Books, reading and the mind in the work of William Godwin
McCray, Jessie Louise
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This dissertation argues that the British philosopher, novelist and social critic William Godwin (1756-1836) used literary depictions and discussions of book-reading to negotiate public debates about the nature of the human mind. It takes an intellectual-historical approach to Godwin’s representation of communications media, using this to illuminate the wider cultural significance of book-reading in Romantic-period Britain. I ultimately claim that for Godwin, the book-object became a literary presence and a conceptual tool by which he expressed and defended his belief in the reality and necessity of intellectual perfectibility. My first three chapters set the groundwork for this argument by exploring Godwin’s treatment of ‘The Matter of the Reader’ (Chapter One), ‘The Ethics of Novel-Reading’ (Chapter Two), and ‘The Discipline of Reading’ (Chapter Three). As Godwin engaged with debates about materialism, literary form and education, he negotiated inherited ambivalence about the nature of the human mind and the conditions necessary for its vitality. Godwin’s writing about reading exposes a fundamental tension that runs throughout his corpus: he consistently invested confidence in the mind and idealised its operation, yet was simultaneously preoccupied by theorising major threats to its development. My final two chapters argue that Godwin’s writing about the book as a material medium provided an ongoing response to this tension. I show that his comparative evaluations of ‘Social Media’ (Chapter Four) and his literary rendering of books in terms of ‘Bodies and Monuments’ (Chapter Five) were contributions to debates about the powers of truth, death, and cultural memory. I conclude that Godwin used the book-object as a gesture of faith in the necessary perfection of human minds. This dissertation remaps Godwin’s contribution to British culture by drawing attention to the crucial role book-reading played in his philosophy, fiction, essays and correspondence. In doing so, it highlights a rich vein of enquiry opened up by the growing ‘interdiscipline’ of media history: the cultural figuration of books and reading.