This morning, I was on the verge of disappearing down a rabbit-hole of reading antique handicraft patterns in search of a new project when the following article thankfully drew me back from the edge:

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“On the Proper Use of Books,” in Dorcas: A Magazine of Women’s Handiwork, February 1885, 38-40.

I skimmed it with a sense of increasing relief. AT LAST I’d found it again, this piece I’d read years ago (on a similar tumble down the rabbit hole, I’m sure) and then lost track of, to my incredible frustration.

In the current outline of my book manuscript, my first chapter begins by asking questions about the place popular literature and its uneducated audiences occupied in late Qing Confucian reformers’ imaginations (and anxieties), and my final chapter comes back around to looking at how the same people imagined women’s work fitting into their social reform agenda.

The above article (click the image to be taken to the whole thing), author unknown and written a little later than the era I’m mainly focusing on in my research, nonetheless captures a similar range of anxieties I see in mid-19th century Confucians: the proliferation of easily-accessible text of questionable moral value and the effect such texts will have on untrained readers, especially women – will it take them away from their work? Will it encourage laziness? How much moral damage will improper reading do?

The following paragraphs are the bit that’s stayed in my head all these years, particularly because of the classism in the depiction of the inferior reader and the implication that trashy fiction literally endangers infants:

“Certainly an immense amount of reading of a certain kind is done now-a-days. It is very much to be questioned whether the world is better for it. Every mistress of a family has had her experience of the kind exemplified in the squib now going the rounds of the papers:

Lady: “Why, Mary,  you cannot read and mind the baby!”

Mary: “Oh, yes, ma’am; the baby does not disturb me a bit!”

We all know well enough what absorbs Mary’s attention. She is for the time being living among the titles and villains who people the sensational pages of her story paper, and will only tear herself away from their charming society when the baby falls over the fender and – a mercy it is that Providence has allowed for the deficiencies of nurse-maids by making babies almost unbreakable.

The first half of the essay is full of gems like this, but I’ll leave excavating them as an exercise for the hard-working, thoughtful reader…

All these years, from starting the dissertation to finishing it to reworking and reorienting it into a book form, I’ve done a lot of work that makes it look like I might fit in better in an History department, but lurking at the back of it all have been questions motivated by my roots in literature:

What does fiction do? Why do people read and listen to it? Why does anyone write it? What purposes are fiction meant to serve and what purposes does it end up serving once readers are set free to do with it what they will, inferior or superior as they may be?  Who’s allowed to like it, and who isn’t? Does fiction become acceptable again when it is made to do some kind of work, or when it requires some kind of work from its readers? Is fiction that requires little work just deficient in literary value (🙄) or can it actually be dangerous?

I’m fascinated by what these moralizing writers on the verge of the modern era thought engagement with fiction could do to a mind, and what stories/books properly used could do for a society – both in late Qing China and in the 1880s USA.

There’s more to unravel here, about how important it seemed to be that women continued working with fiber by hand in an age of mechanized spinning and cloth-making (the issue of Dorcas magazine quoted from above begins with a lament about the “lost art” of knitting and a competition running to promote young ladies to take up the craft again); or about how “Dorcas” is the name of the a virtuous widow raised from the dead in Acts 9:36-42, around whose body other widows were weeping and showing off the clothes she had made for them; or if leisure is ever a proper use of a woman’s time… but I think I’ll have to save that for a different piece of writing.

Anyway, dear reader, what do you think?

Is it ok for me to watch ridiculous British period dramas (fun, but not particularly edifying) so long as I’m also crocheting something (doing women’s work) at the same time? I have no babies wandering around, ready to fall into an open fireplace, but I do have research to do, and students to email.

And I still haven’t even found a new crochet project…

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