6 Pages


Despite Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s status as an anomaly in his century (a status that he reiterates throughout his entire corpus), there is perhaps no more telling description of how eighteenth-century subjects experienced the act of reading than Rousseau’s often-quoted indictment, which, surprisingly, he chose to place in the preface to his popular novel Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse. Rousseau admonishes: “Never did a chaste maiden read Novels.” Not satisfied with simply proffering a vague warning against novels, however, Rousseau specifies the kind of danger that these readers faced, and evokes the specter of his (young, female) reader’s loss of virtue, writing: “She who, despite this [novel’s] title, dares to read a single page of it, is a maiden undone: but let her not attribute her undoing to this book; the harm was already done. Since she has begun, let her finish reading: she has nothing more to risk.”1 Thus, as eighteenth-century readers approached Rousseau’s long masterwork, they encountered no mere warning, but rather, the assertion that reading was a dangerous, unwholesome practice-the pastime of the vaguely wanton, those who had nothing left to lose. Books, through their association with pleasure, threatened to seduce readers, leading them to their perdition.