Conrad First The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive

Old-Fashioned Reading in a Digital Age: Using Conrad First to Teach Serialized Fiction

J. Stephen Murphy, Harvard University

© J. Stephen Murphy. No part of this text may be reposted or republished without the permission of the author.

[4,488 words]


Computers and periodicals have been happy bedfellows for a while now, and the continued growth of e-reading promises to make this partnership even stronger. More and more readers go exclusively to digital sources to read newspapers and magazines, not simply for the convenience and low (or non-existent) cost but also for the particular capabilities afforded by digitization, including linked content and multi-media presentations (e.g., video and sound clips). Multi-media magazines were not invented in the Internet age, it should be said. The great avant-garde magazine Aspen (1965–71), for instance, included sound recordings, paper sculptures, flipbooks, and more. The difference today is that the inclusion of video and audio material in a magazine or newspaper on the Web is perfectly commonplace. While Aspen and other experimental magazines were attempting to push the borders of what constituted a magazine—and attracted the small audiences that such experimentalism typically earns—digital magazines have quietly begun a small revolution in the format and nature of popular magazines and magazine reading.
The prevalence of multimedia content may be the most noticeable transformation magazines have undergone in the shift from paper to screen, but it is not the most important. Two other common technologies—linked content and searchable archives—will continue to have more profound effects on the ways we read and think about magazines. Linked content breaks the boundary of the magazine itself, so that individual pieces float freer of their original setting. It is one thing to read an article in The Economist in a doctor’s office, where the ways we read it can be shaped by the context of its print surroundings, both editorial and advertising, and of its association with the history and authority of The Economist. It is another thing to read an article on an iPhone after following a link from Twitter to the London Review of Books blog to the Huffington Post to The Economist, so that you have little sense of who or what is responsible for the piece. If linked content breaks down the synchronic divisions between magazines, websites, and digital tools, then searchable archives have a similar effect on diachronic divisions. By making pieces from different years, decades, or even centuries available through the same interface, on-demand digital access to an archive blurs the old concept of the issue. One can find, for instance, on the homepage ofthe LRB websiteon any given day links to articles from three different issues from 2012 as well as to articles from 1998 and 1995. Keyword searches of the archive break down the idea of an issue by making the history of a periodical ostensibly present all at once, stripping an article of its original context.
While it is true that the annual indices that appeared in many Anglo-American magazines could be used a bit like a keyword search, allowing a reader to skip straight to an article, when she did so she still had to turn to the issue and then locate the piece within it. As a result, she would end up looking at, if not reading, a portion of the magazine. This need to turn pages, to engage with the magazine as an object in space, is the foundation for one of the essential qualities of the paper magazine: its power to distract readers from the object or objects of their initial intention. Advertising is born of this capacity to distract, but so too is the periodical’s power to promote new or unfamiliar writers, texts, artists, etc. Magazines are networked, in part, because they encourage us to look at texts and authors as always already situated among other texts and authors. They create networks among issues of a title by publishing authors repeatedly and featuring recurring columns, such as serials, and they create networks between titles by publishing responses to other magazines and using writers who are well known for publishing in a particular venue. While print magazines created a kind of proto-internet, digital magazines are literally networked, and, as a result can create an even more powerful experience of intertextuality than a print version can, through hyperlinks. While “the issue” and, quite possibly, “the magazine” will become obsolete forms of publication, intertextuality will only grow more prevalent in on-line formats.
At least it will among born digital magazines, but what about the digitized magazines one finds on the Conrad First website, the Modernist Journals Project, or HathiTrust? Are they different in kind from paper magazines, as I believe digital magazines are? Perhaps the more important question is whether we read digitized periodicals (i.e., reproductions of historical magazines and newspapers that predated the Internet or were created in such a way that that they might as well have) more like paper ones or digital ones (i.e., periodicals that are either born digital or appear in digital form simultaneously with a paper version, from which they often differ in format and/or content)?
Let it be said, immediately, that digitized magazines are a boon for historians and lay readers alike. Among the benefits:

1. Digitization greatly increases the accessibility of texts that were often hard to find and required significant expenditures to see.

