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I was drawn to the expression, “The book feels expressive” in the following sentence of the article titled “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Family” in The New Yorker February 4 issue:

“In any case, it may be that “The Triple Package” like “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” isn’t really about its argument. The book feels expressive, rather than analytical. Chua and Rubenfeld are self-conscious tiger parents.” http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/02/the-battle-hymn-of-the-tiger-family.html

The format of [Subject+ feel +adjective] may not be uncommon. But I wonder;

  1. Can an inanimate object such as book, desk, airplane, house ‘feel,’ i.e. have a human sensation like expressive, impressive, fashionable, swift, dull and so on?
  2. Is this just a figurative expression? Can we say 'books love bibliophiles' as well as 'bibliophiles love books'?
  3. Does the word, ‘feel’ have the meanings of ‘is felt (to me),’ or 'give the feeling (to me)' as an intransitive verb?

Would you clarify why a book can “feel”?

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4  
You can say that tree bark feels rough. The definition is in ODO: as: [NO OBJECT, WITH COMPLEMENT] Give a sensation of a particular physical quality when touched: the wool feels soft. This is just the same definition used as a metaphor. –  Peter Shor Apr 1 at 0:53
    
A near-perfect example of an anthropomorphic metaphor: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropomorphism –  cobaltduck Apr 1 at 13:04

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It is not the book that feels, but rather the feeling that the book gives the reader. You can understand it by substituting the word seems: The book seems expressive.

In this usage, the writer is saying that the book's author wants to share a personal experience without making a value judgement about it.

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Feel is a sense verb. Sense verbs have special rules.
There are at least 5 human senses, plus three different varieties of sense verbs.

This one is the variety that takes an experience as subject and a descriptive complement:

  • That looks delicious.
  • That sounds wonderful.
  • That smells terrible.
  • That tastes heavenly.
  • That feels smooth.

As I put it in the discussion linked above,

Touch is underrepresented in nouns; adjectives are more likely. But one does speak of something having a feel, occasionally a feeling — a word which can be generalized to cover any metaphoric, psychological, or spiritual sensation, whether experienced or not, as in

  • I had a feeling he was going to betray us.
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KitFox got it right. It's not about the feelings of the book, but of the person considering it. The author tried to express his thoughts and feelings in the book, instead of breaking down and analysing them.

There are plenty of examples like this in English:

  • If a book feels heavy, it doesn't mean it thinks it should lose some weight, it means the person holding it finds it heavy.

  • If a glass feels cold, it doesn't mean it's shivering, but that the person touching it thinks it's cold

  • Similarly, a house can definitely feel impressive, fashionable and dull (though unlikely all the three at the same time), and a car or airplane can feel swift (though I'd probably say the airplane trip feels swift instead, in the case of the latter).

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I believe in the case which you quoted, the correct reading is a metaphorical/reflective one: to me the book feels expressive, which is quite similar to saying, the book is powerful, vibrant, creative, passionate, etc., all reflecting the ability of writers who can convey this feeling through their words.

Inanimate objects such as books, desks, airplanes and houses do not feel. They may have a feel to them (a sensation given by an object or material when touched, like the smoothness of soft leather, the firmness of wood, etc.). A house can feel cozy, where feel is an intransitive verb, meaning giving an overall impression or effect; atmosphere.

Part of the usage of 'feel' for inanimate objects (and one might argue something must have an anima, a life force or soul to feel) is related to different meanings for the word, and a smaller part is due to inappropriate usage of the word.

The book is powerful and profound – coming straight from the heart. (a book review)

The Publishers Weekly website said that the book is "intelligent, amusing and insightful..."

And here, in this last example, you might see how inappropriately the words are used, if you know anything of Dan Brown's writing:

The book is creative and intellectually challenging under the genius of Dan Brown.

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