assignment_Murphy


Reading Novels Periodically

James Murphy, Harvard University

 

[Instead of simply assigning his students to read Conrad’s The Secret Agent in book form, James first has them read the novel in its original magazine serial form, one installment each week over the course of the semester, and only then has them read the novel, all at once, as a book.]

 

The Secret Agent is a great text to teach in periodical and then book form. The novel was first serialized in the short-lived magazine Ridgway’s: A Militant Weekly for God and Country, so it works really well as a weekly reading assignment, one installment per week.

 

The idea is to have the students read one installment each week, so they can experience the serial time of a novel, something almost certainly none of them (and few of us teachers) have ever experienced before this assignment. (There are some recent exceptions–e.g., The New York Times Magazine published Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road in fifteen weekly installments between January and May 2007.)

 

To insure students read the novel in periodical form, I photocopied it and handed out one installment each week.  I had a small class, so it didn’t cost much, but I imagine uploading the weekly installment to a course website would work just as well. Using serialized novels from the MJP archive would work well here, too, but you’d have to really insist that students not read ahead, or else you’d lose the group experience. (In fact, a digital version of the Ridgway's issues in which the The Secret Agent was serialized can be found online here, on the Conrad First websitethough you don't have to tell your students that.)

 

We reserved 20 minutes at the end of one class per week to discuss that week’s installment. First we would summarize the narrative, which is more challenging than usual for students due to the week-long lag in reading; then we would move on to questions about serialization that concerned production and reception: e.g., What techniques does the author/editor/illustrator employ to help the forgetful reader?  Which kinds of things are easily remembered, and which easily forgotten? The Conrad serialization has images too, and we usually talked about those.

 

At the end of the course we read the novel in its current Oxford UP paperback edition. We worked on a full-blown reading of the novel, but we also spent a significant amount of time discussing the differences between the form and content of the two versions of the novel (the serialization was illustrated, parts of it were rewritten—and even cut out—by the magazine’s editor, and Conrad revised the text for book publication) as well as the differences between the two reading experiences. There’s no need, of course, to make the novel the course’s final reading assignment. I’ve not tied a writing assignment to this exercise in the past, but one could easily do so.

 

The Secret Agent works well because not many students have read it (although that’s becoming less true as the book grows more popular–thanks, terrorists!).  I suspect the exercise would not work as well with a book that’s already familiar to them, but I can’t be sure since I’ve not yet tried it with a better-known text.