2. Searchable archives increase access, too, since they allow readers to locate relevant material much more efficiently than reading and browsing in physical archives for days, weeks, or months would do.

3. Metadata allow researchers new kinds of access, using digital tools such as network analysis software or topic modeling programs to dig into data in order to find structures of organization and meaning in periodicals.

Digitization’s power is that, when it’s done well, it makes a database (or, really, multiple databases) out of magazines. A database, which Kenneth Price defines as “a collection of structured data that is managed by a database management system, most commonly based on a relational model,” is a powerful tool because it allows users both to access and manipulate data in ways that printed texts do not, in large part because databases transform print into “discrete computer files that function atomistically: as functional units within a computing system each item is just as important as every other item” (Price 2009). The problem with digitization is that it encourages us to treat magazine themselves as databases, subject to search and manipulation, rather than as conglomerations of texts, paratexts, and images that need to be traversed in order to find their order and meaning.
Once digitized, historical magazines run the risk of becoming nothing more than discrete collections of data scrubbed clean of their origins in a form of media as distinct as the book or the film. The style of reading digitized magazines often copies the structure of the database—it is atomistic, treating articles as little worlds unto themselves. Because most sites that reproduce historical magazines see it as their duty to reproduce as many of a magazine’s bibliographic codes (e.g., the original font, color images, covers) as possible, they rely on facsimile reproduction of the magazines, which can exacerbate the tendency to ignore the magazine format itself. Because flawed search, pdf-only versions, clumsy navigation tools, and a dearth of hyperlinks discourage exploring the linked environment of magazines, they encourage atomistic reading that treats the magazine as a quarry to be mined for one or two gems rather than as a cavern to be explored.
This atomistic reading typically begins with a keyword search on a host site or even a search engine, which locates a document that is then read in isolation from the rest of the magazine and, in the case of Google Books, sometimes in plain text format, stripped of the original bibliographic codes. There is nothing inherently wrong with this form of reading, but it poses problems for readers interested in literary history. While digitization allow us to see what contemporary readers of Conrad read in magazines, we have little sense of how they read.
Nowhere is this truer than with serialized novels. Even naïve undergraduates know that many nineteenth-century novels were serialized first in periodicals, but how many of us have ever read a novel in serialized format over weeks, months, and even years? And of those that have, how many have done so in the magazine format in which they were originally produced, alongside a heterogeneous and evolving group of texts, images, and, in some cases, advertisements? The convenience and preeminence of books and the ephemerality of magazines have obscured one of the distinctive features of almost a whole century of reading, from Dickens to Joyce, but sites like Conrad First offer a fantastic opportunity to redress this problem. Digitization needn’t take us further away from old-fashioned reading; it can help us reenact it.
And we can reenact it not only at the personal level, conducting a private reading of, for instance, Heart of Darkness as it first appeared in Blackwood’s, but also in classrooms, where we and our students can learn to read serialized fiction in what I refer to as a serial reading project. In doing so, it is my hypothesis, we will also learn something about how nineteenth- and twentieth-century readers read serialized fiction, if, that is, we pay careful attention to both the novel we are reading and the techniques we employ in reading it. Reading serialized fiction in a class should be treated as an experiment, in which everyone including the instructor is engaged in the process of recreating the past precisely by proceeding without a net, by simply reading with as few preconceptions of how historical readers would have proceeded, so that we can makes the same discoveries and mistakes that they would have made as well.
I initially began using the Conrad First website as more of an exhibit than as a reading tool. I showed students in my classes on upper-level classes on modernism or the modern novel issues of Blackwood’s on screen during lectures, so that they could see the material context of the novel’s initial publication. It did not take long, however, to realize that the potential for the site went well beyond show and tell. What if I had my students read The Secret Agent for the first time as it appeared in Ridgway’s magazine in 1906, before they read it in its significantly revised and expanded book format? My choice was driven both by my abiding interest in that novel and by its convenient length for a 12- to 14-week course. Brevity mattered, because the next revelation was to spread that reading out over many weeks, so it came closer to the pace of serialized reading. Under ideal circumstances, I have students read one installment a week, which takes eleven weeks, and then read The Secret Agent in book format in the twelfth week. Using a longer novel like Nostromo would be unmanageable on a one installment per week basis, so it would be necessary to have students read several installments each week with a novel that long. It is important, however, to spread the serialized reading out as long as possible in order to create a more realistic simulation of serial reading. We spend approximately thirty minutes of one class each week discussing that week’s installment, which I also use as an opportunity to get students to think about format and historical reading tactics more broadly. Each discussion typically begins with basic plot summary, we move on to closer analysis of the novel, and then we conclude with a more theoretically-oriented conversation about the effects of reading serially in a magazine format.
