Monday, June 17, 2019

Physical reading experiences and Swastika Night I

A recent thread that I continue to ponder concerns reading physical books. Having been reading e-books through Kindle for more than a decade and Gutenberg on-line volumes even longer--and of course physical books for decades--I now feel able to comment on both modes, electronic and print. I will first say I greatly appreciate e-books when I am doing research: it was a huge timesaver for me to be able to cut and paste quotes for my Bonhoeffer book, and this feature continues to be a boon. I also find it a lifesaver to load books onto my i-Pad for oversea flights and adventures. Further, I don't find much difference in the actual reading of a book one way or another, though I still find it harder to "curl up" with my Kindle.

Katherine Burdekin published this under the pen name Murray Constantine. She was a very private person, like Elena Ferrante. 

Nevertheless, after ten years, I do find I prefer hard copies to e-books. I am not happy or nostalgic or sentimental about this, as life would be easier--and reading easier on our global environment for a vast number of reasons-- if I (and others) could keep our library of volumes on a space no large than one single slim hardbound book. I find, however, that physicality matters. I am always forgetting the books I have in my Kindle library. It is as if they don't exist. This can lead to  a sense of not having read them and a tendency not to return to them. I find this phenomenon perplexing but real. Further, I derive happiness from looking at my shelves of real books that an e-book to date has not been able to replicate. I recognize my personal happiness is not the most important factor in the universe, but I mention it because it is part of my relationship to books.

All of this is a roundabout way of backing into my real subject, which is Katherine Burdekin's 1937 novel Swastika Night. I will get to the matter--the thought and prose--of the book itself soon, but I  want to continue to dwell in and on reading's great surround. Recently, I read an op-ed piece in The New York Times that argued we need to take the time to read books in one sitting or in long sittings. As one who in recent years, pulled in a multitude of directions, has taken to reading books in short bits over longish periods of time, this op-ed struck a chord. The books I remember liking best, those that stick with me, I've read in big chunks, such as on a plane to England. I have come to recognize that something important is lost, no matter the book's format, in the chopped-up reading session. This factor makes group reads online a problem--a book deserves to be read--and understood--as a whole. Therefore, I pushed myself to read Swastika Night in two sittings (it is short) and am glad I did.

The novel was put out by the Left Book club in 1940, during World War II. The Left Book club also reprinted Orwell.

 I also have been thinking about book historians, those people who study the physical production and appearance of books. How a book looks matter. I was delighted, for example, to learn--an idea that must have much captured Tolkien's fancy--that William Morris in his 1896 The Well at the World's End, imagined a book that could only be read when put on a particular stone in a particular forest. I wonder, therefore, if reading Swastika Night on-line, in a version that went margin to margin and looked somewhat more typed than like a real printed book,  dampened my experience of it? Does the joy of reading the novel in a brief span of time balance the marginal quality of the format in which I read it?

 I had tried (not very actively) to read Swastika Night once before, during my Bonhoeffer research. and had utterly forgotten it existed. A talk on Woolf's Three Guineas and utopias at a recent Woolf conference reminded me of it, as it was part of the conversation (utopias inevitably lead to dystopias). I decided to force myself to plunge in a second time.

Swastika Night reminds me of Candide in being a hybrid of novelist features and polemic, and in its use of exaggeration, satire, and very dark humor, though Candide is more laugh-out-loud funny in its over-the-top hyperbole, leaving you laughing and crying at the same time at the horrors the characters undergo.  Swastika Night uses, as well, naive narrators who unthinkingly--or partially unthinkingly--accept the social order. As a disclaimer, however,  it only shares certain similarities with Candide: in many ways the two books are very different. It is also prescient in envisioning, in 1937, a world war fought and won by the Nazis. But this blog is long enough and more on the novel's content will follow in a second blog.


  1. It does require knowhow reading a traditional book doesn't. Each time I try to do something I find myself confused because the different technologies are different. I am not able to figure out how to copy and paste off anything but a computer surface with a mouse to do it. Or key pad.

    Also I've been away thinking I have ten books with me and then my ipad doesn't work or the place doesn't have wifi or weak wifi or the pasword gives trouble. A physical book is really there. You are sometimes also just renting the book -- if you want to keep it.

    Emotion matters and really loving the physical book and losing yourself in it counts for me.

    I decided not to do Candide again after a couple of tries with classes of adults. They were intelligent people who complained it was the same joke over and over. They got that the world is a horrific irrational purposeless place where there is no safety. What they wanted were interesting characters and more individual events that might make them think nuanced ideas. Voltaire no longer travels as well as he did -- I love his letters and read some aloud but there is no good single edition. I've turned to his Letters from England which is a penetrating concise outline of the way he sees the universe and what are the Enlightenment ideas he thinks help prevent violence -- if not rape.

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