actor can be interpreted as "attempting to imagine a different kind of public-sphere interaction, one based on fervor and conversion rather than rational-critical debate and argument" (xxii). Michael Milner contends that though pundits denigrate the genres named, as well as evangelical exhortation, due to distrust of the whelming somatic responses each rouses, these genres may "produce powerful kinds of knowledge that are critical, reflective, and essential to the workings of the modern public sphere and society" (xv-xvi). This contribution to a series on modernity studied over the longue duree uses literary methods to investigate nonliterary print. It concludes with an epilogue that links Milner's claims about tutelary implications in antebellum print to present-day concerns about Internet addiction.

After a thorough survey of early US injunctions against "bad" reading, Fever Reading lucidly pits Habermasian assertions about the rational public sphere against William M. Reddy's claim that "text-generated emotions ... [allow] for the evaluation of, or a critical relationship with, the surrounding environment" (15). Milner supports the textured claims he makes on the basis that Reddy's research provides by "close" reading of material that is as new to intellectual and civic historians as obscenity arrest records, trapped-in-a-nunnery tell-alls, and colporteurs' reports. …