BOOK covers. I’m between the BOOK-covers of one of the hilarious social commentaries novels penned by Charles Dickens—and this particular copy of this particular book has me thinking…
I really do love the heft and the presence of a real paper book. BUT. Because I don’t have the shelf-space for a thousand books; and because a thousand books are portable on the iPad; and because I pick up all kinds of books for a couple bucks a pop from the Apple bookstore’s “sale bin;” and because I can look up, with a touch, anything I become curious about; and because I can read in bed without keeping a light on when my husband is sleeping; and… Well, because of lots of “becauses,” I do almost all my reading these days onscreen.
Still, when a mention (in another book) of this book prompted me to pick it up, I definitely went for the paper version. Because for this book I have a copy that belonged to my great-grandpa.
As I turned the pages I got to thinking (in that rabbit-trail manner with which my mind works) about what age a work of literature gets to be before it begins to merit designation as “a Classic”—and that, then, got me wondering what age this printed copy of this classic might be, given what I did know of its provenance.
An easy answer was not forthcoming. Nowhere on the book could I find a publication date, edition number, or any other reference to the year. (Fitting, I suppose, for a novel that opens, “In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise...”)
Ultimately,I ran down my answer in a history of the publishing house, which went belly-up in 1898—the year after printing its run of Dickens novels. Huh, I thought, that’s kinda cool. (I mean, I knew it was Great Grandpa’s—but age-wise, that only guaranteed its birth-year preceded mine.)
Considering the hundred-and-twenty-three-year age of the book in my hands, my mind jumped next to pondering how new the novel itself was, when this copy of it went to press. (Did I mention a propensity for looking-stuff-up?) The answer, to frame it differently, is this: when this book printed, Our Mutual Friend was the same age of Tom Clancy’s Patriot Games NOW. Or Robin Cook’s Outbreak. Stephen King’s It. Fried Green Tomatoes. The Whale Rider. Mrs. Doubtfire. Where’s Waldo?
Imagine a Dickens novel being even a relatively recent piece of pop culture! What a shift in perspective, to think of Dickens in any light but “Historic”…
In my own mind that word—“Historic”—used to mean “before ME.” And when I was young-ish, that was a pretty decent working definition. But closing in on my own half-century mark, I acknowledge that the boundary line, the one delineating “History” from “Regular-Stuff-That’s-Familiar-to-ME”… Well, it’s moved. In fact, that line scoots right along, keeping pace behind me like a stick tied to a string tied to my belt loop, all the time converting some portion of Regular Stuff Familiar to Me into that “Other” category I think of as History. (Did I think only other people’s lives slipped into Historic rear-view? Did I think that regardless of how long I might live, my entire life would feel to me like “Now”?)
This book imparts an unexpected lesson of… Perspective.
As in… It Doesn’t End Here.
As in… I am not some grand culmination of everything History was building up to; in fact, I rank merely as “someone else” to everyone else in the world.
As in… What shall I DO with this role of “someone” in everyone else’s History?? It’s lovely to imagine, in 120 years, a great-granddaughter enjoying a book from my shelf. Better yet, from my pen. Maybe even, by then, “a Classic”?
I’m enjoying the book. Though I do miss the built-in Definitions I’m accustomed to summoning with a touch. (Because I don’t care how great your vocabulary is—Dickens requires a dictionary!! …Terpsichorean?? Anyone? Anyone? Beuller? …Nah, me neither. I’m gonna go look that up.)
…that somehow connected the thing you WERE doing with the thing you find yourself doing NOW?
If you’re like me, that rabbit trail may take several days to loop around to its starting point (assuming it even does). But if you’re one of those Focused People With Organized Heads who completes an entire task before taking up the next, you may not understand how it works. So let me illustrate with a simple example: Reading the newspaper. And… We’re off!
I am reading the New York Times on my tablet, scanning today’s headlines to see what I “should” know—when I see an article on the sidebar about “What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us“—and I’m a reader and intrigued and stuck at home during a pandemic, so of course I have to check that out!
…and the article references Daniel DeFoe’s book, A Journal of the Plague Year. Which I’ve never heard of, despite having done a fair bit of research on Robinson Crusoe’s island (for a novel I’m stuck in the middle of writing) so of course I have to check that out! I open the Apple Book Store…
…to search for DeFoe’s book and find it (with notes! Yay, we like notes) for $2.99, so I charge it to my Apple account. But while I’m here…
…I just have to look through the “Special Offers & Free” section, because they cycle new things into that listing every couple of days, and you never know what awesome book-you-wanted-to-read might surface there for a couple bucks. See, just like this: here’s Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth, which I totally want to read because my mom got me watching the BBC series when she visited a couple months ago. So I buy that too.
…and then I just have to take a second to assign my two new purchases to categories I’ve made up in my iBooks (because yes, there’s a touch of OCD here too)…
…and I realize I don’t have a category for “Medical Practice, Midwifery” in my Book Buddy app (where I track and tag everything I read) so I pick up my phone (because I’m faster typing on that screen than the iPad) and open the Book Buddy app to add the category.
