Susan E. Cook: Deep Reading the Victorians (Part 2 of 3)

In Part 1 of this post I described Nicholas Carr’s thesis about the cognitive differences between digital and print reading, and suggested that it would be worth troubling the category of “print reading” a bit further by considering the ways print has changed over time.  Below I detail the first part of my print reading experiment.

For my own nineteenth-century reading experiment text I selected Mrs. Henry Wood’s East Lynne.  I selected it because I had never read it before but knew it was sensation fiction and I wanted to read as engrossing a text as possible in order to more accurately test the impact of the medium, rather than the plot.  I also selected it because I own what I judge to be a late-nineteenth century edition of the novel already—an undated American Arlington Edition.  An online search of the Arlington Edition of East Lynne indicated it was published at some point prior to December 1890, as this was the date of the earliest newspaper advertisement I could find for the book.

I began reading my copy of the book on a Thursday and finished reading it the next morning.  I’m a sucker for sensation fiction and this novel did not disappoint.  The particularities of the early edition did not impede my reading speed, apparently, yet I noted a few encumbrances and noted my observations as I went (warning: occasional plot spoilers):

Initial thoughts: The book is hardcover and in relatively good condition, but I am nevertheless afraid I am going to break it—perhaps I should have selected a text that is less fragile.  I can’t open the pages fully because I’m worried I will break the binding.  I like the old book smell.  The pages are yellow and brittle, the overall size that of a mass-market paperback today.

Hour 1: I notice the print first.  The print is tiny and there is not much space between each line, which makes the novel hard to read.  Every 4th or 5th page or so is printed slightly or not-so-slightly cockeyed.  So far none of the words bleed off the page but I have to tilt the book every time I get to one of these pages.  Some of the letters and words are smudged, so I think what I have is a relatively inexpensive edition.  I also think a moth might have just flown out of the book.  The plot is fairly engaging: there has been a murder and a marriage plot also seems to be developing.

Hour 2: My hand is starting to cramp from holding the book open just enough to read but not so far that I will crack the binding.  This, of course, would not have been an issue for the original consumers of this edition.  I also just discovered some fabulous advertisements in the back of this edition and I’ve distracted myself by reading them for a good ten minutes.  I can learn to play the “German Accordeon” without a teacher by purchasing an Instrumental Music Self-Instructor: “All the sweet melodies of this Instrument can be easily rendered by an application of the plain rules so well laid down in this book.”

Hours 3-4: I think I’ve adjusted to the font size somewhat because I’m not actively thinking about it all the time.  But I find I need to take more frequent breaks than I do when I’m reading more contemporary editions.  I’m starting to get a headache from squinting at the font.  Some of the words bleed together on occasion.

Hours 5-6: Is this plot for real?  The good lady Isabel has fairly suddenly and irrationally decided her husband must be cheating on her and has run off with that obvious rogue, Francis Levison.  Then she has been horribly maimed in a train wreck and was misreported dead, allowing her ex-husband to remarry Barbara, the woman Isabel thought he was cheating on her with to begin with.  Also, I think the dye from the cover is coming off on my hands.

Hour 7: No, really—is this plot for real?  Now the disfigured Lady Isabel has gone to work for her ex-husband incognito as her children’s governess.  Lost in the plot, I rip two pages by accident by turning them too enthusiastically.

Hour 8:  I’m trying to read this novel before going to sleep but I find I’m too distracted by the font to continue—despite the fact that I’ve gotten to the courtroom scene where it seems we will at last resolve the mystery of the murder—a mystery that is not nearly as interesting as the pathetic plights of Lady Isabel.

Hour 9: I’m finishing this the next morning and the plot is pretty much just as absurd today as it was the day before.  I still haven’t gotten used to the size of the font, but I suppose I might if all my books were printed this way.

It can be hard, Jonah Lehrer concludes in his critique of Carr’s book, to truly weigh the positives and the negatives of the Internet’s impact on our brains; it can be hard, he writes, “to predict the future through the haze of nostalgia.”  Carr romanticizes printed books in his critique of digital reading, a romanticism that tends to conflate all print to some degree.

When I started reading East Lynne I thought the experience would feel more alien.  While there were definite differences between reading an older edition and reading a more contemporary edition—some of which I was aware of for the entire 473 pages—I found myself engrossed in the plot and willing to overlook many of the slight discomforts.  I might have been more comfortable reading the book online, though undoubtedly more likely to check email and social media with greater frequency.

I don’t doubt Carr’s argument about the cognitive differences between reading print and reading online, but while my own experience reading a nineteenth-century edition was more like reading a contemporary edition than I anticipated, it was not identical to that experience—nor would it be identical were I a nineteenth-century reader, without the same precise vision correction or the benefit of four incandescent bulbs in my reading room I enjoy today.  Print is not a static technology but one that changes in response to new technological pressures, new demands from readers, and new market concerns more broadly.  The shift to digital was a large shift, but it was not the only shift.  We would do well to remember that our experience of print was not the same as the Victorians’ or those who came before.  My reading of East Lynne was both shallow (because I was distracted by the materiality of the experience) and deep (because I was also engrossed by the plot—which itself was, I should note, not actually all that deep in another sense of the word).

In my next and final post, I will report on my students’ reactions to their contemporary print, nineteenth-century print, and online reading experiences.

Susan E. Cook, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of English
Southern New Hampshire University


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