Affect, Intellect, and the Active Reader

By: John Orr  

This paper investigates the reading habits of one of the United States’s great intellectuals of the late nineteenth century, Henry Adams. The grandson of John Quincy Adams, Henry was born into a political family but chose to pursue a career as an historian and belletristic writer. His most famous book is his autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams, long considered one of the best non-fiction books written by an American. I have audited (H.L. Jackson’s term) Adams’s marginal writings in his extant library, housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the results have led me to investigate what his comments can indicate to us about him as a reader. Adams was a voracious reader, claiming that he read a book a day, and his reading habits spanned history, literature, political philosophy, and modern science. Drawing on recent scholarship that attempts to bridge the gap between neuroscience and literary study, I argue that as a reader, Adams struggled with an affective response to certain books that he read, struggled because the marginalia indicate that he almost always overrode the affective response with an intellectual one. The result gives us a glimpse of the act of reading performed by one specific individual who prided himself on his fierce intellect. As such, the evidence supports theories of reading promoted by Karin Littau, among others.

Reading, Neuroscience, Library, Marginalia
Reading, Writing, Literacy, and Learning
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

John Orr

Professor/Assistant Provost, English, University of Portland, United States
Oregon, United States

I have published numerous articles on Adams. I teach nineteenth-century literature, but most of my work is administrative, overseeing the Office of Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement.