Reading with Google

I finished Joan Smith’s Aunt Sophie’s Diamonds [frivolous aside: would a romance writer today dare to have such an unadorned pen name? does “Ruthie Knox” count?]. I enjoyed it, though I thought it worked better as comedy than romance. It hooked me from the first line:

The last will and testament of Sophronia Tewksbury was a document so vile and complex her relatives seriously considered having it contested on the grounds of her having been insane when she wrote it.

“Vile and complex,” an excellent and unexpected pairing of adjectives. There are a lot of felicitous moments like that.

The various schemes of Sophie’s relations in response to this will, and the lengths to which her executors go to foil them, make for farcical fun. It’s not a particularly emotional read, and the characters are pretty underdeveloped, but I found it satisfying. While a lot of the plot twists were predictable, I was surprised in some ways by the ending. I liked that characters who seemed likely at the start to be one-note villains were not, and that Smith didn’t completely demonize ambition or the desire for financial security, even when they were attributes of shallow and self-centered characters.

What interested me most about reading Aunt Sophie’s Diamonds, though, was the way it made me reflect on my own reading process–because hey, I’m shallow and self-centered too! Usually I read on my old, wifi free Sony reader. I like the fact that I can only read on it. On an Internet-capable device, I prove to be highly distractible. Not only do I pause to check Twitter, e-mail, etc. but when something in the book seems “off,” I stop to look it up. That was the case with this book, an impulse Kindle purchase on my iPad, which repeatedly drove me to Google–a habit that both enriched and, probably, diminished my enjoyment of the book.

I don’t intend to be a “gotcha” reader looking for problems, but I have to admit I am one. I think this is spill-over from my professional life (grading papers), and that I do it more now that I often intend to review or comment on my pleasure reading. This is actually an important insight for me: not only does focusing on weaknesses or things I dislike make pleasure reading less pleasurable, but I don’t want to be a “gotcha” paper-grader, focused purely on the negative, either. Students need to hear what they’re doing right as well as what they need to improve. I think with books, I start out hoping it’s a 5*/A read, and then most books slowly (or quickly) chip away at that. I think, too, that I had a bit of a “gotcha” attitude to this book because some readers say older Regencies were so much more historically accurate, and I wanted to see if that claim stood up.

Here are some things that gave me Google-pause:

There were a fair number of words and phrases that struck me as anachronistic and/or American (shenanigans? I think not, much as I love that word). I didn’t bother with the OED this time, but they did diminish the “period” feel of the book.

There’s talk of needing a welding torch (don’t ask why–you have to read to find out). In the early nineteenth-century? I googled “history of welding” and found that while welding moved beyond the forge in the nineteenth century with the invention of electric arcs and the discovery of acetylene, those developments were later than the book. A Regency village blacksmith could not have had a welding torch and a battery-powered arc seems highly implausible too, though it was invented in 1800 (ultimately they resort to a file). I enjoyed this byway, though, because I was surprised once again by how early some of these discoveries/inventions were made. The inventiveness of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid changes it wrought are part of what drew me to study nineteenth-century literature.

The heroine’s mother is named Marcia, which of course made me think of Kieran Kramer’s forthcoming House of Brady Regency series (you can probably guess how I feel about this kind of high concept melding of modern TV with historical romance). I think of a Marcia as an American born in the 50s or early 60s. In fact, while it’s an unlikely name for a woman born in the late eighteenth century, it’s not impossible. Googling gave me the intriguing Countess of Yarborough (about a century younger than Smith’s Marcia) and a mythical British queen. Marcia means “warlike.” Her niece is Luane, which also struck me as 50s American but which baby name sites say is a German name meaning “graceful battle maiden.” The heroine is Claudia, a name associated with Roman emperors. Even if some of these names are historically unlikely or unusual, thinking about their meanings enriched the story for me: these women are in some ways warriors battling each other for survival, happiness, Aunt Sophie’s diamonds. For that symbolic resonance, I’m okay with a little anachronism.

Finally, there was Billericay, the local town. Really? I knew about Billerica in Massachusetts, which always sounded to me like it was named after a developer’s children. Shows what I know! It’s actually named for Billericay in Essex. Odd to my ears, maybe, but totally, 100% plausible.

Did Googling to “check up” on accuracy mean I was less absorbed in my reading? Yes. Did I “catch” Smith in some errors? Yes. But I also learned things, some of which gave extra depth to the book and added to my reading pleasure. Billericay, by the way, is the birthplace of model David Gandy, beloved of many romance writers and readers. Once I learned that, I may just possibly have pictured the hero as looking rather like him.

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8 Responses to Reading with Google

  1. Phyl says:

    I will Google things too while reading, especially historical dates and places. Yes, it interrupts my reading, but I do enjoy the added depth that comes with understanding a particular historical period better. I had great fun, for instance, learning all about South African diamond mining when I read Carrie Lofty’s Flawless. Some days it’s just so awesome to have all that information at our fingertips.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I love when a book makes me want to learn more about something! Even if it’s just the history of welding. Carrie Lofty’s book is on my TBR, partly because of the unusual setting.

  2. I too sometimes find it hard to get out of a grading mindset when reading, just as sometimes when grading I find it hard to combat a “can’t see the forest of argumentation for the trees of form and style” dilemma. It makes me think that there are different modes of readership that I shift in and out of very clunkily.

  3. SonomaLass says:

    I rarely stop reading to look something up. I’m more likely to check it the next day, or when I go to write a review. (Although I usually read more slowly and make more notes if I know for sure that I’ll be reviewing the book.) But occasionally there’s something that feels so wrong that I have to check it right away. If it turns out my perception was wrong, I don’t usually have a hard time getting back into the book; if I was right, then it depends. I sometimes check an author’s note to see if there’s an admission that she had adjusted the history for the sake of her story, At least once, I shrugged and went back to the book, somehow more comfortable with deliberate changing of history than with sloppy or incomplete research. But other times I didn’t feel that the quality of experience I was getting was worth the deviation from actual history — it’s definitely a case-by-case thing for me.

    Sometimes little details matter to me, especially if they are very familiar. The difference between European and American robins, for example — not something likely to bother most readers, but a recent reference threw me right out of the book. Or clothing, because I do have some basic education in period costume. I try not to hit these things too hard in reviews, because I know there are probably things I missed in other books that were as bad or worse, just not in an area where I knew enough to wonder. And I know that a lot of readers won’t notice or care about the nits I happen to have picked.

    Honestly, now that I’m reading a lot of historical romance again, I’m more bothered by cookie-cutter cultural depictions than by the occasional error or instance of license. I’d rather read an improbably, even implausible, original story than a plausible, probable, familiar one where the set-up and the characters’ choices feel too familiar. So fresh gets points from me, even if it comes with some questionable details.

    I love English village and town names! I tend to take them at face value in novels, because I know of some where I’ve been that would probably have raised my plausibility radar if I weren’t a regular visitor to the homeland. (So far, my favorite village name is Ryme Intrinsica, in Dorset, although Doddiscombsleigh, Devon, is a close second.)

    Sorry for the rambling response — this post really struck a chord with me.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      These are all such good points! I know I am sensitive to language things just because I’ve read a lot of prose from the period (but sometimes I’m wrong, and I also don’t think a book written today should try to sound as if it were written in 1806 just because it is set then–it’s more if too many glaring anachronisms or Americanisms make me lose the flavor).

      I’m sure there are many, many things I miss (I don’t always know or much care if clothing details are wrong, for instance). Whether or not things I do notice bother me depends on so much, too. Nothing I noticed in this book stopped me from enjoying it, for instance.

  4. kaetrin says:

    I prefer to read on my Sony as well. But if I have the iPad next to me, I do find myself having Twitter/internet disruptions to my reading (which can sometimes extend into hours. I am easily distracted by the shiny). Distraction becomes less common when I am caught up in a book however.

    I do recall spending some pleasurable hours learning about the history of English canals and the duke responsible for most of them (I want to call him Bridgewater but that might not be right) after reading a Jo Beverley book. But I did that the next day. 🙂

  5. You never heard of Billericay? 😮 I lived in Colchester, Witham, Basildon, Maldon and Chelmsford (all part of my library training, which incidentally ended in a disaster), all not very far from Billericay. Although it’s an old town, the town centre has the appearance of a new town like Milton Keynes. Rather soul-destroying, to be honest.

    I know it’s strange, but I rarely looked up anything whilst reading. Only times I do are when engaging in a discussion or writing a review. I think I’ll use this opportunity to make a confession: I dislike history. Granted, it was and still is very much part of my job, but as a whole, it just doesn’t interest me. Social history on the other hand, I love.

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