Annika Mann, Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print

Annika Mann, Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018) 272 pp, $45.00 HB, ISBN: 9780813941776

In her ambitious text, Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print, Annika Mann weaves the threads of print, medical, and political histories with detailed literary analysis to construct a series of arguments about the fear or reading, the impact of visual communication, and the power of shared ideas. While her study clearly prioritizes methodologies of literary criticism, she brings in ample medical research to expand her readings beyond their disciplinary scope. While a vast number of literary works and figures are analyzed throughout the text, significant time is spent on Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Tobias Smollett, William Blake, and Mary Shelley.

Mann builds on the premise that books, as objects, are both vitally informative and physically dangerous, and the communication they spread can have impacts on health. That the mind and body are particularly fused in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries means that emotional or psychological weakness easily leaves the body susceptible to illness. Reading leaves one open to mental, visible, and physical communication of disease. Contagions such as these are not equal to every reader. Those with the mental capacity to interpret what they read “correctly” are protected rather than exposed. As Mann points out throughout many of her chapters, writers warning audiences about the dangers of some types of reading find themselves falling into the very categories they warn against. As Mann says of her own argument, “emerging theories of contagion disrupt the place-bound certainties and operative binaries of eighteenth-century medical discourse. Those theories are then applied to texts by literary writers in ways that heighten awareness of the toxic, potentially infected, and uncontrollable nature of reading. Importantly, literary writers raise such awareness even when that application is itself motivated by the desire to organize and hierarchize printed texts….contagion imperils the primary mechanism for the production of knowledge about disease: print” (5). Thus, her argument is cyclical in tracing the influence of medical knowledge on reading and of reading on medical knowledge. Some references to contagion appear to be metaphorical, while others are clearly physical, widening ideas about communication and networking into a spectrum of causes and symptoms, including affect, passion, and sympathy as threats equal to any medical affliction.

Mann gives particularly clear and helpful explanations of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medical theory and debate in the introduction and early chapters, which she builds upon in later chapters. Drawing from or in conflict with these medical theories, political writers had as much influence on popular conceptions of contagion and the regulations that engaged with it as medical writers did. Mann reveals the extent to which understandings of contagion were used to control reading and writing practices as much as it was used to mitigate the spread of disease. Both approaches attempted to manage potentially unruly bodies. Writers themselves participated in these types of manipulation to sway reading practices, a fragile method that could sway readers away from those writers’ own works, as exhibited in the first three chapters. Mann begins her study with Daniel Defoe’s well-known A Journal of the Plague Year and the role that print can play in protecting against infection, both as a transmitter of knowledge and a source of distance from writers who may be contagious. Yet, the page itself can also carry disease, calling into question the reliability and wisdom of reading as medicinal. This chapter also provides a rich history going back to figures such as Galen, Paracelsus, Ephraim Chambers, and Richard Mead, building a strong historical structure of medical theory and its inconsistency. Chapter two shifts from theories about the air, chemicals, and fomites to metaphor, printed matter, the commercial print market, and the role of the visible and invisible in the relationship between writer and reader. More specifically, Mann analyzes Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad and his theory of poetry as curative or poisonous. This chapter includes an extended analysis of Pope’s work at the risk of losing readers more interested in medical culture than literary criticism. However, chapter three picks up a focus on the medical once again, adding such topics as waste management and disgust. Here, Mann expands ideas about contagion to the body’s agency and theories of self-cure, digging into treatments like inoculation and sanitization, the later a concern of Thomas Smollett, who worried that the body could not protect itself from disease. This chapter confronts the question to which earlier chapters elude: how to inform a vulnerable public about infection without infecting them? In discussing Smollett’s techniques, Mann applies the contemporary term, “remediation,” a form of representing other media forms within his own that echoes inoculation.

Helpfully, each chapter ends with a brief preview of what the next chapter will cover and how it connects to the chapter before it, giving the entire work a strong feeling of cohesion between chapters. Chapters four and five venture further into political uses of contagion with particular emphasis on visibility’s part in spreading disease. Chapter four looks at the pathology of literary and artistic images in William Blake’s work, particularly Urizen, alongside the theories of Godwin, Thelwall, Burke, and John Brown. Key sections of this chapter also discuss regeneration and birth. Like in chapter two, Mann provides a deep analysis of Blake’s works that seem to stray from her ties to medical and print culture history, though this would certainly be of interest to Blake scholars. In her fifth chapter, she turns from a male canon of literary, medical, and political texts to analyze Mary Shelley’s classic plague novel, The Last Man. This chapter provides a thorough explanation of some of the common discussions of Shelley’s novel, with particular attention paid to sanitation and literary form. Parts of this chapter again stray into the minutia of literary criticism, not in Shelley’s novel but in her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and Coleridge’s theories about poetry, identifying these theories within Shelley’s novel as indicative of reading practices and their powers within her fictional world. Finally, Mann ends with a brief discussion of the “Great Book Scare” and the fear of spreading disease through circulating libraries.       

Mann’s complex study of literary, print, and medical culture’s engagement with contagion adds important interdisciplinary observations about physical, mental, and emotional networks. She builds on the key voices in theses separate disciplines and puts them in conversation with one another. There are times when these interdisciplinary threads come loose, and would have benefited from stricter definitions, especially when concepts crossed from the physical to the metaphorical and back again. It is also disappointing how exclusively this study focuses on male writers, leaving noticeable gaps that could easily be filled with the contributions and perspectives of women writers. Mary Shelley and Anna Barbauld are discussed at some length, but other voices would have expanded this fascinating study in useful ways.   

Laura R. Kremmel, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology