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Dockside Reading: Hydrocolonialism and the custom house, by Isabel Hofmeyr

Dockside Reading: Hydrocolonialism and the custom house, by Isabel Hofmeyr

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“What happens to books when they cross borders? Isabel Hofmeyr sets her radically new history of literature not in the library but at the dock. In pages where authors and scholars are upstaged by censors, customs officers, and even dockhands, she challenges literary critics to think beyond the text as a static entity tied to a single nation or a single landmass. This is that rare book that will make it impossible to continue doing business as usual—for literary critics, for legal scholars, and for book historians.”
— Leah Price, author of What We Talk about When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading

“As we have come to expect from Isabel Hofmeyr, Dockside Reading is dazzlingly creative, intellectually playful, and immaculately crafted. This is a brilliant history of the ideas and textual forms that emerged from the damp crates that customs officials scoured at the water’s edge for signs of contamination. Setting sail from South Africa, ranging across the world’s oceans, this is a quietly revolutionary, fully aquatic literary history for our times.”
— Sunil Amrith, Dhawan Professor of History, Yale University 

In Dockside Reading Isabel Hofmeyr traces the relationships among print culture, colonialism, and the ocean through the institution of the British colonial Custom House. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dockside customs officials would leaf through publications looking for obscenity, politically objectionable materials, or reprints of British copyrighted works, often dumping these condemned goods into the water. These practices, echoing other colonial imaginaries of the ocean as a space for erasing incriminating evidence of the violence of empire, informed later censorship regimes under apartheid in South Africa. By tracking printed matter from ship to shore, Hofmeyr shows how literary institutions like copyright and censorship were shaped by colonial control of coastal waters. Set in the environmental context of the colonial port city, Dockside Reading explores how imperialism colonizes water. Hofmeyr examines this theme through the concept of hydrocolonialism, which puts together land and sea, empire and environment.

Keywords: Print culture; Indian-Ocean studies; British colony; India; customs house; colonial period; oceanic studies; Colonial copyright; Colonial and Postcolonial studies; maritime imperialism; material culture; history of shipping.

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