Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Earl Method: how to read a 19th Century novel

As the undefeated champion of Varney, The Vampyre, as the mad, Twitter advocate for a faithful film adaptation of The Three Musketeers, and the girl whose summer reading list consists of at least three books that could conceivably be used to bludgeon someone to death, I thought I'd share a few tips on how to approach those kinds of books that give you arm-ache if you attempt to read them while lying on your back.

Now, while the so-called 'Earl method' is created with the 19th Century serial novel in mind, it works with most books of impressive length, regardless of their century (I'm looking at you, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell).

So, for the intimidated I bring you my tried and tested technique: no pills, no drugs, no unnatural exercises, this is...

The Earl Method: How to read a 19th Century Novel

You will need:

A novel. Specifically one you've always been meaning to read, but never quite got round to. It's probably one sitting on a bookshelf, looking erudite and gathering dust. Otherwise, there should be one at your library or local bookshop. If you have an e-reader, try Project Gutenburg
A bookmark. Even if you don't normally use a bookmark.
This is what happens to paperbacks if you don't use a bookmark
A table, work-surface, or the ability to read lying on your front.
Tea. Lots of tea.
... and maybe a biscuit or so.

Now, the table/worktop/seat in front of you on a bus isn't necessary, but it can be helpful. You don't need to lay the book flat,but by leaning it against the edge, you should overcome most arm-strain problems. Alternatively, if you read in bed, simply push the book into your pillow and raise yourself on your arms to create the optimum angle.

Now, there's the matter of weight sorted out. Excellent. Now, here's ten tips to make sure you finish it:

It works from books like this...
  1. Take your time. Reading one of these tomes is a big commitment in time, and the novels weren't designed to be speed read. Just... make peace with that before you start. This is going to slow down your reading rate.
  2. Find out how it was published originally. This might seem a little weird, but it can help with expectations. Was this a three volume novel? Was it serialised in a magazine? Is it a 'penny dreadful'? What was its genre and target audience? These questions will affect both the pacing and the novel's general tone. A novel published over half a dozen years will not be consistent throughout, may, in fact, not be a novel as we understand it. Try to meet it on its own terms.
  3. Set yourself a target (especially if you have a deadline)... Have a look at the chapter lengths,the volume lengths, the overall novel length, and set yourself a target. This is especially helpful with serial novels. Breaking it up can really help get into the rhythm of a novel. Something that was published in monthly instalments is not intended to be read in a handful of sittings - its pace anticipates gaps, permits recaps. More 'literary' novels frequently have lulls where your interest may wane - if you read a little every day or so, you can get through the slow bits.
  4. ...but don't make it a chore. If you don't meet a target, don't treat it like the end of the world. You're supposed to be enjoying this. Also, don't read it like you're trying to wring sense from every paragraph. There's a chance it won't all be directly important. Especially in penny-a-page fiction, there will be filler. In Historical Romances, there will be lumps of history. There may well be masses and masses of back-story. Feel free to skim this stuff - although remember skipping and skimming are not quite the same. ones like this.
  5. Read another book, as well. No matter how much you're enjoying it, reading two hundred pages of hundred and fifty year old prose in a sitting will make the head swim. If you've met your target for the day, or are bogged down and unable to go on, read something else - something short, something familiar, something ultra-modern - whatever you need. This book's not going anywhere.
  6. And on that note, don't be afraid to take a break. If it's wearing you down too much, put the book down and walk away. This is not quitting - you just need to do it sometimes. I left Middlemarch for two years at the end of chapter ten, then I picked it up again and finished it. I'm currently in a similar situation with both Vanity Fair and Les Misérables. I'll come back to them. So will you.
  7.  Google is your friend as are the notes at the back of the book. If you get totally lost in the references/ quotations/ historical detail, you are not alone. On a similar note, try reading the phonetically rendered regional accents aloud. Oh, and swearing every time you encounter one. It'll make you feel better.
  8. Remember that there is no shame in giving up...
  9. ...but don't do it anyway.
  10. And it goes without saying, but If there is a film version, try to forget about it. It won't be anything like the book.
So, there are my tips. Do you have any more? Or do you use a different method entirely?

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