As a teenager, I lived about two-and-a-half hours south of my grandmother. I’d drive up about every two weeks to stay the weekend, and whenever I did, I visited Borders. (At that time, my town had only a Barnes and Noble.) I almost always bought a book when I went. Sometimes, I bought one I knew I wanted; other times, I bought one that turned out bad—or mediocre. There is only one book I remember turning out fabulous.
It was a very thick book with a black cover and white text. A paperback, but with rather a classy look to it. I opened it and began to read. The text was written in a rather old-fashioned manner (and, alas, to my eye now has imperfect punctuation—but I didn’t notice that much at sixteen) and was immediately dryly witty.
I bought the book, and devoured it—it’s about 310,000 words long; my version is just over a thousand pages. And when I’d devoured it, I immediately bought it as a gift for two others, friends who (I thought) shared similar tastes to mine.
One loved it in the way I did. The other had trouble getting into it until she’d isolated herself in her car to read. Then she enjoyed it, but she was surprised when we discussed it afterward and I exclaimed over how funny it was. She’d honestly not realized it was meant to be funny. Possibly because it was written in an old-fashioned style.
(Come to think of it, people often don’t realize that about Pride and Prejudice, either.)
But it is funny. And so if you read it—or next time you reread it—please remember to laugh. Because Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a supreme example of a serious book that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
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