Thursday, 19 January 2012

Dickens Goes Digital

For a long time I went to bed early and read books; hard back books, paperback books, comic books, duodecimal, octavo, quarto, folio, picture books, tragic books, humorous books, exciting books, boring books. Then something happened. I was given a Kobo for my birthday and my son-in-law Theo downloaded onto it the complete works of Dickens. (I must speak with him about this.)

Now, ever since watching the BBC TV series of "Our Mutual Friend" some years ago, this has been on my future reading list and so this was a natural choice for my comparison between reading on an e-book and reading in a conventional book. Having read "Bleak House" as an Everyman Classic some years ago I could make a direct comparison between two late works of the same author. (My Everyman Classic of "Our Mutual Friend" has sat on the shelves unread for some years).

As I write, I am approaching the end of "Our Mutual Friend" and am at that part of the story when I want to race to the end to find out the resolution of the complex multiple plots that weave through Dicken's masterpiece. So, have I enjoyed the experience? Emphatically Yes. Is it different from reading a book? Yes and No.

The Everman's Library edition contains a long introduction, an author bibliography and a chronology of the author's life and times. I would normally assiduously read these before commencing the text. The e-book (at least my version) is just the text, no more and no less. Did this affect my enjoyment of the book? Probably not, since the 'extras' in a book can be a diversion from the text and, really, do you actually need some critic's view?

In a complex book I often refer back to earlier chapters just to refresh myself on who said or did what if I start losing the plot. Reading the e-book I never did this, since it is much more difficult. With only about one third of a book page to an e-reader page this sort of quick navigation is all but impossible. I know there are search facilities but would you really want to break from an absorbing text to use these? Does this matter? Again most authors (Dickens especially) do remind the reader of what has gone before from time to time and if you trust the author then I actually preferred just going with the flow (somewhat akin to listening to a radio play or an audio book, the experience is linear).

As to typography, the Kobo does allow the use of several fonts and I chose one that worked for me and at a convenient size. However, there were a surprisingly large number of glitches in the text (this was downloaded from e-books at Adelaide). Some words ran together, some letters in words were capitalised and, worst of all, in the bits of rhyme inserted in the text, the end of the lines were missing, so to read these I would have had to get a hard copy. The Everyman's Library edition also contains the original 40 illustrations, which, of course, the e-book does not. Again, not a particular problem, I can always go and look at these later.

With regard to handling and convenience, the Kobo is superb; I carried it from place to place (even to a surgery waiting room) in a way I would not have done with the book. Its lightness makes it a joy to read held in one hand.

But the ultimate test? How highly do I now rate "Our Mutual Friend" as a book? Extremely highly; I have followed the vicissitudes of John Harmon, Bella Wilfer and Lizzie Hexam with mounting interest and, now, on the home run, I am sure I am just as excited as those who queued for the next part issue of Dicken's latest bestseller. And then, I guess, I must attend to "Little Dorrit" (on the Kobo, of course).

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

"The Hill of Dreams": Arthur Machen's Visionary Journey

There was a winding staircase leading from the ground floor of William Smith's bookshop in Reading up to the other floors of second hand books. As a student living nearby, this bookshop was a favourite destination and amongst the books on the shelves above this staircase was a hard back copy of Arthur Machen's "The Hill of Dreams". I used to pause on the stairs, take down the book, browse awhile and then put it back (too expensive for a student loan). William Smith's has long since departed from the cultural wasteland that Reading has become, but in its day it was a source of great treasures, most beyond my student means.

So it was in a Corgi paperback (1967) acquired later, that I first read of Lucian Taylor's journey from visions of Roman Gwent in his native country to struggling authorship in London. He dies in his miserable lodgings still in pursuit of the unattainable, leaving fragments of writing that his landlady describes as "illegible hopeless scribblings". There is much of autobiography in Machen's portrayal of Lucien, since he too left his beloved hills and fields of Gwent for the urban sprawl of London, where he wrote ecstatically of the mysteries beyond the seen and the hidden worlds awaiting seekers of the faery lands forlorn veiled from all but the most ardent searchers.

It was many years later that I obtained a first edition of "The Hill of Dreams", published by Grant Richards in 1907, with a frontispiece by S H Sime. I had also by then obtained a set of the Caerleon Edition of Arthur Machen (Martin Secker 1923), "The Hill of Dreams" being Volume 3 of this 9 volume edition.

Now, that should have been enough copies, but this is one of my favourite books and so it is perhaps no surprise that other copies have found their way on to the shelves. One of these was the Dover edition purchased in 1993 at one of the finest independent bookstores I have been to, the Northshires Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont.

The next in line is probably the signed limited edition published by Martin Secker in 1922, which was conveniently on display at Bath PBFA Bookfair, from Bankes Books of Bath.

There is, of course, the 1998 edition published by the Tartarus Press, to whom all Machen afficionados are indebted for their beautiful reprints of his major works.

It only remains to add the latest acquisition, that published in the Library of Wales series in 2010, which I found in Heffer's in Cambridge just last weekend, when we were celebrating my younger daughter Heather's birthday. (Well, why not buy a present for me as well?)

Is that it? Could there yet be one more copy waiting to join the set? Perhaps, but more likely not as other authors beckon and I must take note that I have "The Hill of Dreams" as a e-book on my Kobo, courtesy of Adelaide University. - Posted using BlogPress from my iPad