Rediscovering Dickens

A chronicle of the transcription of 20 issues of Household Words by Charles Dickens.

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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

I'm working on a pet project to digitize all of the issues of Charles Dickens's weekly magazine, Household Words, that contained portions of his novel Hard Times. Since OCR software is expensive, I'm transcribing all of 20 issues by hand. Since I am actually interested in what I am typing (and am therefore reading as I go), and I not the speediest of typists, this will take me a little while. This blog will chronicle my progress and my thoughts about the project and its content along the way. Why should you care? If you are at all interested in how popular culture evolves, how the middle class came to be, and how literature is affected within and without its context, you should read on. If you couldn't care less of such things, then you might want to go elsewhere. Thanks for visiting - I hope you will return. - Lynn

Monday, August 07, 2006

First there was "Oranges and Lemons," then came "Patchwork," and this week we have "Wire-drawing." What do these articles have in common? They are all very long, very boring, and deal with very specific topics. While a couple of paragraphs on the fruit trade, or wood inlays, or wire making may be appropriate, devoting 4 or 5 pages to these topics is at the very least overkill, and at the worst, torture to the reader. Honestly, there is only so much a person can take.

I think I am the only person, ever, to have actually read these articles word for word. I can't say I am better for it, although I now know the difference between parquetry and marquetry (the first is wood inlays in flooring, the second is inlays in furniture) and that the thinnest wire ever produced (as of 1854) was one thirty-thousandth of an inch in thickness.

The worst part about these types of articles is that I know that every issue is going to contain one. Why? Because they lend themselves perfectly to alterations in length. See, every issue of Household Words is exactly 24 pages long. In order to fill these pages each and every week, it appears Dickens used filler articles such as these, and as space was needed to be taken up, he would add to the list of items you can make from wire, or the types of items created using wood or metal inlays, or what kinds of fruit are grown and where and why and how. Take a look at this excerpt from "Wire-Drawing:"
He who would know all the forms into which wire is now twisted, and woven, and linked, must rise betimes and give me a long day to it. He must look at the wire-netting fences, for excluding hares and rabbits from gardens, for enclosing poultry-yards and pheasantries, and for guarding tender young plants. He must see how this wire is galvanized for some purposes, to render it durable without painting or tarring. He must know something about very strong wire-netting for confining sheep and dogs; and the various kinds used for aviaries, trellis-work, flower-training, window-guards, and sky-lights; and wire fencing of a more ornate character for gardens and pleasure grounds; and wire-pheasantries, something like large bird cages; and pheasant or hen coops; and wire garden-borders, around flower-beds and parterres; and wire plant-guards, encircling the young plants and shielding them from all intruders; and stronger tree guards made to open at the sides. There are, too, wire fences, with or without wire netting attached; wire umbrellas or canopies, around and over which roses may cluster in the middle of a flower-bed; wire flower-stands, for conservatory, or greenhouse, or hall; wire chairs and garden seats, wire gauze blinds, wire bird cages; wire fire guards and fenders; wire lamps and lanterns; wire meat covers and meat safes; wire lattice for bookcases and windows; wire sieves and strainers; wire cloth for flax-dressing and paper-making. The wire-gauze is a pretty material, woven in a loom as if it were some fibrous material. We have seen some brass wire-gauze so exquisitely fine as to have sixty-seven thousand meshes in a square inch.
Substitute "shrimp" for "wire" and you have a speech that would make the Bubba Gump folks proud.

I'm not sure what delightfully dry article will be filler in next week's issue. Maybe Dickens will prove me wrong and each article will be an absolute gem. I seriously doubt it, though - I am beginning to think that Dickens actually enjoyed torturing his readers with long, boring stories. I have a feeling it made him sort of giggle, picturing people plodding through some of the articles, actually trying to absorb them, while he knew that they were nothing but fluff, not actually meant to be read by anyone at all.


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