Letter from the Editor


If we have been among the fortunate our reading a great novel has changed in deep ways our life. But the life of that novel, especially one some two centuries old, is itself surprisingly fragile. Its own survival as more than a title depends on its having a critical mass of devoted, informed readers. Countless works have disappeared into an honored lifelessness, because there are insufficient numbers of readers who are able to cross the gulf between their culture and, say, England in 1815. BookDoors' annotated editions, the In Context series, help readers of different ages, experience, and expectations bridge that gulf. The intent is to provide a reader of today with the knowledge and vocabulary that an informed contemporary of, say, Austen or Dickens, had, and supplement that with interpretive commentary. Owing to a cluster of social, cultural, and economic conditions emerging over the last forty years, the teaching of these authors in schools and colleges has been marginalized. Untaught, the novels languish, because potential readers lack the preparation that an inspired teacher provides. At least a century and often two separate us from the England and America the novels portray. The differences between then and now mean that a novel such as Wuthering Heights is foreign country whose manners, morals, and laws of inheritance, even its language, are at times incomprehensible without background.

The novels of this period, like those of our own, are steeped in the social and intellectual issues of their time–so steeped in them that a novel such as Austen's Mansfield Park has itself become an irreplaceable part of the historical record of that time and the primary source for much of what we know about life then in the country house. We read Austen for the immediate pleasure we take in her lucidity and incisive, playful wit, but the substratum of her novels consists of a historical context, which, if we know it, both illuminates and enriches her fiction: composing this substratum are matters of gender and class, the law and especially that of primogeniture, money, the central if uncertain and maybe undeserved role in England of the landed gentry and their responsibilities to the society, and the audience for whom she wrote, their tastes and expectations. We are given to proclaiming that her novels, and those of the Brontes and Dickens and George Eliot, know no temporal or spatial boundaries–we credit them with having a "universal appeal," with being "timeless classics"–yet such generalities only blur the novels' uniqueness and their organic relation to their own historical time.

Though taught far less and read by far fewer people, the novels have not vanished. They remain vividly alive on TV and in movies. Perhaps there is a correlation between the diminished place the novels now have in schools and colleges and their huge popularity, beginning in the 1970s, as subjects of BBC and Masterpiece Theater productions, one of the first and finest being Galsworthy's linked novels,The Forsyte Saga, which depicts a family's rise more or less paralleling Queen Victoria's reign from 1837 to 1901.

The popularity of productions such as Dickens' Bleak House spawned feature-length films, such as the brilliant six-hour version of Dickens' Little Dorrit with Alec Guinness. Hardly a major novel of this period has not been quarried for film or TV–from Tom Jones to all of Austen to Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, from Jane Eyre, Pendennis, Great Expectations, Middlemarch to The Way We Live Now, Portrait of a Lady, and novels by Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, and E. M. Forster. The superb acting, the local color–dress, homes and domestic furnishings, city streets and hedgerows, vehicles, shops–and the cinematography visualize for us what the novelist, writing for an audience living then, often took for granted. Yet seeing a novel is a categorically different experience from reading it. A measure of the difference is the probability that the film of Great Expectations or the BBC production of Middlemarch will not have an equivalent impact on the viewer as the novel may.

One explanation is that the film lasts two hours, the BBC production of Middlemarch six hours and fifteen minutes, whereas reading the novel will easily take the best readers–and they are often the slowest–at the least five times as long. Simply, the novel contains a very great deal more. And reading slowly (often word by word to register the sounds and rhythms), the reader will respond to the modulations of the narrator's voice, sometimes to individual words, and will actively visualize the metaphorical language that is inseparable from great literature.

Seeing is passive, reading active. It requires us to imagine. We must mentally recreate a character's appearance, facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice, and clothes, as we must also rooms, trees, and the weather. The reader is director, actors, set designer, and cinematographer at every instant. Our internalization of the novel over hours, during which we are wondering, reflecting, interpreting, accounts for the profound impact reading can have upon us. That is why we cherish a superb literature teacher, the one who taught us how to read by showing in effect just how she or he read.

There is something else: reading Jane Eyre or David Copperfield, we are likely to stop along the way to reflect upon a passage or simply to daydream, pursuing associations that have us musing also upon our own lives. Perhaps, too, we copy out a quotation or jot down a note to ourselves, read over a paragraph, try it aloud. Seeing, however, we must submit to the movie's pace, and of course to the director's abridgments, distillations, and interpretation. The director reads for us–in fact, takes the novel out of our hands–and radically reshapes it to fit the new medium. Seeing is in the nature of it vivid. We have only to keep our eyes open. Reading requires our engagement, without which the novel remains inert.

The movies excel at vividness. They depict in detail what was commonplace then but unfamiliar now and almost meaningless to a reader. Here is a sample of items of dress that Austen uses to signal the wearer's station and taste: nankeen trousers, tippet, pelisse, surtout, lace lappet, mob cap, close bonnet, cockade, satin saque, cravat, gaiters, spencer, pattens, and girdle (not what you may suppose). The movie relieves us of the burden of our unfamiliarity with the ordinary vocabulary of that time, such as the differences among horse-drawn vehicles, often signifying the class, extravagance or not, and temperament of the owner, expressed through the landau, brougham, curricle, tilbury, barouche, and victoria. As would four-door sedan, drophead coupe, convertible, and (red) sports car.

