Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Serial Reader (I)

Back in the day, writers such as Charles Dickens released their novels not as books but as individual chapters serialized in magazines. Each month (or, later on, each week) the next episode in the story became available. This was something of a social phenomenon because people would read the chapter and then discuss it with the other literary-minded people in their circles, eagerly anticipating the release of the next installment. Only after the entire story had made its appearance in serialized form were the chapters published together in a single volume.

I don't know how pervasive this form of literature was in the rest of the world, but it soon appeared as far afield as Japan, which had recently begun the Meiji Restoration. In an adaptation, the stories were published not in periodicals but in hanging posters inside of trains. Each Sunday a new segment would replace the one commuters had read the week before.

These are interesting social phenomena from the standpoint of shared experience and cultural literacy, but we are interested in them today for their influence on the reading experience. Specifically, what is the function of chapter breaks, and how important is it for the reader to pause at these breaks?

In the form that we have it now, I cannot imagine anyone reading Oliver Twist in one-chapter-a-month installments unless they happened to be a high school student grudgingly completing a summer reading assignment. I even have difficulty imagining someone carefully going through one chapter every day. No, readers now pace themselves through chunks of material according to the time they have available to read, not according to the author's whim of where to insert chapter breaks.

Perhaps that isn't important for Dickens. At the time his social commentaries were intended to spark conversation about social reform, and the month of discussion about the story between installments was crucial to the purpose of writing it. Today, when many of the issues are considered more relevant to the industrial revolution than modern life, we read Dickens for entertainment or education, neither of which require the same length of time for pondering. But other authors writing for entertainment also serialized their works, so it can't be simply a function of genre.

The genre that reproduces this today is actually television, not print. Think about the weekly gatherings to watch LOST, 24, Chuck, The Office, House, Monk, Psych, and other programs with large followings. My friends like to experience each episode in a group, and even if they watch it separately there is always discussion about the most recent episode and what might happen next week. The regular release of episodes is, I believe, an integral part of what makes the shows themselves. Remove the serialization and you have crippled the genre. Just ask anyone who has sat down to watch old episodes of a show back-to-back. On one level it is more satisfying to watch it all at once and reach the resolutions more quickly, but the show loses something important when you remove the breathing room between episodes.

In books, though, are chapter breaks this important? Sometimes they give you an excuse to put down the book because you have reached a "stopping point," and sometimes they simply give you incentive to keep turning pages. Are you supposed to stop and think about things rather than reading on to find out what happens?

Although I hadn't intended to make this post an object lesson in serialization, it is rapidly escaping the customary length for the blogging genre and is approaching essay-length. So I am going to pause here and resume this discussion in a future post. Will Chris condone or condemn chapter breaks? Will he explain the title of this post? Will he respond to comments and reader opinions? Tune in next time for part II!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting thought. Maybe there's a similar reason for breaking up courses into twice-a-week lectures for four months instead of a three-day, all-day seminar.