October 15, 2007

Personal essay: Nathaniel Hawthorne, DailyLit, and the Penny Dreadful 2.0.

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

(Original image by Flickr member Pamie884.)

So before anything else, let me assure everyone that I am not involved in any way with the online literary service DailyLit.com, do not stand to gain anything by mentioning them here, and in fact am not even friends with anyone involved with the organization. That said, I'm a big fan of what they do, and partake of it myself often; they have basically taken a little over 500 full-length books at this point, and have had humans break these books down into little five-page chunks, split at natural points in the story like at the ends of sub-chapters. You as a reader, then, can subscribe to any of these books at any point you want, and have these five-page chunks sent one day at a time for however long it takes, delivered either as an email to your inbox or as an RSS feed to your news reader. Some of these books are contemporary ones, and DailyLit charges you a fee to have them delivered this way; but most of the books found there right now, actually, are popular public-domain ones, the same kind found for free over at a place like Project Gutenberg. And like I said, over the last year or two I've become a heavy regular user of DailyLit when it comes to such free books; in fact, I've finished four classic novels this way as of this point, including Howards End and The Time Machine, and am just finishing up Charles Dickens' Great Expectations as we speak (started all the way back at January of this year).

In fact, it recently became time for me to finally add another new title to my distribution list at DailyLit; after some deliberation, I finally decided on the 1850s classic House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, someone who helped define early American literature and who I think is long overdue for another contemporary retrospective. And let's face it, that my desire to go back and read creative classics from the 18th and 19th centuries is only coming for the first time with age, with me in particular really having needed first to familiarize myself with a lot of what the modern world had to offer before becoming interested in where it all came from; now that that interest is creeping into my life more and more these days, though, I find myself with a stronger and stronger desire to revisit many of these literary figures from the 1800s, for the first time since they were all forced on me in high school during a compulsory American Lit course.

By the way, the "cover" seen above is not to be found on any physical publication of the book over the years; it is something I hastily assembled myself in Photoshop just for this essay, after looking through a ton of actual old book covers and finding them all lacking in one way or another. Because that's one of the things to make very clear about House of the Seven Gables, and is one of the reasons I wanted to read it so badly; that it's one of the first true examples of American Gothic literature ever written, and served as a precursor to what we now know as American horror fiction, which I didn't feel was accurately depicted in any of the old book covers I found online of the project. Hawthorne was such an interesting guy, I think, and especially the more you learn about him: a friend of the "common man," although born into a position of wealth and privilege (counting among his childhood friends, for example, future American presidents); on the edge of the Transcendentalists and other proto-hippie back-to-nature movements, but eventually becoming one of their more outspoken critics. Hawthorne was obsessed with the Puritan heritage of his upper-class old-money New England family, and especially of the power and fortune gained by his ancestors through the fanning of the witch-hunt flames that were happening back then; it's no coincidence, after all, that the first of Hawthorne's novels to become hugely successful with the public was his Puritan-era melodrama The Scarlet Letter.

House of the Seven Gables is another project inspired by Hawthorne's real Puritan background; in fact, the house at the heart of the story is a real one, found to this day on the southern edge of the city of Salem, Massachusetts, actually shown in the front-cover mockup I made for this entry (from an original image by Flickr member Pamie884), built during Puritan times in the 1600s and owned by the Hawthorne family ever since. Young Nathaniel used to visit this house on a regular basis during his childhood, and I suppose it tickled something profound in his imagination; his fictional novel on the same subject is a deliberately fantastical one, which he even acknowledges in the preface, apologizing in advance for the amount of irrational and illogical things that happen within. Don't forget, Romantic artists like Hawthorne were literally doing such work for the first time since the Enlightenment of the 1700s and early 1800s, where rationality and realism were the creative buzzwords of the day; the dark, forboding, semi-supernatural storyline that Hawthorne put together for House of the Seven Gables (what we would these days simply call a "horror story," or perhaps a "psychological thriller" if you want to get fancy) was not just a smart little story device, but literally the first time in American history that such stories were being written and published.

It's all this I'm mentioning, I suppose, that is one of the keys behind why I like DailyLit so much; not just to have five-page chunks of public-domain books emailed to me each day, but also because it inspires me to sit down and do a bunch of research about that author, that period of history, all the ancillary cultural topics that might be of relevance, etc etc etc. I think for any smart lover of books, in fact, such an onus is like a very noticeable shadow hanging over one's shoulder; that no matter how much we know about the canon of world literature over history, there is always more to know, and with there always being a certain amount of satisfaction on the part of an intellectual when learning yet one more important chunk of that. Getting geared up this weekend for the start of House of the Seven Gables had me looking up and reading through stuff that I've been telling myself for years that I should really sit down and read through someday; the history of New England, the history of American literature, the history of cultured elitist movers and shakers of the Victorian period, the major themes of Hawthorne's work and the timeline of his personal life.

I guess this then leads me to the important detail that makes all of this happen; because let's face it, for a long time I've had the opportunity to download House of the Seven Gables online, as well as do the research just mentioned. No, the thing that spurred it all on from theoretical to actually finished is the deliberately slow, serial nature of the subscription; knowing ahead of time that the book is going to take me four months to read, because of it being delivered to me in equal installments over four months, and knowing that I still can't go any faster than that even if I read each installment quickly. It forces me to slow down, which in our modern times then makes me feel okay with slowing down; it inspires me to do all the ancillary research into the life and times of that writer that I do, to take my time with each five-page chunk and really savor it for all it's worth. It's an unexpected benefit of DailyLit, at least in my opinion, even though maybe the founders meant it from the beginning -- that unlike having the full book sitting in your lap each time you read, the daily subscription forces you to slow down to a certain pace, and removes the subconscious self-caused guilt over slowly enjoying something when you could instead be rushing on to the next thing.