Such factual matter stretches across the novel's surface, lending it color and texture. Beneath are the lattice-work of morals and mores, which shape the characters' personality and hedge the behavior. Finally, saturating the novel though often addressed only indirectly by the author, is the nature of that society, the political, legal, religious, and intellectual structures. All of this is indispensable to our understanding of the work and to our pleasure in reading it. What if we could have such comprehensive knowledge ready at hand, enriched by commentary all along the way? BookDoors' In Context editions originate in the strengths of interdisciplinary teaching and learning grounded in professional scholarship. The writing is clear and jargon-free, accessible by the general reader. The editions are a supplementary resource for teachers at the high school, college, and graduate school levels. The annotated books provide a unique resource to students who are researching an individual novel or author. BookDoors can provide this enriched text because it is the beneficiary of the electronic revolution. The ebook allows for swift access to annotations of any number and length, material that would be far too costly and cumbersome in print. BookDoors' copyrighted annotation program provides a superscript to every annotation (w, h, or d: "w" indicates a definition of a word; "h" an explanation of the historical context; "d" interpretive discussion). The superscripts alert you to that annotation's type and content so that you can decide whether to open it. Illustrations of various sorts accompany all of the novels (including in some cases original illustrations for that novel specifically). The website you are now on offers a glossary of all of the words defined in all of the annotated novels and gives you a search engine that will find anything you are looking for in any single novel, in all of the 100+, and in all of the annotations.

Gutenberg II: Flood Tide–1815.

This, the electronic revolution, is the third in human history to change dramatically the material nature of books. The first occurred with the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in about 1440, the second in England in the period from about the American and French Revolutions to 1815, a consequence in part of the Industrial Revolution. I take 1815 as a pivotal date, the time when Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott were writing and when the novel was emerging as the dominant genre of literature in English.

Though two centuries separate us from Austen, we share with her our participation in an epoch of seismic change for readers. Austen describes in Emma her astonishment at "this age of literature." She means the inundation of print and the proliferation of new authors, many now women, and an expansion of writers and readers to include those from the working classes. It is a tidal wave of print resulting from cheaper, faster methods of the production and the dissemination of printed material.

Newspapers, some newly powered by steam presses, became ubiquitous, as did journals and quarterlies. Sales were prodigious. Tom Paine's The Rights of Man, Part 1, a justification of the hopes driving the American and French Revolutions, sold 200,000 copies in England between 1792–3. Histories, dramas, the personal essay, autobiographies, and novels flood the culture–Gothic novels, novels of manners, sentimental novels, fantasy and science fiction such as Frankenstein (1818); historical novels, realist novels. All were cheaply readable through subscription (rental) libraries. Poetry, formerly aimed at an elite readership, attracted an enlarged audience with brave new subject matter that spawned new genres and extended old ones. Stirring hymns, products of the Methodist Revival, cross–pollinated with lyric poetry and the new children's literature to produce poems such as Blake's Songs of Innocence and other permutations shaped Wordsworth's and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads (1798). Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts sold two million(!) copies between March 1795 and March 1796, stemming the drift toward revolution and atheism. Manifestos and works of social commentary such as Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Cobbett's Political Register (1816) aimed to inform and arouse. Austen, writing anonymously, simply "By a Lady," added a precise, crystalline voice to this mammoth chorus.

Gutenberg III: Ebb Tide–Now.

Jane Austen registered print's noisy flood; we now are experiencing its hushed but even more sudden ebb. Nevertheless, like her, we too live "In an age of literature"–emailers, bloggers, twitterers, wikis; self–publishers, facebookers, online newspapers and journals, posts–an astonishing demographic of writers; the Gutenberg Project itself.

Vanishing are the feel and heft of the book, the smell of the paper, the sound of a page being turned, the smudged endsheets that map our reading to that point, the visibly diminishing pages as we approach the book's conclusion. But what replaces these is stunning and, in one of those caprices of history, inverts one feature of Austen's era.

What we call the Web comes trailing images of weavers, spinning-wheels, looms, cloth, tapestries. To readers of Scott and George Eliot, the Web may carry one back to a historic feature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the relatively dignified cottage industry of skilled independent hand loom weavers who worked from home and whose cloth was shipped over the globe. The inventions and subsequent factories of the Industrial Revolution destroyed the cottage industry, sweeping up whole families, dislocating them, and shuttling many into towns and some into other occupations.

Now their descendants have re-grouped. Our word "text" comes from the Latin textus, which means a "web" or a "weaving." Every computer, including this one, is now an equivalent to a handloom situated in a cottage and capable of spinning digital texts that encircle the globe. The Web is a loom but also an electronic wave that we "surf." Austen's flood tide of print is receding beneath us as quickly as it arrived, carrying away spines, glue, binding thread, backing, and paper. Yet in their wake, that word also elegiac, appears something formidable–the ebook, a half-inch marvel that contains entire libraries. Now we all possess the books, anytime, anywhere, hold in our hand what the wealthiest two centuries ago could hardly afford to own. Now we have only to make the books ours.

--Richard Fadem