• Deborah Yaffe

The opposite of speed reading

How long does it take to read a Jane Austen novel? At roughly three hundred pages apiece, her books are far shorter than the works of many other writers, from the eighteenth century onward. Not for Austen the epic scope, and correspondingly epic number of pages, of a Clarissa, a War and Peace, or a David Copperfield. (Or, for that matter, an Outlander or a late-in-series Harry Potter.) A competent reader with a reasonable amount of spare time can probably polish off even Mansfield Park inside of a week.


So I was intrigued to learn about “Synchronous Emma,” a newly launched online group read that will stretch Austen’s novel over more than a year, pacing the reading to the novel’s own internal calendar. Serendipitously, both 2021 and 1813, the likeliest candidate for Emma’s chronological starting-point, began on a Friday, so not only the dates but also the days of the week mentioned in the novel will match up with those experienced by participants in the project.


The reading kicks off right around now, to correspond with the unspecified date in late September on which Miss Taylor marries Mr. Weston and the action of Emma begins. (Don’t worry if you’re tuning in late: the first assignment comprises just the first seven pages of the novel.) If all goes as planned, Emma and Mr. Knightley will arrive at the altar in November of 2022. And along the way, readers will be able to discuss, comment, and argue via Twitter, Tumblr, or the project’s Wordpress blog.


“Synchronous Emma” is the brainchild of Najia Khaled, who, as far as I can determine via some light Google-stalking, is a twenty-something Moroccan-American poet with a master’s degree in American literature from Oxford and a self-published book of verse titled Wanderers, Witch-Talkers. The context and commentary posted to accompany today's initial installment of the Emma project make clear that Khaled is a thoughtful and well-informed Austen reader.


Khaled argues that a synchronous reading of Emma will help readers immerse themselves in the experiences of Austen’s characters. “I think it may be impossible fully to understand the sense of isolation and boredom that Emma feels throughout the ‘long October and November evening[s]’ that open the novel if one’s engagement with her is contracted due to the abbreviated time, compared to the events described, that it takes to read the novel,” Khaled argues. “Connecting our lived temporal experience to Austen’s work is one way of engaging with the question of ‘realism’ in her novels.”


I’m on the fence about how well this method will work: parceling out Emma a few pages at a time could end up attenuating, rather than intensifying, the experience of the novel, I would guess. But time – in this case, fourteen months – will tell.

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