…and I realize that one of the books I’m currently reading (I’m midway through one on audiobook, because I can listen while I do stuff like clean the kitchen; and one actual paper book, which I can read during the daytime; and one on my iPad because I can read in bed without bothering my husband with a light on; and one other one on my iPad because I thought of it yesterday and started to read it) is not listed in the “Currently Reading” status on my Book Buddy.
…which makes me wonder if I’ve tagged it yet on GoodReads (where I also track what I’m reading, because it’s got that social aspect, and it’s keeping count of my reading goal for the year) so I go there and update that app as well.
…and when I close my GoodReads app, I can see that little red badge in the corner of my FaceBook app that tells me I’ve probably gotten some laughs or comments on my daily installment of the “Captain’s Log” in Social Lockdown—so of course I have to check that out!
…which reminds me that I haven’t done a post yet today, so I open my photos (I take photos of stuff ALL the time, even when I pretty much haven’t left the house for a month) to find a fresh one that I can wrap a wry comment or a silly story around. So I get that posted. (Are you curious? It was a photo of the newly resurrected Sports Page—and I mean PAGE, singular—in our local rural-Oregon paper. Three articles: WNBA draft, “Social Fish-tancing” for anglers, and QUAIL CALLING. Apparently that’s a thing. Which pretty well illustrates the reasons for discontinuing sports coverage in the first place.)
…and while I was sending that photo to FaceBook, the banner notification phased across my screen with an incoming email from my boss in Portland so I go open that…
…to discover that she might be misreading the break-down of employee hours I just sent her, so I trot into my home-office and sit at the computer where I can pull up the entire payroll spreadsheet and type out a clearer explanation of who’s doing what.
…and I close my spreadsheet and ask myself, “What was I doing, anyway?”
Oh that’s right—I found the book of Call the Midwife, which made me kind of want to see another episode. So I put on my tennis shoes and get on the treadmill (which has a TV right in front of it for just this purpose—and this is when and where I watch the “chick flick” stuff my husband is not excited about) and watch another episode.
…and then I jump through the shower and put on some clean clothes (still no bra!—I’m working from home, baby!) which reminds me I should start some laundry (because I only own so many yoga pants—maybe I should look on Amazon for more) and the laundry is right next to the bathroom I meant to clean today, so I’ll get that done while I’m here, and I think I’ve earned myself a soda…
…which I pop open while I ask myself, “What was I doing, anyway?”
Oh that’s right—there was that Plague book I wanted to read! So I pull it up on my iPad and start to read. [This is the one part of the narrative where I actually stay put for a few hours. I have turned OFF all the notifications (new emails, FaceBook comments, text messages) that could come up on this screen, BECAUSE I use it to read.]
I’ve started to highlight descriptions and sections of the book that feel applicable to today, to people’s responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. So I start to think that it would be interesting to juxtapose excerpts of DeFoe’s book (talking about the Plague) against photos and headlines and graphs from today’s news.
…so I sit down at my computer again and start a new blog post in WordPress, where I can play around with the concept—and I type a few excerpts from DeFoe into text blocks. Now I just need the right current graphics to put alongside.
…so I start Googling images for “Trump downplays virus” (to go with DeFoe’s observation that the initial presence of the Plague in London was kept from the “publick” as much as possible). I’m playing with possibilities (about a dozen tabs now open on my browser), and a few of the images feature tweets directly by Trump…
…and I figure I could go right to the source, so I pull up Twitter and start scrolling down Trump’s timeline. (And scrolling. And scrolling. And scrolling. And I stop to see how far back I’ve gotten, and it’s yesterday. Aw, hell.) I mess around with blog formatting (WordPress has a new interface I haven’t mastered) for about forty minutes until I’m tired of working with this text block, so I shift gears and begin working on an introduction to the post, writing to set the scene for 1665 London and the Plague…
…until I hit a lull in the word-flow, and I think about putting a contemporary illustration alongside the introduction, and it seems there was a painting from the Louvre that really fascinated me when we were there, when I was nine years old, maybe I even bought a postcard of it… I start Googling for a Plague painting in the Louvre, and I don’t find it, but I DO find one that I definitely had in postcard form—a whole desperate family on a raft, struggling and waving for help…
Wait a minute, I totally remember this painting as being about The Flood—you know, the Noah one—but its title is “Raft of the Medusa,” which isn’t Biblical at all, so now I have to go read up on what this painting is actually about (a scandalous French shipwreck caused by an incompetent ship’s captain, what?!) and I wonder where I got my original idea, and why I was so fascinated by this particular painting that I would recognize it so immediately today. (In other circumstances I might have hypothesized that my nine-year-old self was titillated by the penis in the foreground… But after two full days of walking through the Louvre, I’m pretty sure I was penised out.)
I’m staring at this painting on my computer screen with two dozen tabs lining its top, and I’m tired of fiddling with the Plague post, and I ask myself, “What was I doing, anyway?”
Oh, yeah—I was reading the Times!
So—six hours later—I go back to my very first tab and begin again to scan the headlines.
And THAT,Ladies and Gentlemen, is how we read our news!
