A novel concept

E-books may be the future, but as a way of revisiting
the classics – and your own past – they’ll never beat
a cheap, second-hand volume, says Hugh Pearman

My copy of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit is the Chapman & Hall Popular Edition of 1907, reprinted April 1915. The stock obviously hung around a bit during World War I, since a neat pen-and-ink inscription records its first owner as one Freda H Strange, dated 1919.

Influenced by Freda, I added my own on the page opposite/ ‘Hugh Pearman, Dec 1975’. I was a student, and it cost 30p, according to the bookseller’s pencilled mark. It was in good nick, and I know why: Freda never read it, whereas I merely waited 33 years to do so.

My view of Dickens was formed by dismal mockney TV adaptations. But I blame the great novelist and critic EM Forster for the three decades’ delay before I finally got round to reading my purchase. Forster put me off Dickens with his pronouncement on ‘flat’ and ’round’ characters in fiction. Round characters develop and surprise, just like real people, he said.

Flat characters are essentially caricatures or stereotypes: they never change. Forster declared that there was only one ’round’ character in the whole of Dickens, and that was Pip in Great Expectations.

Thus brainwashed, I put Little Dorrit to one side, and read Great Expectations instead, before turning to more arcane 19th century novelists. Nobody else was attempting Sir Walter Scott, George Meredith or Edward Bulwer-Lytton, so I did, pretending to enjoy this ghastly fustian. And since I had the field to myself, nobody could dispute my analysis, whatever that was.

But the Dickens TV adaptations got gradually better, to the point where – after the recent Andrew Davies version of Little Dorrit – I felt it was time to forget Forster, and plunge into the sea of flat characters by finally reading the original.

The Popular Edition was as cheap as the pre-paperback bookbinding technology of the time could make it. Flimsy card covers, tissue-thin paper with small type and tiny margins. The quality checking at the printers wasn’t great either, since I found some pages hadn’t been properly cut and were joined together. As I freed them with a penknife, I realised that neither Freda nor anyone else can have read them, otherwise they’d have done this before me. I was thus the first person to read this particular book since it was printed – which was at exactly the time when 95 000 soldiers were dying at the second Battle of Ypres. And yes, the novel’s all right, though it has its longeurs. I was intrigued by Doyce, the honest engineer who can’t get anyone in Britain to take his great invention seriously, is thwarted by bureaucracy at every turn and has to leave the country to make any progress. Dickens’ invention of the Circumlocution Office anticipates Kafka, with humour. Everyone disastrously trusts the fraudulent financier Merdle/ nobody wants to design and make real things like Doyce. So, nothing much changes.

After just one read, the binding is starting to break on my 94-year-old wartime mass-market edition of Little Dorrit. It seems to have become brittle over its extended lifespan. So it’s quite possible that nobody else will ever read it. Not that I care – my 30p investment in 1975 has finally paid off. And think of this: what a great long-term storage medium even the cheapest-bound printed paper turned out to be.

Downloadable e-books? Oh sure, and how long are those e-readers going to last?

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