Reading in Parts, by Luisa Calè

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.



Filed under Books, Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

5 responses to “Reading in Parts, by Luisa Calè

  1. cwaters1960

    Luisa aptly notes the ‘ephemeral paratext of advertisements’ that captures each instalment’s place in the marketplace’. And what a fascinating collection of advertisements we have here! The inclusion of an advertising supplement bound in with the instalment and named for the novel with which it appeared – such as the ‘Our Mutual Friend Advertiser’ – was of course a regular feature in the monthly parts of those novels Dickens serialised in this format. But the proportion of the part taken up by the advertisements in this first monthly issue of Our Mutual Friend was new. The 32-page Advertiser takes up as much space as the letterpress of the novel, which is itself followed by another 36 pages of advertisements – some of them tipped-in slips or flyers – not to mention the advertisements that appear inside the cover wrappers. No one could mistake the commercial basis of the world into which this novel was being launched.

    It’s fascinating to think about the kind of readers of Dickens’s novel that these advertisements would seem to be appealing to. Their appetite for reading matter is well catered for with numerous advertisements for every manner of publication in a wide variety of formats suited to all incomes: from the illuminated gift books, ‘every page richly printed in Gold and Colours, from Designs by Samuel Stanesby’, like The Floral Gift at 14s or 21s for morocco cover, to an eighth edition of Trollope’s Dr Thorne at 5s, down to the weekly issue of the Family Herald at 1d. Advertisements for crinolines that enable a lady to ‘throw herself into an armchair, pass to her stall at the Opera, or occupy a fourth seat in a carriage’ without inconveniencing herself or her neighbours suggest one group of female readers with certain pretensions to gentility, while other advertisements – extolling the virtues of Reckitt’s Diamond Blacklead, for example – suggest an appeal to the practical housewife concerned with domestic economy, but nevertheless susceptible to the guarantee of efficacy promised by its being ‘Used in the Palaces of the Queen and Prince of Wales’. Alongside advertisements for patent medicines (that Dickens himself satirised in his fiction and journalism), there are others for perfumes, lock-stitch sewing machines, opera glasses, expensive etchings of paintings by Turner, cattle feed and cocoa. In short, the paratextual advertisements introduce the reader of this first instalment to the rapidly expanding commodity culture of ‘these times of ours’ in a way that makes the revelation of the gruesome trade in corpses of the opening chapter all that more startling.


    • Ben Winyard

      Thank you cwaters1960 for this really wonderful and insightful comment. I was struck by the association made between crinoline and movement you discuss, which reminded me a little of the rigorous physical effort of a woman with which the first instalment opens. The freedom and movement advertised, though, is of a decidedly genteel kind (mainly throwing yourself into various seats!) and the activities far removed from (female) manual labour – and far more limited. The juxtaposition of this aggressive, inveigling commodity culture with the instalment’s hidden, shameful scavenging economy is really striking and fascinating.


  2. I was also reflecting on temporality as I was reading this week, and particularly the temporality of personal and social narratives that occur over the course of a 19-month installment. Thinking ahead to when we finish the project, in November 2015, it struck me that I’ll have passed two significant milestones by then (one age related, and one job related), and it was at that point I realised just how long a 19-month reading project really is! This got me thinking about both the personal and social changes original readers would have experienced over the course of reading a single novel – how much one’s life, and also one’s socio-cultural context, can change in the course of reading a Dickens novel. When teaching 19th century lit., I’m often reminding students to be attentive to the changes that occur across the century and the nuances of each novel’s socio-cultural context; reading OMF this week was a good reminder that we also need to keep in mind the changes that occur during the production and reception of a single novel, and to think about the fluidity of the social landscape that forms the backdrop of the reader’s experience of each text. It’ll be interesting to reflect on this as we progress over the monthly installments.


    • I’ve also been excited about resituating my relationship to the text. Normally—especially at the end of a spring semester—I’d want to read in massive reading sessions, letting myself get obsessed. But I can’t here, and already, I suspect I’ll be waiting for the first of every month and voraciously consuming the text, which will probably prompt some kind of stocktaking: What have I accomplished this month? Bit of an alarming proposition there.


  3. Michael Slater mentions the precision of the novel’s opening, between the two bridges, but there’s also considerable temporal ambiguity. “In these times of ours…”. It collapses historical distance, enveloping both Dickens’s first readers and his most recent within that all-inclusive ‘ours’, makes the narrative seem both specifically sited in the concerns of the mid-nineteenth century and the occupant of an eternal and temporally unmoored present tense. In fact, it’s suggestively close to the ‘once upon a time’ of fairy-tale…


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