What became clearer each time I conducted the serial reading project was that reading a novel this way made us not only think about The Secret Agent differently, but the format of the book and the format of the magazine as well. As one student pointed out, the illustrated version of the novel in Ridgway’s made the story seem more tawdry than when she read it between the covers of a book sanctified a university press. Here, we have an encounter with historical reading practices. My students thought the drawings were simplistic and even cheap looking, but the story’s illustrator, Henry Patrick Raleigh (1880–1944), who was still beginning his career in 1906, went on to become a prominent American illustrator for magazines and advertisements. The impact of the drawings is likely more a result of the nature of illustration itself rather than of the particular illustrations. For readers unaccustomed to reading illustrated literature past childhood, the impact of illustration comes as something of a surprise. Drawings have a power to make the reader see in a way that Conrad never imagined, for they potentially rob the reader of part her active participation in imagining the narrative as it unfolds and, more significantly, they rob the text of some its suggestive power, because no matter how potent the description is, the illustration has an immediacy that is difficult to overcome. Although we might today resent the tyranny of the illustration, or the filmic imagination of a cherished novel, illustrations were a convention and perhaps even a selling point of serializations, from Dickens’s Pickwick Papers on.
The issue of length also comes to the fore in class discussions. One of my students observed that he was having trouble keeping Conrad’s characters sorted out and found it hard to feel invested in the novel because it did not take long enough to read an installment. As a result, each installment felt, as has often been said about magazines in general, ephemeral. He suggested that the difficulty was his, because he was new to reading serially and that historical readers would have overcome this problem. Nevertheless, I think we need to be careful about jumping to such conclusions, since it is entirely possible that Conrad’s contemporaries had the same problem. Indeed, most of the installments carried a synopsis of the preceding action, presumably to aid not just new but returning readers. Conrad did almost certainly not provide these synopses, and they stopped appearing in the final four installments. We do not know whether such synopses were necessary; they were not standard practice, but that does not mean that they were not useful to readers who struggled as my student did to maintain a sense of continuity during his reading. Here, too, teaching serialized fiction can operate as a lab for testing hypotheses about historical reading practices.
Two important questions any reader of serialized fiction should consider are why the format became so popular in periodicals when it did, and why it declined. On the first count, we know that magazines and novels enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship.1Serialized fiction by well-known writers, such as Arthur Conan Doyle in The Strand, drove up sales, which increased advertising revenue. Novels and novelists benefited, in turn, from the marketing magazines gave them and from the larger, more diverse audience of magazines. Serialization made novels, which remained expensive well into the twentieth century, affordable to many more people, who could basically buy a book on an installment plan. The serialization of Nostromo, for instance, ran to 37 issues in T. P.’s Weekly, but each issue cost only a penny and the expense was spread over more than eight months. A reader buying every issue of the magazine during its Nostromo run would save almost half of the cost—six shillings, or 72 pence—of the first UK edition of the novel.2 Of course, that book would likely be different from the serialized version, so there was some draw to still purchase it. If a reader liked the novel enough to want to own it, he could then buy the book with the assurance of enjoyment and, perhaps, of getting an improved, revised version, since it was not at all unusual for an author to revise a novel between serial and book publication. Magazine serialization helped novels in another less obvious way: they put the works of certain novelists into the hands of readers unlikely to otherwise read them. Many magazines, particularly ones that published literary fiction, were eclectic in their contents, which helped them find a similarly eclectic readership, which meant that serialization could helps novelists find new readers. Some of the readers of The Pall Mall Magazine in January 1902 might have picked it up for the article on Mary Queen of Scots but ended up reading the first installment of Typhoon in that issue, while others might have had the reverse experience.
The decline of serialization has been investigated far less than its rise. Affordable novels, competing interests like radio and film, the rise of the short story, a greater attention to visual elements, and a trend toward shorter pieces all likely played a part in serialization’s fading away from the center of literary publication. Conrad is a particularly interesting figure to consider on this question, since his formal experimentation raises the possibility that intrinsic aesthetic changes could have worked in tandem with extrinsic socioeconomic forces to speed the decline of serialization. A serial reading project of Conrad presents scholars and students alike the opportunity to explore whether and to what degree Conrad’s and other modernists’ challenge to the realist novel’s conventional recording of time and mode of narration might have had on readers who could understandably have found the novels too formally demanding to read over six or more months.
But the great question that remains unanswered for us today is what was it like to read a serialized novel in an era when it was commonplace? To answer this question we will need to attend to questions of format (book vs. magazine), genre (the novel, the serialized part), production (writing the serial), and consumption (reading it). For instance, on the matter of format, there would seem to be a great deal of difference between the way novels are read in book format and the way they are read serialized in magazines. A novel is read in a generally linear fashion, starting at the beginning and read through until the end, allowing for occasional glances backwards and sometimes even forwards. It is important to recognize there are many books that are typically read in a nonlinear fashion (e.g., cookbooks, anthologies, encyclopedias, the Bible). The novel is actually a somewhat special case; like a history, it is read more like a scroll than a codex, which is way the bookmark is an important component of many novel readers’ reading habits. The magazine, however, is typically read in a nonlinear fashion. Readers might begin with the reviews in the back first, jump to a feature, read half of it, read some early short pieces, lay the magazine down for days, weeks, months, and pick it up again to finish the half-read feature and another while he’s at it. This is one of many possible paths through an issue, and one thing to investigate during a serial reading project is whether taking a different path can affect a reading of the novel.
