Monday, December 13, 2010

Dickens by candlelight--Day Two

It gets very dark very early Novembers in Reykjavik. We were there only for four days, but the time was shortened even more by the daylight and by its constraints. Daylight is of little consequence in New York City, but in Iceland it is everything. When the sun goes down, the great impenetrable inland—all volcanoes and lava floes, glaciers and razor-sharp rocks—disappears. Nothing but Reykjavik on a hill in the distance, nothing but the hope of Northern Lights.

It was in this dark that a friend and I involved ourselves in a heated debate. Reading was the topic or rather technology’s effect on books. My stance was no surprise to anyone who knows me, my cedar pencils, their pocket sharpeners, my love of vandalizing old hardbound books.

My friend took the side of the Kindle and nobly fought on. He is right, of course, we cannot stop time. The book is doomed. Reading must change. As it was with the Guttenberg, it is now with the screen.

Two days in to Dickens’ Bleak House, I was tempted to give up the audiobook recordings I’ve been using since Paradise Lost. Friday I’d finished Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, I scribbled across the pages while Heaney’s voice trilled in my headphones.

Epic poetry was made for the voice. Are novels made for silence?

The novel may have internalized the polyphonies of competing ideas, but it thrives on voiceless reading. Speed reading technique #1: you must stop subvocalization, the sounding out of prose in the head. If you ever hope to read quickly, you must realize that eyes are faster than lips and ears.

I recall the introduction to Herman Melville's final published work Clarel. If you haven't heard of Clarel you are not alone. It was last book that Melville published in his lifetime, years after Moby Dick was largely ignored. Melville must have wanted to be ignored to an even greater extent, for Clarel is a verse novel. Over 18,000 lines long, it bares the dubious distinction of being the longest poem in American Literature. Anyway, Hershel Parker in his introduction to the modern edition argues that Melville’s massive work was overlooked in part because of gaslight. Before it, most living rooms might have one lamp per room and thus one reader, reading out loud to a family cloaked in darkness. This made the reading of long poems, Parker reasons, far more popular, prior to gaslight and doomed Clarel. Melville wrote his poem meant for a family circle of reading, the introduction reasoned, but by the time it was published, gaslight lit up whole rooms. Each person might read their own book, cloaked now in their own silence.

I don't want to knock Clarel, but it has more knocks against it than well-lit rooms. Nonetheless, the point about gaslight stuck in my mind. Especially when it came time to read Dickens for an upcoming course entitled, "The Autobiography of the English Language." I thought of an experiment in turning back time, back to the reading days before the well-lit room.

The recording of Bleak House is 37 hours and 11 minutes. Even with the slow pace of my vandalizing, I could certainly do it faster. But then I thought twice. I thought I might use technology against itself. I'll cue my recording on the Audible App for my iPhone 4. Open the ten-pound hardbound folio I got at the Strand for $20. Light a candle. Turn out the lights. Scribble in pencil across Dickens while technology reads me to sleep.

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