From the Prancing Half-Wits. Reading of reading and thinking of reading–as in the essay on Rousseau from The Great Cat Massacre (dropped in the bath twice! Cue pun about wringing.)
As developed by Rolf Engelsing and other German scholars, this notion divides the development of reading into two phases. From the Renaissance until 1750 approximately, Europeans read ‘intensively.’ They had access to very few books—the Bible, devotional works, an occasional chapbook or an almanac—and they read them over and over again, meditating on them inwardly or sharing them aloud with others in family and social gatherings (the Spinnstube and veillée). In the second half of the eighteenth century, educated people began to read ‘extensively.’ They ran through a great deal of printed matter, especially novels and journals, the favorite genres in the reading clubs (Lesegesellschaften, cabinets littéraires) that proliferated everywhere in urban centers. And they read each item only once, for amusement, then raced on to the next.
Rousseau a throwback to the “intensive” mode, by his own insistence. Héloïse made readers so distraught as to be ill; their letters to J-J recounted fits of weeping, no matter their sex or age; its ideas of virtue and authenticity provoked huge upheavals, lives irrevocably altered. Readers made pilgrimages to him, offered themselves emotionally and sexually; they refused to believe the characters were only fiction; they were passionately transported in a way beyond even the earlier Richardson novels. Darnton says:
Ranson and his contemporaries belonged to a peculiar species of reader, one that arose in the eighteenth century and that began to die out in the age of Madame Bovary. The Rousseauistic readers of prerevolutionary France threw themselves into texts with a passion that we can barely imagine, that is as alien to us as the lust for plunder among the Norsemen . . . or the fear of demons among the Balinese.
This is part of my struggle now: how to even hint at such a mindset, much less capture fully the mind of an individual who can be moved to histrionics by a novel of sentimental love letters, for whom virtue is a vital, palpable concern. To even go there? As difficult as it is to present such a person palatably, it also feels completely inauthentic (ha!) to try and animate such a character. There is a reason why I felt almost physically repulsed at reading Clarissa—so frustrated, so annoyed, so wanting to reach back through time and just shake them all.