Monday, May 19, 2008

Chuck D, serialized

I'm not talking about the hip-hop artist from Public Enemy. I did love his radio show on Air America, but the Chuck D. I'm thinking of was a little more Victorian.

This neat site will help you read (or re-read) Victorian novels in something like their original, serialised format. Subscribe to a novel (I picked Dickens' Hard Times) and receive it in installations by e-mail. Why would one want to do this? Well, assuming one enjoys nineteenth-century literature to begin with (and if you don't, I have one word for you: Villette), there are a few reasons to read a Victorian novel in its serialized form. Many novels of the time (including most of the novels of Dickens) were originally published in installations in popular magazines. Although we tend to look back and think that the installation format was just a regrettable by-product of Victorian pop culture, there are plenty of good reasons to revisit the serial texts.

If I may make a low-brow comparison: have you ever watched old episodes of a popular sit-com captured on VHS? I'm not talking about the modern-day godsend of TV on DVD, but rather, say, a few half-hour episodes of "The Facts of Life" that you taped off of NBC back in the early '80s. For me, the commercials are almost as interesting as the sit-com, and at any rate it gives me another lens to see this bit of pop culture through. In the same way that the commercials tell us something about the culture and popular values of the time, reading a Victorian novel in its original serial text gives us a little more context for the work. One specific example--the modern printings of Victorian novels often exclude the illustrations that helped Victorian readers follow a complicated narrative over an extended period of time. Today, being able to enjoy those plates gives us another means of understanding the story and its social context.

Plus, isn't it just cool to imagine a time when literature was so great a part of popular culture? I mean, at certain points in the mid-19th century, more Londoners were reading installments of the latest Dickens novel than the daily newspaper! That means that when Nell dies in The Old Curiosity Shop, the nationwide response was akin to when Bob Newhart woke up next to Suzanne Pleshette, or when Clarabelle spoke, or when Lt. Col. Blake's plane crashed, or when Luke and Laura got married. Or maybe it's more like the death of Dumbledore in the most popular serialized story ever.

The site offers a catalogue of serialized novels by, among others, H. Rider Haggard, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, and William Thackeray. A couple of women writers, too, mostly American.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to my first installation of Hard Times. If you decide to try out a serial too, let me know. We can encourage one another, because I may need a little rallying in order to actually do the reading, since staring at a laptop is an inferior experience to actually holding a book in the hand.


  1. I have much approbation for 19th Century literature. JK

  2. I felt certain that you would, JK! Brava!

  3. i really liked this blog and agree with ninety percent of what you wrote. i still haven't read villette. i don't suppose that's available on that site?