Some Thoughts On Serial Reading

by Jim Farrar (1987)

I got used to reading serialized versions of books, mainly sports books, when I was a kid, so I can't really say this is a form of entertainment that is unfamiliar to me. I would emphasize the word "entertainment" here, however, if for no other reason than to point out the obvious and say that to entertain seems to me to be the primary function of The Woman In White, and consistent in purpose with that of other novels originally appearing in this form during the Victorian period.

From a literary standpoint, at least, having read The Woman In White this way, over an extended period of time, makes me appreciate and understand how a novel is developed, how a long piece of fiction is pieced together by its author--how plot and character are conceived and then executed over the course of four or five hundred pages.

What is not so clear is whether or not this sense of development is purely the result of reading one particular novel in increments, and then considering what was read over the next three to five days, or, rather, if this understanding comes from writing my immediate reactions--which usually involved matters of plot--and listening to our reading group's discussion of the story two times a week over an eight-week period. I often found that something would be brought up in class that had totally escaped me the first time I'd read over it or, frequently, just simply forgotten.

Also, since The Woman In White is essentially a mystery story, I wonder if the genre itself had some bearing on my reactions and on my observations of the plot. Looking back over my journal, I see that the entries are generally brief and, as mentioned, concern the plot itself or comment on the various characters and on what I perceived their roles to be at that particular point in the story.

Glancing at my journal, I also notice that my thoughts tend to run in fragments, as if piecing together, as the metaphor goes, the parts of some literary jigsaw puzzle.

And in such a light can I see my thought processes at work. Though I did comment on Collins' style a number of times, most of the entries dealt with the information Collins gives us about the story, which are mainly attempts to put all the given clues together and solve the mystery before reaching the end of the book.

Perhaps this explains the popularity of the mystery genre. Such narratives ultimately become, I think, a contest between reader and author, a friendly battle of wits in which, in retrospect, sufficient enough clues are given by a writer to the reader for which the latter can find, or at least infer, the solution to the mystery before the conclusion of the story, before all is, of course, revealed. It's interesting to think how I might have reacted to, what turns my journal might have taken, had we done this assignment for either Middlemarch or Vanity Fair.

A few specific comments on the text itself, then: though the footnotes did lend to an understanding and help clarify certain terms and historical references which were unclear, in the main I found that reading them did more harm than good, in as much as there were a couple of instances in which certain things important to the development of the story were given away within the text of the notes. This really isn't a major criticism, since I merely stopped reading them after about the second or third time, but more careful editing would have avoided this inconvenience.

More irritating, however, was the layout of the text itself. Installment breaks, being that the editor saw fit to include them, should have commenced on a separate page from the end of that preceding it. Not that I needed encouragement, but having the beginning of many of the installments on the same page and directly below its predecessor certainly encouraged peeking.

All in all, I think I prefer this type of reading over the more common (for English majors generally and for this class specifically) practice of burying one's head in a book for six or seven hours at a stretch. Being a relatively slow reader anyway, I found the leisurely rate at which we went through The Woman In White more consistent with the pace at which I normally read in my spare time for enjoyment. I think many novels, if not most, are meant to be read this way, slowly, a couple of chapters at a sitting, after which the reader puts the book down and considers the material for a day or so before starting in again. This is probably a common observation, but one which is worth reiterating because it seems so central to the whole experience.

One other thing worth mentioning is that my wife read the novel along with me, at about the same rate, with both of us finishing at more or less the same time (actually she finished ahead of me, which I was determined not to let her do, so as to avoid the you-ain't-got-nothin'-figured-out syndrome).

At any rate, it was interesting to note that both of us tended to react to the same things in similar fashion. The scene in which Count Fosco writes in Marian's diary, for example, elicited shock and anger from both of us and is, to my mind, one of the more chilling passages I've read in this genre, or have ever read, for that matter. From that point on I would hear my wife mutter "that goddamned Fosco" every so often while reading and, being that she was normally ahead of me, I became fairly adept, as I encountered them, at identifying those passages which had provoked her exclamations.

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