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Lying in Bed and Reading

Stephen Greenblatt wrote a delightful review essay on Thomas Laquer’s book, Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation

There is a second modern innovation that similarly focused the anxieties attached to solitary sex: solitary reading. “It was not an accident” (Laqueur again) that Onania was published in the same decade as Defoe’s first novels. For it was reading?and not just any reading, but reading the flood of books churned out by the literary marketplace?that seemed from the eighteenth century onward at once to reflect and to inspire the secret vice. The enabling mechanism here was the invention of domestic spaces in which people could be alone, coupled with a marked increase in private, solitary, silent reading. The great literary form that was crafted to fit these spaces and the reading practices they enabled was the novel. Certain novels were, of course, specifically written, as Rousseau put it, to be read with one hand. But it was not only through pornography that masturbation and the novel were closely linked. Reading novels? even high-minded, morally uplifting novels?generated a certain kind of absorption, a deep engagement of the imagination, a bodily intensity that could, it was feared, veer with terrifying ease toward the dangerous excesses of self-pleasure.

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