It feels at this point nearly impossible to create a structure for the introduction to my dissertation that isn’t simply a chronology of my encounters with the texts and theories that would bring this project alive for me. Since my early work on the project, I’ve been intrigued by Adam Smith’s repeated use, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, of the phrase “keeping time” to metaphorically designate the process of sympathy. I’ve been trying to argue throughout the dissertation’s disparate chapters that the feeling of novel-reading depends, not just on some idea of “sympathy” simplified as “character identification,” but on some larger alchemical transformation of time spent under the influence of a narrative into feelings about/beyond that narrative. If the dissertation doesn’t manage to prove the truth of this argument for the eighteenth-century novel, it’s always already shown me the truth of it within my own intellectual development.
When I teach first-year writing, I explain to my students that while their arguments need to be stated in their clearest forms at the beginning of the paper, they might not find out what the argument is until the end, and then it’s their job to go back and fill it in — because their temporal experience of essay-writing will never be as organized and orderly as their instructors will expect their experience of essay-reading to be. But right now, just briefly, I want to indulge in the kind of chronology of thought that will eventually be subsumed beneath the polished argumentation of introductory prose, because this work takes time and the time that it takes (and the unexpected trajectories that organize that time) matters.
sometime in 1999, or maybe early 2000: I discover Harry Potter. I finish reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and realize that I am going to have to wait for the next one. Thus begins my still-ongoing experience of serial fiction, and the power of a form that depends on making you wait and speculate in the interim about what will happen next.
sometime during the 2004-05 school year: I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time. It’s assigned for my sophomore English class, and I am skeptical, because last year we read Emma and I really didn’t understand what all the Jane Austen fuss was about. But no one has spoiled the story for me and when Darcy proposes halfway through the novel I am deeply and compellingly surprised. (It creates a flashbulb memory — I can still see the way the desks were arranged in my World History teacher’s classroom, where I had just finished a test early and pulled out the novel to occupy the rest of the class period.)
Fall 2007: My first semester at UC Berkeley. I choose between potential English department survey classes on the basis that Pride and Prejudice appears on one professor’s syllabus and not the other’s. I find myself thrown headlong into the eighteenth century as a result; an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy novels, and deeply sensitive to dismissive attitudes toward “genre fiction,” I take heart in my new-found knowledge that The Novel writ large was disreputable for its first century, give-or-take, and that didn’t stop anyone from reading it. I learn about sensibility — I discover that Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments long before The Wealth of Nations, even though we never had to know that in AP Euro, and I read excerpts from The Man of Feeling — and I write my final paper about Elizabeth’s laughter as a revolutionary force in Pride and Prejudice.
Spring 2009: I almost become a Miltonist. It doesn’t stick, but I still have “When I discover how my light is spent” memorized, and I still think long and hard about what it means to serve by standing and waiting.
sometime during the 2009-10 school year: I read Frances Burney’s Evelina for the first time while studying for a year at Queen Mary, University of London. I know Austen read Burney growing up and I can tell, at least I think I can, what she liked about her, yet there is something about Burney that seems so uncomfortable, the opposite of Austen’s deeply competent prose.
Fall 2010: Frantically and desperately applying to graduate school while simultaneously deeply skeptical of the object constructed by my untrained mind as “theory” (and dreading that there is no room for me in grad school if I don’t learn how to “do theory” with the rest of them), I read Georges Poulet’s “Phenomenology of Reading” in my senior honors thesis seminar. One of my classmates dubs it “Phenomenology of Cuddling,” half dismissive, half in awe of the unapologetically emotional tone of something we’ve been asked to take seriously as scholarship.
Fall 2011: In my first semester of graduate school, I am introduced to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid and Reparative Reading.” Immediately, in my gut, I know what reparative reading is and how it works and how much it matters to my understanding of the ethical weight of this profession — and I despair that it may be something I can never manage in my own critical prose, only in personal reflection.
Spring 2012: In my second semester of graduate school, I am simultaneously enrolled in two classes that will literally change my life. In one, we spend the entire semester reading nothing but Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and I come to understand all over again — in a way I sort of haven’t since the final Harry Potter book was published! — the intense impact of a lengthy process of reading undertaken in community. I also understand, in a way I’d been eminently privileged NOT to fully understand before, the intense precarity of living in a female body in my own time and place — to say nothing of Richardson’s. “Is this what patriarchy feels like?” an earnest male student in the class asks of the opening section of the novel, and I think, yes, actually, yes. I start thinking critically about how it is that a novel can make me understand privilege and power and the historical extent of systems of oppression by first making me feel them, deep within my gut. The other class is called “Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Novel Theories,” and it is here I am introduced to Diderot’s Eloge de Richardson, and get a necessary reminder that “fandom” is not a feeling that the twentieth century invented.
Summer 2013: I read Burney’s Cecilia and wonder at how uncomfortable Evelina made me that first time, because nothing but Cecilia can rival Clarissa for being deeply uncomfortable to read. (I will revise my Burney Awkward Discomfort Scale again when I read The Wanderer, and yet again when, listening to an audiobook of Camilla, I actually need to pause and stop for a day or two when things get particularly terrible.)