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

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. Students of the public sphere and tutelary print will find much to chew on. Other researchers, though, who agree that "[w]hen readers speak of their experiences of reading, they are only articulating partial truths" may still wish that Milner had consulted more scholarship that recovers articulation of this kind (20). They will also note a wobble in claims to discuss reception. For example, a promise of "an investigation of the practices of fever reading" dwindles into a reduced assertion that the genre in question "attempts to structure the relationship among reader, texts, and the public sphere" (xvi). Later, "might allow" morphs into "produces," after which "might be understood" turns into "provides," which sags back to "seems" and then "instilling." Tentative too is discussion of a "must" topic--what contemporaries would have made of Nat Turner's search for signs (64).

Lively all the same, and plausible, is Milner's reflection on "de-emotionalizing embodiment" in obscene print (88). His proposal that "the object of identification in celebrity worship is not a particular person but the public sphere itself" is suggestive (106, cf. 111). Bold as well, on a foundation that is documentary rather than conjectural, is Fever Reading's charge that "religious texts ... were received" in New Jersey's notoriously remote and ill-educated Pine Barrens "in the context of a modern, critical public sphere" (129). As researchers pull these claims into conversation with projects by scholars of reception an sich, they are sure to enjoy the provocations Milner's work offers.

Barbara Ryan

National University of Singapore
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Author:Ryan, Barbara
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2014
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