These different paths point to an even more profound difference between novels published in a book and serialized in a periodical. The magazine comes with multiple articles and multiple authors, which can certainly be put into conversation with each other, and which affect the way we interpret individual components in an issue. These kinds of question are not just questions about the past and its reading practices, however. It’s a way of thinking about the present, about how we read Conrad and others now. As Leah Price has eloquently claimed, “The history of books [and magazines!] is centrally about ourselves. It asks how past readers have made meaning (and therefore, by extension, how others have read differently from us), but it also asks where the conditions of possibility for our own reading come from” (Price 2004, 318). As students get deeper into reading a serialized version of a novel, they almost inevitably begin making connections between their own and historical reading practices, and I encourage them to do so since I look at reading Conrad serially as a project that is as much about reading and serialization as it is about Conrad.
As a result, my method for teaching a novel in serialized format using Conrad First repeatedly asks students to reflect on their own experiences as readers.3 It is useful to have them write short, informal in-class remarks on what it is like to read a serialized novel four times during the process—in the first and last class, of course, but also after the third and seventh installments—which I collect as sources of data and as aides to posing questions in upcoming classes. Students read the novel over the course of a semester, reading each installment online through the Conrad First portal, paying special attention each week to different facets of serialized publication and magazines, from illustration and installment length to synopses and the time lag between reading installments. At the end of the process, students read the significantly revised and expanded book version of the novel. Students read one installment per week, and we spend fifteen to twenty minute of one class meeting each week discussing both the installment of the Secret Agent, the format of magazine serialization, and the distinctive features of magazines and magazine reading. The first discussion of the novel, for instance, is much more about the magazine as a medium, getting students to talk about the difference between magazines and books, than it is about The Secret Agent. Some in-class discussions are spent in a more interpretive, close-reading mode, others in a more meta-critical, media studies mode, focused on the magazine as a form and its effects on the novel.
The question of student preparation is very important. I assume students are not at all prepared to read serialized fiction, in the sense that they have never done so before. Because I am interested in the phenomenological experience of serialized reading as much as I am in Conrad, I take advantage of the lack of experience by doing very little to prepare students. I want to reflect, as a class, on the strategies they spontaneously arrive at while reading in a serial format. Some students collect and consult their copies of earlier installments; others lose track of each installment after having discussed it in class. Neither strategy is incorrect, since I suspect both practices occurred among historical readers. There are some places, however, where students need to be guided in their reading and given assignments.
I have students read the entirety of the first issue in order to help them gain a sense of the context. In the case of The Secret Agent, this technique works especially well since the first installment appeared in the first issue of Ridgway’s, when the magazine was making an effort to introduce itself. After the first issue or two, I encourage students to browse the rest of the issues, much as they would any contemporary magazine and to read whatever interests them. In classes four, six, and eight, they provide half-page summaries of an article they read in that week’s issue, and I call on two or three students each time to share their findings with the rest of the class. One of the aims of this exercise is to reconstruct the readership of whatever magazine they are reading, using the editorial and non-editorial content as a guide, while remaining skeptical about making facile extrapolations from text to reader of from the present to the past. In classes two, four, and six, I ask them to consider the effect that the novel’s situation in the more obviously collaborative context of the magazine has on thinking about authorship. In classes five, nine, and eleven, they turn in one-page essays discussing the intertextual effects of an advertisement, a photograph, an illustration, or another article on the reading of that class’s assignment. For example, a student might look at an ad like the one for Pompeian Massage Cream, warning readers that “‘White’ is not always white; Clean is not always ‘clean,’” on the very page recounting Inspector Heat’s visit to the morgue, where he examines the heap of flesh and fragments that remain of Stevie, affect the reading of the novel?
It is important to close a serial reading with a reading of the novel in book format, especially since Conrad so often revised for book publication. A useful final assignment is to have students write about the differences between the periodical and book versions of a text and the differences between reading the novel in a magazine serial and in a book. The serial reading project, as I conduct it, is intended to investigate the practice of reading serially as much as it is meant to introduce my students to Conrad. That is not to say, however, that one need share this intention to make the project worthwhile. The serial reading project is flexible by design, and so can be used as a jumping off point for discussing Conrad, his fiction, the context in which he wrote, magazines, novelistic time, intertextuality, etc. In all of these cases, reading Conrad serially using the resources of Conrad First is an act of recovery and an experiment in reading.



