Hivemind bleg: distant reading, 18th-century-style

Not too long ago, I read a letter in which a young woman recorded the hour of the day when she would be reading a certain book, in hopes that her correspondent would read the same book at the same time, and a communion would be established between them across distance. It would make a great anecdote for an essay I’m trying to write—but I can’t remember where I read the letter! Does it ring a bell for anyone? My hazy memory is that the writer of the letter was English, though she might have been American, and that she was writing in the 18th or 19th century. She may have been writing to her sister or mother rather than to a friend.

Google hasn’t been much help, because all the search terms I’m looking for (“letter,” “same time,” “book”) are too common. Also, as I remember, the letter itself was a little hermetic about what was going on, and it was an editor’s annotation that made it clear what the young woman was up to. Through Google I did find a 1793 letter from Maria Edgeworth, in which Edgeworth seems to have been making fun of the notion of making “a bargain with anyone I loved, to read the same book with them at the same hour,” so I suspect that this particular kind of bibliomancy was a thing. If anyone knows of any scholarly discussion of the practice, please send that my way, too, because I’m coming up empty-handed in Jstor.

5 thoughts on “Hivemind bleg: distant reading, 18th-century-style”

  1. That’s very funny, and makes me even more convinced that I’m remembering a real letter rather than a dream.

  2. Perhaps Keats can come to the rescue? There is a letter, dated to December 1818 or January 1819, in which the poet tells his relatives (George and Georgiana) that he will “read a passage of Shakespeare every Sunday at ten o’clock–you read one at the same time, and we shall be as near each other as blind bodies can be in the same room.”

    1. Oh, bless you! I just checked in the Harvard “Selected Letters,” and this passage is on page 216. This may not be the letter I was thinking of, because it’s been a few years since I read Keats’s letters and I had the impression that the letter in question was in a book I’d looked at more recently, and also that the letter-writer was a woman. But for the purposes of my essay, this will do, and then some! I had begun to think I had dreamed the whole thing up—letter, bibliomantic practice, scholarly edition and all. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    2. Looking through my Keats notes now, here’s a kindred passage, to Fanny Brawne, 24 February 1820: “Do not send any more of my Books home. I have a great pleasure in the thought of you looking on them.”

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