Whilst it is only a coincidence that I read Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) whilst myself travelling, it is a useful one and has shed some light on the text for me. Allow me to share my thoughts.
I read the first one hundred pages of the novel here, amongst the supposed peace of my study; I read the rest in the real peace of the countryside, the River Wharfe rushing nearby.
I would not have had to pack this book if I had got down to the text quicker. I left on my real-world travels at the appointed hour but had for several days previously been putting off going on Verne’s literary journey.
If it’s true that I read the opening of the novel relatively slowly then it’s also true that I picked up the pace towards the end. This is not insignificant. My own reading speed – created in part, I think, by the pacing and structure of the text itself – mimicked that of its central protagonist, Mr Phileas Fogg. The second half of our hero’s voyage is a lot quicker than the first. For me, then, form and the reading experience mirrored content.
In actual fact I often found myself doing precisely what Fogg himself never does – lifting my eyes from the page and staring out of the window at the world around me. The characters are placed in jeopardy on nearly every page and episode flashes by after episode with the merest turn of the page. Eventually you run out of reading energy.
I would like to argue that what this text requires of you as a reader is a kind of sustained inattention.
The politics of representation in this book are complex. The episodes set in India, China, Japan and America are all problematic in their own ways.
In the end, this is an exciting, funny, absurd and troubling book. I found myself laughing out loud at that moment when the narrator compares Hong Kong to a Kentish town. It is also a little frustrating when Verne chooses to info dump – we are often told how heavy a ship is, for instance.
There is, though, fun to be had here.