Criticism — From the July 2015 issue

Counter Culture

Fighting for literature in an age of algorithms

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At the end of 1818, John Keats began a long letter to George and Georgiana Keats, his brother and his sister-in-law, who were trekking down the Ohio River toward Louisville, Kentucky. No telegraph cable yet spanned the Atlantic, and the Keatses depended on private shipping companies to carry their ink-on-paper messages. Transit was slow. A few years earlier, the United States and Great Britain had ended the War of 1812 by signing a peace treaty in Ghent, in modern-day Belgium, but official notification didn’t reach New Orleans for almost two months. In the interval, Andrew Jackson fought a bloody military campaign that a telegram would have rendered superfluous.

Measuring by the delay in their messages, Keats and his brother’s family were farther from each other than it may be possible for people today to be. The poet suggested an unconventional way of bridging the distance. “I shall read a passage of Shakespeare every Sunday at ten o’clock,” he proposed. “You read one at the same time, and we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room.”

I’d suggest that Keats was only half joking. In his poetry, after all, he associated literature with the power to transcend time and space, writing, for example, that George Chapman’s translation of Homer made him think of the first glimpse that the Spanish conquistador Cortés had had, centuries earlier, of the vast Pacific Ocean. Keats returned to the idea of a book-mediated connection in a letter written about a year later to his lover, Fanny Brawne. “Do not send any more of my books home,” he wrote on February 24, 1820, after tuberculosis had confined him to bed in Hampstead for three weeks. “I have a great pleasure in the thought of you looking on them.”

There’s something mystical about these passages. If Keats wasn’t in the room with Brawne, he couldn’t know for certain at any given moment whether she was looking at his books. He couldn’t know which pages she turned, or how quickly. In fact, he would have had to take her word for it that she looked at his books at all. But he maintained nonetheless that he felt real pleasure when he thought of her reading his books. The simile in Keats’s letter to his brother and sister-in-law is a strange one, and worth repeating: “As near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room.” “Blind” because presumably Keats and his brother’s family wouldn’t be able to see each other, but “in the same room” because somehow they would be able to feel each other’s presence.

What does it take to believe in such a communion? I think it requires the belief that reading, or at least a certain kind of reading, is sensuous, invisible, and soulful. Each instance of this kind of reading is unique. In its ideal form, it occurs on a plane that is oblique to the physical location of the people doing it, even when they happen to be in the same room.

This isn’t to say that the particular bodies of the readers are irrelevant. If they were, then the communion could be reduced to the content of the text being shared, and Keats wasn’t offering to mail his brother and sister-in-law a copy of Shakespeare’s plays. The hope, in his half-joke, is that Shakespeare’s words would call out a response in their souls, as instantiated in their bodies, that resonated so strongly with the response called out by the same words in his soul, as instantiated in his body, that he and his relatives would feel connected.

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is the author of Necessary Errors (Penguin), a novel. He delivered a version of this essay as a lecture at Reed College and at the University of Portland in March.

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