Eighteenth-century British culture was transfixed by the threat of contagion, believing that everyday elements of the surrounding world could transmit deadly maladies from one body to the next. Physicians and medical writers warned of noxious matter circulating through air, bodily fluids, paper, and other materials, while philosophers worried that agitating passions could spread via certain kinds of writing and expression. Eighteenth-century poets and novelists thus had to grapple with the disturbing idea that literary texts might be doubly infectious, communicating dangerous passions and matter both in and on their contaminated pages.
In Reading Contagion, Annika Mann argues that the fear of infected books energized aesthetic and political debates about the power of reading, which could alter individual and social bodies by connecting people of all sorts in dangerous ways through print. Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Tobias Smollett, William Blake, and Mary Shelley ruminate on the potential of textual objects to absorb and transmit contagions with a combination of excitement and dread. This book vividly documents this cultural anxiety while explaining how writers at once reveled in the possibility that reading could transform the world while fearing its ability to infect and destroy.
[L]ively and original.... Aligning an archive of medical histories with literary works, Mann establishes fresh readings of canonical texts.... The reader will come away from this book with a deeper understanding of authors and works discussed and of the larger cultural currents that helped produce them.
There is no better figure for the representation of the dangers and excitations of communal existence than contagion, a concept that blurs the distinction between material and metaphor and illustrates the perceived dangers of expanding literacy and print culture at a time of radical social and geopolitical transformation. For Annika Mann, an analysis of eighteenth-century theories of contagion demonstrates the intricate connections between scientific and cultural thought in this volatile period. Reading Contagion offers new insight into eighteenth-century science, medicine, and book culture, but perhaps the most exciting contribution stems from Mann’s exploration of the connections among them. With this work, moreover, she shows the power of language to shape lived experience, including scientific inquiry, hence the importance of literary analysis to help us understand the worlds we make.
A well-written and energetic study of contagion as both metaphor and medico-descriptive term for writers in the long eighteenth century.
Annika Mann is Assistant Professor of English at Arizona State University.