Thomas McLaughlin. Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading

Thomas McLaughlin. Reading and the Body: The Physical Practice of Reading. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. x, 208p., ill. ISBN 9781137541314. US $95.

Reading and the Body is an important addition to studies of the social construction of reading practices. It brings together two important critical traditions that rarely converse with each other: the history of the book and theories of embodiment. Whereas the former tends to focus on publics and counter-publics but overlook the vital role that the body plays in those histories, the latter often examines subjectivity at the expense of the material objects that shape conscious experience. Thus, what Reading and the Body proposes is a theory of embodied reading. McLaughlin not only disassembles the traditional mind/body dualism, but also draws on a wealth of twentieth-century thinkers – from Merleau-Ponty and Mauss to Bourdieu and Foucault – to explore the internalized micro-level body habits that constitute what it means to read a book. With chapters on eye movement, bodily posture, the ritual of reading while eating, physical spaces of reading, and digital print, Reading and the Body examines the embodied activities, social habits, and physical milieus that make reading possible and shape interpretive practice. In so doing it provides a novel approach to book history, oriented around techniques of the body.

Using a diverse evidentiary archive, from personal anecdotes to art installations and Microsoft Word clipart, Reading and the Body makes a compelling case for the imbrication of reading and embodiment. Yet at times such a diverse archive can have the effect of effacing important formal and historical distinctions. For instance, in arguing that “hexis” – socially disciplined bodily techniques – shapes our experience and interpretation of a printed text, McLaughlin turns to visual representations of reading: a twentieth-century stock photo of a woman reading and Pre-Raphaelite painter Marie Spartali Stillman’s portrait of a woman reading Love Sonnets (1894). To treat both images as mere illustrations of different embodied relationships to reading is to elide differences in form, artistic intent, and commercial purpose, as well as their respective historical and cultural contexts. Placing the Victorian portrait in the context of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century vogue for paintings of women reading books might have illuminated the gendered nature of certain kinds of reading. If, as feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young famously argued in her essay “Throwing Like a Girl,” phenomenology posits a universal body that is implicitly masculine, might the same go for embodied reading? In other words, does art history bear out a cultural investment in “reading like a girl”? In this way, attention to the formal and historical components of the archive that Reading and the Body presents might have yielded a fuller account of what body, whose body, is reading.

Reading and the Body is perhaps most generative when, in the final chapter, it considers the bodily habits of digital reading, which is frequently associated with disembodiment and abstraction. Through rigorous engagement with contemporary theorists like Katherine Hayles, McLaughlin shows how the “cybernetic desire for transcendence of the body is…undercut by procedural embodiment” (171). In this elegantly schematic chapter, McLaughlin emphasizes the “hyperextensivity,” personal desires, interactivity, and writerliness that characterize the reader’s bodily relationship to digital text (172). Reading and the Body is an important contribution to book history, as it theorizes bodies that shape and are shaped by material objects – from print media to digital media, from the codex to the Kindle.

Erica Fretwell
University at Albany, SUNY