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Ideas of books and reading in literature, 1880–1914

Evans, Dewi 2012. Ideas of books and reading in literature, 1880–1914. PhD Thesis, Cardiff University.
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This thesis elucidates some of the ways in which concerns about the status of ‘the book’ at the end of the nineteenth century both inform and are, in turn, informed by the representation of books in the period’s fiction. Focusing on the work of Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, M.R. James and E.M. Forster, I argue that their fiction places a discursive ‘idea’ of the book at the centre of a range of socio-political debates in which literary texts participate and which they also help to shape. In particular, I argue that the fragmentation of dominant nineteenth-century print-cultural institutions forms an important context for these authors’ preoccupation with the ability of the written word to refract ideas and experiences it purports accurately to reflect. In Wilde’s work, for example, books are simultaneously the facilitators of panoptic surveillance and sites upon which, by asserting their right to a wholly subjective interpretation of text, readers can resist such surveillance. Stevenson’s adventure fiction is underscored by similar anxieties about the insidious formative influence of fiction – anxieties that lead him to adopt a range of metafictional strategies, designed to draw the reader’s attention to the book as the product of a specific marketplace. James and Forster’s fiction goes further, using books as the symbol of a wider epistemological crisis that underscores turn-of-the-century reading practices. Ultimately all four writers reject, in different ways, a utilitarian conception of books as repositories for knowledge about the world, to which readers’ own subjectivities must become subordinate in order to ensure a ‘right’ reading. Instead, they foreshadow modern reader response theory, presenting books as sites upon which ‘ideas’ – the product of a dynamic interaction between text and reader – are continually shaped and reshaped as they circulate within the ideologically-charged materiality of a particular historical moment.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Status: Unpublished
Schools: English, Communication and Philosophy
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 30 March 2016
Last Modified: 06 Jan 2018 02:30

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