A Musing: The Thirteenth Tale


In a recent interview, Donna Tartt said, “to paraphrase Nabokov: all I want from a book is the tingle down the spine, for my hairs to stand on end.” A critic  said of The Goldfinch, it “reminds the reader of the immersive, stay-up-all-night pleasures of reading.” As a person who studies literature as well as who loves to read, I have been keeping these ideas in my head, mulling them over as I encounter new books.  Are these things really the essence of the reading experience?

These ideas jumped to the forefront as I read Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. This is a reader’s story, a hair-raising and stay-up-all-night tale if ever there was one. I pretty much ate, slept, and breathed this book. I loved the insider reader references: Big, crumbling Yorkshire manor, twins, ghosts, insanity. Jane Eyre, Dickens, Middlemarch. Library-as-shrine, bookshop-as-life, stories within stories within stories, epistolary writing. Beginning, end, middle, plot and subplot, minor characters. Tea, cats, topiary. Even the book itself — the hardcover has a spine embossed in gold like a first edition from the nineteen century, and it boasts gorgeous mottled green and gold endpapers.

Setterfield writes about being such a reader so beautifully and accurately:

All morning I struggled with the sensation of stray wisps of one world seeping through the cracks of another. Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes — characters even — caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.

I never can start a new book on the same day as I finish one for just this reason!

…and how about:

Still in my coat and hat, I sank onto the stair to read the letter. (I never read without making sure I am in a secure position. I have been like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead of being held buoyant by the water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and knocked myself out. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now. Reading can be dangerous.)

Yes! If you’ve read my literacy narrative, you’ll know I fractured my nose pretending to be Mary, Laura’s blind sister from the Little House books. I also regularly cough and sputter when I read something cataclysmic  because I forget to breathe.

Is the immersion, the sway and swoon, the pause-and-close-the-book because the words are just that powerful the most important part of reading? Nabakov, Tartt, and Setterfield just may have convinced me it is. Sure, my  knowledge about literary devices, story elements, and the history of literature without a doubt helps me appreciate the magic, but it’s the magic that is paramount.

There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.




  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    You’ve pulled out some excellent quotes there, and I do agree with the quality of immersion that comes from a good book – I felt that with The Thirteenth Tale – although, alas, I did guess crucial plotlines quite early…..

  2. Natalie

    I read this book over the summer and, like you, was completely drawn into it. I love the first quote you included from it, and I remember that I finished the book on a train and just sat there staring out of the window and thinking about it until I reached my destination. I think you’re right about this magic of immersion.

  3. heavenali

    So glad you liked it so much – I read it years ago and had completley forgotten most of it until I watched a tv adaptation of it last night – which was very good.

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