On DailyLit

October 3, 2006

My often scattered attentions were drawn some weeks back by caterina.net to a website called DailyLit, whose mission it is to provide easily digestible chunks of classic novels to the busy reader’s e-mail. The website says, “[I]f you are like us, you spend hours each day reading email but don’t find the time to read books.”

I am, as someone who not uncommonly surfeits himself on 200 pages a day, deeply ambivalent about the project, whose advantages have complexities and, dare I say, a heritage not immediately obvious.

DailyLit renews the form of the serial under which many of our classic novels were published. These segments came monthly – thereby forcing an even longer break in the continuity of the story – and were often spread out for more than a year. To break up a novel is not a consequence of modern ADD, but simply of the length of the thing. DailyLit is not doing anything truly new here.

This length forces an interaction with the outside world. Few novels can be digested in one sitting, by even the most patient of readers (despite Joan Didion’s advocacy of this style of novel reading). Literary critic D.A. Miller writes:

What the form [of the novel] really secures is a close imbrication of individual and social, domestic and institutional, private and public, leisure and work. A drill in the rhythms of bourgeois industrial culture, the novel generates a nostalgic desire to get home (where the novel can be resumed) in the same degree as it inures its readers to the necessity of periodically renouncing home (for the world where the novel finds its justification and its truth).

The novel, according to this understanding, is predicated on the construction of an idealized, supremely busy reader for whom literature is a humanistic/humanizing foil to the anonymity suffered by the daily transformation into “economic man”; studying literature (as I do, monomaniacally) is dissociating it from its necessary compliment, probably spiraling the reader off into all kinds of strange fancies – the truth of which theory can be found in any English department.

If DailyLit is able to renew the place of art in everyday life, that’s certainly a worthy goal; but if, by its inbox peers, it subsumes literature in work, then it fails in that goal. The novel functioned as a way to restore the working reader to real life after a day spent in an artificial state – not as a porthole through which to view real life from the impenetrable and acquisitive hull of the marketplace.

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