Luisa Calè, Senior Lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, considers the experience of reading in parts to whet our appetite for the start of our reading and blogging adventure tomorrow.
This week we begin our reading of Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Mirroring its monthly rhythm of publication 150 years after it was published, from May 2014 to November 2015 we will engage in a reading experiment to capture nineteenth-century modes of reading through twenty-first-century social media. How does the novel’s serial publication define the operations of reading? What are its discipline and habit? What happens when we read ‘in parts’?
Time is critical to the physiology of reading. In 1959 Reuben Brower advocated ‘a method that might be described “slow motion”’, which involves ‘slowing down the process of reading to observe what is happening, in order to attend very closely to the words, their uses, and their meanings’. Georges Poulet and Wolfgang Iser argued for phenomenological approaches that would draw on the psychology of perception and apply Gestalt theory to the act of reading. Given that it is ‘impossible to absorb even a short text in a single moment’, Iser argued, ‘the reading process always involves viewing the text through a perspective that is continually on the move’. Sentence after sentence, the reader is invited to fill in the gaps in a dynamic process of anticipation and retrospection. Yet this phenomenological approach to reading becomes more pregnant when we think about how linguistic events are articulated by their material support. Yves Bonnefoy explored what happens upon ‘lifting our eyes from the page’. Just as the page and the book function as units of perception, so does the publication in parts.
The monthly rhythm of publication involves a fundamental articulation of literary temporality. Literary invention is shaped by the formal constraint of narrative units of thirty-two pages. The printing schedule produces a narrative rhythm, and a habit of reading. Going against the immersive possibilities of the bound book, reading at periodic intervals interrupts the flow of narrative, frustrates ‘reading for the plot’, and co-articulates narrative and reading time with the rhythm of production. The long form associated with the Dickensian novel is de-familiarised by the thirty-two-page units of attention engineered by its original mode of publication. The ephemeral paratext of advertisements captures each instalment’s place in the marketplace, anchoring the text to its contemporary moment of cultural consumption, yet its periodical publication articulates a succession of discrete reading sessions separated by regular intervals. If reading a long form requires an extended investment of time articulated by the rhythm of work and recreation, to read at monthly intervals extends the experience of the text over the course of a year and a half. Over the course of our reading experiment we will be exploring how reading in parts shapes the play of suspension, anticipation, and retrospection theorised by reader response, and what happens in the intervals between the discrete acts of reading dictated by monthly publication.