Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print
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.