One chapter at a time: Serialized novels

The first page of The Hound of the Baskervilles, from The Strand Magazine
Mmm... cereal. For the longest time I dreamed of opening a food cart which would serve nothing but different variations on breakfast cereal - and this was before food carts were such a très-Portland thing. But wait a second! I’m getting off track. This blog post isn’t about cereals, it’s about another 19th century innovation: serialized novels, stories told in installments.

Serials are big right now. Television epics like Game of Thrones or Mad Men are all serialized stories, with each episode leaving you hungry for the next. There’s the true-crime podcast titled simply (and rather unimaginatively, in my opinion) Serial. And if you want to get creative, even something like professional sports could be considered a serial: you follow the story of the Portland Trailblazers through regularly occurring games, newspaper columns, and blog posts, as the story of the season unfolds in all its promise and anticlimactic tragedy.

Serials used to be a big deal in written fiction, too. The dead white guy that everyone always talks about is Charles Dickens, but there were lots of other novelists whose works appeared monthly in literary magazines of the day: Arthur Conan Doyle, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wilkie Collins, and even Oregon’s own Abigail Scott Duniway, to name but a few. More recently, writers like Michael Chabon and Laura Lippman have released serialized stories in the New York Times Magazine.

If you want to really experience it 19th-century style, take a look at the Victorian Reading Project from Stanford University: you can download PDF scans of story installments from Dickens and Doyle exactly as they appeared in the magazines of the time. Try reading one installment every week, and see if you can resist the temptation to binge-read the entire story.

I’ve made a reading list of novels, both old and new, which started life as installments. I invite you to sit down, pour yourself a big bowl of serial, and dig in. One chapter at a time.

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