January 19, 2010
Last week I was well dug into The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, getting giddily spooked by its remote crumbly English manor setting beset by some malevolent spirit that seemed to be psychically feeding on the down-at-heels family residing there, when I reached the end of page 310 and encountered a printing glitch. It repeated pages 247 through 310, and then the narrative resumed on page 375. “Glitch” may be too mild a word–for a moment it felt like calamity, as if the malevolent spirit had possessed the book itself and was now cruelly toying with me.
Though I had a work deadline looming and scant hope of making it if I were to continue reading a novel that night, I decided this was the drama that needed addressing and called all the area bookstores that I felt I could reasonably get to before they closed in the next hour or so. (And there were many—unlike poor Laredo, Texas, my city has not yet been abandoned by the brick-and-mortar booksellers. Barnes & Noble ought to offer every resident of Laredo a free Nook e-reader and some gratis downloads as some small recompense for shutting down their last B. Dalton.) Though all were theoretically willing to swap my defective copy for a good one, none had The Little Stranger in stock. (Hope that’s of some solace to you, Laredans! All these bookstores within driving distance and I still had to resort to Amazon.)
I was wringing my hands and gnashing my teeth, perhaps even rending my garments a little, when my husband pointed out my predicament was much like that of the thwarted reader in Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, and though The Little Stranger could not be had that night for love or money, he dashed out and bought the Calvino just before our nearest Borders closed.
The reader in winter’s night is thwarted again and again, enticed by the opening chapters of books that go no further due to misprint, blank pages, a translator’s prank, international conspiracy, and so forth. Each time he (or, rather, “you” as it’s in second person) tries to procure another copy and continue reading, he ends up with another book entirely, is tantalized by the opening chapter, then left hanging.
When we’re all bereft of actual, physical bookstores, we’ll at least have Calvino’s marvelous depiction of making one’s way to the book you intend to buy but first having to force past shelves laden with
the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want to Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.
winter’s night presents ten opening chapters (each the promise of a world unfolding) and traces their pursuit by two readers, a man and a woman. Here the pursuit itself becomes narrative, the book’s cohesion. Reading it has been a little like having my own petty predicament celebrated and mocked in equal measure—though it doesn’t seem petty to give yourself over to narrative and chafe at having it disrupted. That’s my life now, reading and writing in fits and starts, having constantly to abandon a story for the freefall of real life, then grasp for the thread of it again. A printing glitch just adds insult to injury.
Just a few days later, I received an intact, properly paginated copy of The Little Stranger. In those restored-to-me pages, something was whistling through the ivory speaking-tube extending from the long-abandoned nursery above to the kitchen below. The servants quaked. The madame said stuff and nonsense and made her way upstairs to investigate. Reader, it frightened the crap out of me, and I loved it.