Thursday, June 11, 2009

One sat looking at his task in stony stupefaction and despair - Dombey and Son is a long book, but I'm in no hurry - plus a brilliant blog idea

Dombey and Son has been in my "Currently Reading" list for a couple of months, and it may be there for a couple more. I've been known to leave comments at other blogs, meant to be encouraging, when people express apprehension about long books, particularly those of Dickens, about the original leisurely serial publcation. The very first readers of Dombey and Son took eighteen months, plus a day, to read the whole thing. They read about fifty pages a month. So why fret if it takes six months. That's three times the original pace.

So I'm not all talk. I'm mostly talk, but not all talk. The Mill on the Floss is my current goin'-to-work book, and I'll probably just gnaw through it, like a rat, at a steady pace, 30 to 50 pages a day, until it's done. But Dombey and Son, I'm reading that one in the original spirit, sometimes a chapter at a sitting, sometimes a 40 or 50 page chunk, like one of the monthly serialized pieces, but with no regularity or schedule.

I've seen people worry that they will forget characters, or forget what happened. I do forget characters, and I do forget what happened, but then Dickens reminds me. He was writing for readers who hadn't read the story for a month. He builds some of that in.

Just as an example, I don't remember if the stony, stupefied fellow I put in the title is Tozer or Briggs. Let me look it up:

"Paul answered yes; and Tozer pointing out the stony pupil, said that was Briggs. Paul had already felt certain that it must be either Briggs or Tozer, though he didn't know why." (Ch. 12)

See, it's not just me. Even the characters in the book have trouble keeping the characters straight.

This all leads to me a brilliant litblog idea. Someone should read all of Dickens at once, in order, but at the pace of the original serialization. But all at once, see. On the first of the month, read the first Pickwick Papers serial. On the second, read the first slice of Oliver Twist. On the third, Nicholas Nickleby. So the commitment is only about 50 pages a day. A complication is that some of the novels were weekly serials, not monthly. So you'd have to adjust the schedule accordingly. But there are only(!) fifteen novels, so there's flexibility, and even room to read something besides Dickens.

Note that the reading load decreases over time. The unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood will quickly drop out of the rotation. The weeklies will also wrap up before you know it, after six months or so. You'll have room to squeeze in the Christmas books. For the big monthlies, the last installment was a double, parts 19 and 20 under one cover, so there will be extra reading in the last month.

Did I say "brilliant"? I meant "idiotic" - but you'll have read every Dickens novel in 19 months, and I'm sure you'll have a book contract, which is the point of this sort of gimmick, right?


  1. Dickens was a very smart man and very kind to his audience and funny to even make a joke of his characters having trouble remembering his characters. I think your Dickens idea is a good one. You should do it and I'll buy the resulting book too ;)

  2. Oh man. This appealed to me even before "book contract"--because I am at least a little bit insane. Oh, fie on you for bringing up such a crazy plan!

  3. I hope somebody else follows the plan so that I can just read the results--sounds hectic skipping about all of Dickens like that.

  4. die geneigte LeserinJune 11, 2009 at 5:25 PM

    I love the idea. You read all of Dickens simultaneously, so that you've got Rogue Riderhood and Quilp slinking along the riverbanks, while kind Captain Cuttle is looking after Florence and Mr. Wemmick is firing off the cannon, while far away, Nicholas and Paul are at Dotheboys Hall and poor Jenny Wren, Smike, Barnaby and Joe are out sweeping the crossroads with dolls' brooms . . .

    Also, the blogger should spent part of the year teaching a raven to speak.

  5. Ha! But seriously, have you ever read a Victorian novel in the original serial parts? It requires good eyesight (such as I no longer possess), as the type is incredibly small. In the old eagle-eye days I read several Dickens in this way, and also Armadale by Wilkie Collins. I have to say I didn't wait patiently for a month between reads, but it was still an interesting experience.

  6. I'm with Nicole, my brain is just warped enough to think this kind of project would be really fun. And now that you've suggested the idea, I'll be thinking about it until I give in...double fie on you!

  7. I'm frightened to agree with nicole and verbivore that this is a great idea. Fortunately, I am not as foolish (obessed? compulsive? literary?) as they to think that it is something that I might actually do. Still I look forward to reading their results.

    By the way, I'm working on a statement about sympathetic characters for you (why I like them and how I define them-- I'm not going to try for any larger message) and I'm having a hard time of it, largely because it feels so self-evident: I enjoy stories more when I care about the characters. This is particularly true if I believe something is intended to be a romance. I could not read Wuthering Heights as a romance when I could not stand the characters involved. Years later when I did read it, I could appreciate it as a brilliant weird book, but could not enjoy it the way that I enjoy stories with characters I care about.

  8. Talk about challenges. When I first read this yesterday I didn't take it seriously, but now I see that people are actually gravitating towards it.

    I need to figure out how it would work--should look more closely. How many books are there? How many installments per Baggy Monster? Aren't there other miscellaneous installments too--Master Humphrey's Clock or whatever it is, just a random reference that comes to mind. All that is simple enough I suppose. I don't think you need to do Neil's program and read it in actual original parts, and you'd just want a guide to the divisions.

    The impressive thing would be to pile the Infinite Summer on top of the Dickens Serial Killing, or whatever you want to call it. Too bad I have a fake job and a weak mind, and I'll probably be sticking with Chekhov.

  9. No one is taking this seriously, right? People are just playing with the idea of taking it seriously. I hope.

    If not, the Penguin Classics editions have the serial divisions marked out already.

    One result of this experiment would be insights into how the structure of Dickens' introductory chapters evolved blah blah blah. But what I am really hoping for is described above - the creation of MegaDickens, the 12,000 page super-novel.

    Neil, I do not believe I have ever seen one of the serial volumes in real life - just photos. The idea that the Dickens volumes are all green, while Thackeray's are all yellow, and presumably other authors had their own trademark colors, appeals to me.

    SpSq, thank you - in just a few lines you bring up so many interesting issues. Why does genre matter, for example? And why is it enjoyable to care about fictional people?

  10. Well, your idea wouldn't work for me because I wouldn't be able to keep all the stories straight, which is why I only have two books going simultaneously at the most.

    I do like the idea of reading Victorian novels that were serialized at their original pace, and as you know from my blog, am about to do that with The Woman in White.

    And I do like the idea of reading an author's books in the order they were written.

    Bottom line: I don't like Dickens enough to devote all my reading time to him :)

    But go for it and tell us how to goes :)

  11. What, I'm not going to do it. What a terrible idea!