24 March 2014. Mutual Friends and Queer Reading Communities

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The open access online journal, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, published by my colleagues at the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies, will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in autumn 2015. This date coincides with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. 

To mark both occasions, the people at 19 have set up a great experiment in virtual reading community building: between May 2014 and November 2015, they will publish Our Mutual Friend online in monthly installments that follow the rhythm of the original publication. The first part has already been published here. Comments and reflections from international scholars and students will follow in due course.

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This experiment in collective reading, which builds community around a text, speaks to a particular concern of my own research: the role of literature in forging queer communities across the modern world. Magnus Hirschfeld’s writings are peppered with literary references. They show that he was particularly interested in representations of same-sex love and desire, and, especially, in those queer books whose authors were also involved in some way in major political debates of their day – for instance, Oscar Wilde and Britain’s anti-homosexuality laws, and Emile Zola and anti-Semitism in France feature prominently in Hirschfeld’s work.

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While Dickens plays no significant role in Hirschfeld’s writings – which reflects Hirschfeld’s interest in overt rather than subtle representations of queer existence – I am nevertheless intrigued by the Our Mutual Friend reading experiment. For its emphasis on reading as a collective activity is a forceful reminder that books create ‘felt experiences’ and a sense of collectivity that reaches across time and space.

Follow the Our Mutual Friend Reading Project here: http://dickensourmutualfriend.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/first-monthly-instalment-may-1864/#comments

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