It's so easy to forget, I think, that no matter what the accepted and popular formats for creative work are in the times you live, those have not always been the accepted and popular formats for creative work. Take full-length novels, for example, one of the two formats (along with full-length movies) given the most attention here at CCLaP; that although most of us consider them now to be the most dominant form ever of telling a long-term narrative story, when first invented they were considered not much more than the literary equivalent of television-show DVD boxed sets. The real action back in the early 1800s, when full-length novels first starting appearing in large numbers, was still in serial form, for a whole bevy of related reasons: because of the lower literacy rate among the general public, leading to shorter attention spans; the relatively high cost of full-length publishing and binding; the relatively cheap cost of thin onionskin paper, great for fast and cheap distribution but lousy for archival binding; and lots more little factors that all added up back then.

One of the most common forms of mass entertainment back then was in fact an intriguing blend of what we now know as traditional novels and weekly television shows: called everything from penny dreadfuls to pulps to periodicals to dime novels to story papers, depending on the location and subject matter, they were basically weekly publications that combined together an evening's worth of reading entertainment, spread among three or four ongoing stories grouped together, much like how a television network now programs an evening's worth of "prime-time" entertainment. All year long a teenage boy might collect one of these penny dreadfuls, for literally a penny a week, on super-cheap paper that would stain the hands and fall apart with the first rainstorm; each Christmas or birthday, then, if the boy was lucky, their parents would get them the fancy bound book version of all 52 previous episodes, complete with new illustrations and hardy leather covers. It was only after decades of such a business model, in fact, did the growing literacy rate of the public combine with the falling prices of traditional binding, so that the serial part of the publishing could be skipped and the full-length "novel" put out as the story's premiere instead.

The success of something like DailyLit, then, combined with some other examples I'll be getting into in a moment, plus the falling popularity of traditional novels, begs an interesting question that some have been recently asking -- are we entering a period of new relevancy for serial publishing, something you could maybe call Penny Dreadful 2.0 if you want to be snarky (and I want to be snarky)...and if so, how does it differ from the first big popular wave of serial publishing? After all, a strong argument could be made that blogs themselves, all 60 million of them or whatever there are now, are nothing more than serial publishing made easy and therefore popular again; that especially when you look at the beginning of the web, when blogs caught on in the first place, the main appeal to them was the ongoing narrative story found at each one, mostly at that time regarding those people's personal lives told in the fashion of a melodrama. It should come as no surprise that a service like DailyLit has become as popular as it has, especially while distributing classic literature that was often distributed in serial form to begin with; serialized narrative stories have been the norm online for at least twenty years now, to the point that they come very natural to the public again for the first time since the 1800s.

But this still prompts an interesting question, I think one a lot of online-publishing boosters fail to address to their detriment, of what the difference is between this new wave of serial popularity and the original one of the Victorian era. As mentioned, for example, it's important to remember that the serial publishing of the 1800s was for the most part forced on people -- because of the general literacy rate not being that high, for example, because of publishing costs being relatively much more expensive back then, etc. This latest infatuation with serial publishing is largely a voluntary one, which I think is important to acknowledge; that much like a member of the creative class rejecting a car in favor of urban bicycling, so too are people with lots of access of full-length novels voluntarily turning instead to a shorter and artistically more efficient form of storytelling. Like I said, for example, a big part of why I enjoy DailyLit so much is the limits it puts on me; that I can only get through three or four books a year this way, because of the service determining the length of each day's portion for me, allowing me to relax and feel okay about enjoying each of these books in a heightened way that comes only from slow absorption. In a world where my life is constantly on the go, where I constantly feel that I'm getting a surface-level understanding of everything but never have time for a deep understanding of anything, I appreciate the chance to deliberately slow down through DailyLit and give these complex novels the time and attention they deserve. But at the same time, though, by making this a ten-minute part of my daily routine, I'm collectively able to get through a lot more classic literature than when usually deciding to just sit down with a full book -- three to four novels a year, like I said, which adds up to 30 or 40 over a decade, a number I'm certainly not going to sneeze at.

I think that underground artists, cutting-edge publishers, non-profit organizations and others could do a lot of good, asking themselves these kinds of questions about serial publishing these days -- of what they can do with such a format that can't be done with traditional long-form publishing, of what they can present to very contemporary audience members that would match their very busy, fractured, mobile lifestyles. Too many people, I think, can get caught up in a game of nostalgia when it comes to publishing, I suppose partly since it's a very old medium and partly a very stodgy one; to see modern serial publishing, for example, in very traditional terms, instead of envisioning the very contemporary things that can be done with it. I would encourage people instead to do more like the people at DailyLit have done, and re-imagine the tools already around them in new and innovative ways, simply by picturing the things that people could use that no one's bothered to sit and create. And needless to say, if you know of other interesting experiments going on with online serial publishing these days, I highly encourage you to leave the information and a link in the comments below.

(Read more about House of the Seven Gables: Amazon | DailyLit | GoodReads | Google Books | GradeSaver | Gutenberg | LibraryThing | Shelfari | SparkNotes | Wikipedia)

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:47 PM, October 15, 2007. Filed under: Arts news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction |