'Book Interrupted': the sometimes frustrating story of my reading life

I’m not the sort who usually polishes off a book in a single sitting. Life cuts into my dance with the page, asking for a waltz of its own.

Is a serial novel, like the upcoming 'Belgravia' by Julian Fellowes, the answer to my reading dilemma?

After advancing his international fame as creator of the recently concluded “Downton Abbey” series on public TV, Julian Fellowes has launched another fictional period tale – and he’s using an equally antiquarian format to do it.

Fellowes, whose story of an Edwardian family on a lavish English estate made “Downton” such a hit, is releasing “Belgravia,” a novel set in the 19th century. He’s dribbling it out in installments, just as Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope once did with their famous fictions in the 1800s. Fellowes is offering his chapters through an app, with one chapter available each week. The complete book will be released in hardcover this summer.

Will modern audiences go for this kind of thing? Making readers wait a week between chapters seems like a novelty, although when I heard about Fellowes’s serialization, I was moved to wonder:

Isn’t the rest of my reading life often broken by week-long intervals, anyway? Take, as an example, my recent encounter with “The Story of Land and Sea,” a lovely period novel  by the New Orleans novelist Katy Simpson Smith. It’s a slender tale set in colonial America, quite slender enough for a diligent reader to finish in an evening. My friend from Alaska, who agreed to read Smith’s book along with me, did just that.

But I’m not the sort who usually polishes off a book in a single sitting. Life cuts into my dance with the page, asking for a waltz of its own. I’ll put a book down to watch an episode of “Billions” with my wife, find myself helping with homework the following night, perhaps going to the grocery the next. A week passes, and I remember those characters I’ve left somewhere in the limbo of a bookmarked chapter, waiting to be rescued from my neglect.

If there were a movie title for my reading life, it would probably be “Book Interrupted.” And quite often, it’s not life breaking my bond with the book on my lap; it’s another book. I tackle several at a time, leaving one for a few days as I court some other author – a shamefully fickle game of literary speed-dating.

Right now, the books begging for my attention are Sarah Bakewell’s “At the Existentialist Café,” Katie Roiphe’s “The Violet Hour,” and a new collection of short stories from Rick Bass, “For a Little While.”

If I add Fellowes’ serialized “Belgravia” to my list, the chapter-a-week tempo of the book could work for me. It might, after all, take at least a week before I can get back to him.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is also an essayist for Phi Kappa Phi Forum.  

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