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Loving Literature

A Cultural History

One of the most common—and wounding—misconceptions about literary scholars today is that they simply don’t love books. While those actually working in literary studies can easily refute this claim, such a response risks obscuring a more fundamental question: why should they?

That question led Deidre Shauna Lynch into the historical and cultural investigation of Loving Literature. How did it come to be that professional literary scholars are expected not just to study, but to love literature, and to inculcate that love in generations of students? What Lynch discovers is that books, and the attachments we form to them, have played a vital role in the formation of private life—that the love of literature, in other words, is deeply embedded in the history of literature. Yet at the same time, our love is neither self-evident nor ahistorical: our views of books as objects of affection have clear roots in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century publishing, reading habits, and domestic history.

While never denying the very real feelings that warm our relationship to books, Loving Literature nonetheless serves as a riposte to those who use the phrase “the love of literature” as if its meaning were transparent. Lynch writes, “It is as if those on the side of love of literature had forgotten what literary texts themselves say about love’s edginess and complexities.” With this masterly volume, Lynch restores those edges and allows us to revel in those complexities.

352 pages | 13 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2014

History: European History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature


"A groundbreaking examination of literary affections. Coming at a moment when the field of literary studies is in crisis, in danger of losing its legitimacy, this account of our emotional commitment to books is especially important. . . . At every point, the author’s own scholarly acumen and love of literature are clearly on display. She demonstrates, even as she reasons, that professional literary scholars can dispassionately and critically analyse the texts they love and intimately experience.”

Times Higher Education

"Reading Loving Literature, I couldn’t help but see the romance that Lynch describes everywhere—from my local bookstore, where one can buy a tote bag with the likeness of Virginia Woolf or George Orwell, to the inevitable instances in which dead writers betray their present-day devotees."

Joshua Rothman | New Yorker

“An enthralling account of the complex relationship between reading and feeling. . . . By the end of Deidre Shauna Lynch’s wonderful study, one is left less with a definitive sense of ‘why’ we love literature (let alone why we should or shouldn’t) than with these long-lasting flashes of illumination. They are what make this book easy to love, like the best kind of literary history.”

Times Literary Supplement

“One welcome feature of Lynch’s book is that it highlights the ways in which our feelings about literature can inform intellectual choices that are typically justified on epistemological grounds.”

Chronicle of Higher Education

“[Lynch’s] investigation into the way late-18th- and early 19th-century readers felt and expressed their love of books is beautifully focused. . . . Like so many great arguments—Said’s on Orientalism, Anderson’s on the Nation, Butler’s on Performativity—, Lynch’s argument will be loved because it speaks both to and for us, of things we already knew but in terms that are historically astute.”

Los Angeles Review of Books

“A wide-ranging study. . . . The book is strongest in its detailed examination of understudied figures . . . and its sensitivity to the social forces that shape reader responses. . . . Advanced scholars will benefit from Lynch’s unknotting of intertwined public and private histories of earlier readers and scholars—a subject of relevance in the current climate, in which it seems increasingly untenable to make one’s living by loving literature. Highly recommended.”


“The book takes a quick first step, to the idea that perhaps reinstating an explicit, committed, but thoughtful love of literature would inspire those involved, and communicate the necessity of the subject better. Rather than pausing on this, however, it then moves on to its real issue: that loving literature is not, and has never been, a simple or unifying thing. The subsequent exploration, of the love of literature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is consistently engaging and insightful. The indirect approach to criticism’s modern predicament proves rewarding.”

Cambridge Quarterly

“Readers’ intimate, often perverse, relations with books are given magisterial treatment. . . . On the one hand, Loving Literature is on the leading edge of research into book history, antiquarianism, canon formation, and reading practice. On the other, it is also deeply situated in the study of affect, attachment, gender, sexuality, perversion, and mourning. . . . Puts forward a whole new set of concerns and a whole new cast of characters for telling the story of what we do.”

SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900

Loving Literature is a fascinating cultural history. . . . The writing is forceful, witty, and often breezy in a way that suggests the author's tremendous mastery over and comfort with the material. The book is an important corrective to the many scholarly books in recent years that have ignored the importance of affect in the history of literary studies.”

New Books on Literature 19

“Wonderfully engaging. . . . This book ranges widely over an astounding amount of material but without dropping the thread of its carefully plotted argument. At the same time, Lynch’s terrific eye for the curious, humorous but revelatory detail—a zany, giveaway turn of phrase in an author’s writing, say—is one source of this study’s bookish pleasures: such enlivening details testify to the attentive, affectionate, but skeptical reading she models.”

European Romantic Review

“A rich and lively cultural history. . . . Lynch contributes a welcome new affective dimension to now-familiar economic and sociological narratives of the emergence of ‘Literature’ as a distinct category of writing—of canon formation, cultural capital, marketplaces, and mass production.”

Modern Language Quarterly

"Though Lynch’s central thesis lends itself to ready summary, the course of her argument is nuanced, subtle, and richly textured by engagement with both recent scholarship and the material archive of the Romantic era."

College Literature

"Lynch, for example, is a beautiful writer whose style is elegant and satisfyingly dense; Loving Literature is a pleasure to read as a properly scholarly book in an age when the learned style is all too vulnerable to ridicule both inside and outside our professional circle."

American Literary History

“To read Lynch. . .is to be among friends. These, however, are not simply historical anecdotes told to help some of us feel less alone in our idiosyncratic love of books and objects of art. Such tales can also be catalysts for discovering or rediscovering what it is like to feel passion for certain works of art and literature.”

Common Knowledge

Loving Literature combines dry wit with polemical rigor. More fundamentally, the book enacts what it describes: Lynch’s critical distance from the love of literature does not prevent her from conveying her own infectious engagement with the texts that she analyzes. One comes away feeling not that she has debunked the literary-critical enterprise, but that she has reinvigorated it.”

Leah Price, Harvard University

“A major work by a major scholar. This is truly an eagerly awaited book. Needless to say, Lynch writes not as some kind of skeptical outsider, but as a ‘lover of literature’ who seeks to understand why we professionally take all this so personally. The book will be much read and talked about across all fields of literary scholarship and beyond: a book about the love of literature is sure to attract the attention of a broad band of literature lovers both inside and outside the academy.”

Adela Pinch, University of Michigan

Loving Literature is a revelatory achievement, a major work that showcases cultural history at its very finest, combining high scholarship with democratic inclusiveness, infectious enthusiasm, and clarity of style. Lynch argues that the emergence of ‘literature’ in its modern sense in the Romantic period involved a structural transformation of the relation between work and reader, in which literature became the domain of a new affective intimacy at the core of private life. Written with verve and eloquence, Loving Literature is at every point alive, imaginatively attuned to its theme. Here is a critic whose own love of literature, far from softening her critical acumen, endows it with sympathetic force.”

Ian Duncan, University of California, Berkeley

“Where does the love of literature come from? And why is it so often unfairly maligned or absurdly idealized? In this fascinating account, Lynch delves into the history of literary appreciation and affection. Professional rigor, it turns out, is not so very far removed from amateur love; analysis and attachment are closely intertwined. At a moment when literary studies is reflecting anew on its defining purpose, this is a very timely and important book.”

Rita Felski, University of Virginia

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: At Home in English

Part 1: Choosing an Author as You Choose a Friend
Chapter 1: Making It Personal

Part 2: Possessive Love
Chapter 2: Literary History and the Man Who Loved Too Much
Chapter 3: Wedded to Books: Nineteenth-Century Bookmen at Home

Part 3: English Literature for Everyday Use
Chapter 4: Going Steady: Canons’ Clockwork

Part 4: Dead Poets Societies
Chapter 5: Canon Love in Gothic Libraries
Chapter 6: Poetry at Death’s Door



Phi Beta Kappa: Christian Gauss Award

American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies: Oscar Kenshur Book Prize

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