“Their schooling over, readers were presumably qualified to make their own additions to the books in their care.” –H.J. Jackson, in Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books
“books as pets–pet dragons, maybe, or something exotic–care & feeding of your book” –scribbled note in my own (heavily annotated) copy of Marginalia
I used to starve my books, all un-knowing. I’d been taught not even to place an open book face-down, let alone fold down its page corners or (heaven forbid) write in it–with the result that I kept an extensive library of books that probably needed therapy, their only discernable marks of attention being the address labels I carefully fixed inside their covers.
Then, in my 20s, I came across Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris–a celebration of reading in which she contrasted “courtly” and “carnal” book-lovers. I indisputably fell in the “courtly” category, treating my books as delicately as swooning corseted ladies, and I concluded that if I were a book I’d rather be ravished than revered. More to the point, I realized the relationship I was missing with my books.
I’d responded to books, but sterilely, separately, in carefully documented “reading journals” of extracted quotes, or sometimes in the form of Post-It notes added impermanently to the pages. So in the spirit of experiment, I selected a book whose thickness had almost doubled with its burden of Post-Its, and set about transcribing those notes into the book itself. The thing came to life! It became MY book in a way it hadn’t in all the years I’d owned (and read) it. I carried on gleefully from that point, carrying on conversations in the margins–with the text, with myself upon a subsequent reading, with others who borrowed my books with my encouragement to annotate…
And I swore, with the advent of e-Books, that I’d never switch. Give me the weight and the cover-art and the ability to keep conversing with my books over the “convenience” of the portable library. Until I discovered that my iPad allows for highlighting and marginalia–and suddenly I’m hooked. My growing library of electronic books (ALL of which I can carry with me ALL the time) is highlighted in a rainbow of colors, and sprouts dated notes (and poems and scribbles and sketches) throughout the margins. The books are arranged on digital “wooden shelves” (cover-art in view) in my own peculiar categories, and with a flick of my finger I can pull up the highlighted and bookmarked passages and my own notes. Anne Fadiman wrote that “If you truly love a book, you should sleep with it, write in it, read aloud from it, and fill its pages with muffin crumbs.” I haven’t figured out the digital equivalent of muffin-crumbs, but I’m joyfully fulfilling the rest of her prescription. And while I’ll never be without bookshelves in the house, I foresee our next change-of-address being an easier move.
I suppose one way to measure the popularity of a Classic is to count the number of spin-offs it’s spawned. Gauging by that measure, I’d have to say that Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice surpasses “popular” and rings in at “obsession;” a quick bookstore-search turned up more than 50 novels based on Austen’s golden oldie. And what a selection!–the Darcy/Bennet gang are recast in sequels, family sagas (including an account of Mary Bennet written by a Catholic nun), re-tellings from different points of view, spin-offs based on minor characters, modern settings, mysteries, bodice-rippers, even vampire and zombie novels. While I’m not quite ready to entertain the idea of “Mr. Darcy, Vampyre,” I’ll ‘fess up to a deep enough enjoyment of Austen’s original that I’m open to the knock-offs… IF they actually give me more of what I so enjoyed in the first place.
Not all of them do. Take, as a dreadful example, Linda Berdoll’s Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. Or, as a fellow blogger ironically observed, “Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife: in the bath, in the carriage, on the dressing table…” I don’t have any aversion to steamy scenes in and of themselves, but for heck’s sake serve them up with some Plot! (Ruminations on the discomforts of a long carriage-ride after a long sex-session aren’t a satisfactory substitute for actual storyline…)
In the middle of the spectrum are some of the have-fun-with it tales like Carrie Bebris’s Suspense and Sensibility, which combines characters from two of Austen’s novels and adds a touch of supernatural mystery. What I enjoy about this one is the fact that Bebris carries forward the wit and humor of the verbal exchanges between Elizabeth and Darcy, so although the plot is decidedly un-Austen, the characters remain themselves.
Which leads me to my favorite, the Top-Notch Knock-Off: Pamela Aidan’s trilogy, told from Darcy’s point of view. (Icing on the cake for me: Aidan is an Idaho Author, woot!) The opening novel, An Assembly Such as This, encompasses all of my favorite scenes and banter from Austen’s original, and adds more in the same vein. My interest, ultimately, in reading a spin-off stems from my wish that Austen had written more of it–and Aiden supplies just that. Elizabeth Bennet is her saucy self, Darcy confounded and frustrated that he can’t seem to gain the upper hand in their verbal sparring, Caroline Bingley as wickedly catty as ever, and still scheming to draw Darcy to herself… Add to the cast a few new characters, most notably Darcy’s valet, Fletcher; perpetually proper and unruffled, though not above a little “orchestrating” of events from the behind-the-scenes vantage point of the servants’ quarters, Fletcher occasionally risks his master’s ire by dropping advice and hints hidden in quotes from Shakespeare. The entire trilogy makes for an engaging read–one that I think Austen herself would have enjoyed, which is about the highest compliment I can think of to pay it.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m feeling an urge to pop in my well-worn disc of the BBC production of Pride & Prejudice. I imagine Austen would approve of Colin Firth as well. :)