1. For more on the symbiotic relationship between periodicals and books, see Brake 2003. Brake is one of the most prominent scholars in the field of Victorian periodical research, and her work on periodicals should serve scholars of twentieth-century periodicals as a model. Indeed, the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals and its publication, Victorian Periodicals Review, are invaluable resources and guides for our future work. Linda K. Hughes and Michel Lund’s The Victorian Serial (1991) and Graham Law’s Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press (2000) are two major works on Victorian serials; the first takes a more theoretical and speculative approach, while the second is more sociological in its methodology. In conducting the research for this essay, I discovered Andrea Kaston Tange’s similarly minded and compelling essay “Becoming a Victorian Reader: The Serial Reading Process in the Modern Classroom”(2006).

2.Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate the price of the first US edition of The Secret Agent.

3. For a more extensive discussion of teaching serialized fiction, see Murphy 2010.


Works Cited

Brake, Laurel. 1993. “‘The Trepidation of the Spheres’: The Serial and the Book in the Nineteenth Century.” In Serials and Their Readers 1620–1914, ed. Robin Myers and Michael Harris, 82–101. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press.

Hughes, Linda K., and Michel Lund. 1991. The Victorian Serial. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.

Law, Graham. 2000. Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Murphy, J. Stephen. 2010. “The Serial Reading Project.Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 1.2: 182–92.

Price, Kenneth. 2009. “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” Digital Humanities Quarterly 3 (Summer):

Price, Leah. 2004. “Reading: The State of the Discipline,” Book History 7: 318

Tange, Andrea Kaston. 2006. “Becoming a Victorian Reader: The Serial Reading Process in the Modern Classroom.” Victorian Periodicals Review 39.4 (Winter): 330–42.


J. Stephen Murphy earned his doctoral degree from the University of California, Berkeley, after which he became a lecturer in the History and Literature Program at Harvard University. He has published essays on Robert Frost, James Joyce, Henry James, Alan Hollinghurst, reading serialized novels, and digital archives.   Murphy runs the Magazine Modernisms website and is currently at work on a book entitled The Economy of Modernist Style, which argues that modernism first coalesced around a theory and practice of style that identified economy with the essence of literature.



Back to the start of the essay.