Willa Cather, My Antonia (Review of eNotated edition)

Portrait Willa Cather 1936

I am a Willa Cather fan, and have read some of her novels and short stories, so was intrigued when eNotated Classics offered me an eNotated version of Cather’s My Ántonia for review. eNotated? That sounded like something worth exploring so, although I’ve read the novel before, I decided to read it again. I wasn’t sorry. It’s still a wonderful read.

My aim here is not so much to review the book, though I won’t be able to resist saying a little, but to explore this eNotated edition that I read on my Kindle. I understand from the website that eNotated Classics produces books for the Kindle, the Nook and iBooks. The company’s aim is to take “advantage of eBook technology to extend and enrich books in a way that increases understanding, engagement and reading pleasure”. Did they achieve this aim for me? That is the question!

I’d say yes and no – and will explain by discussing what I see as the three main components of the eNotated version.

eNotation links

These are underlined text (words or phrases) that you click for added information, which can be dictionary-style definitions, brief encyclopaedic-like descriptions, or interpretations. The eNotations can also be read as a group by clicking a single link at the beginning and end of each chapter, and they appear at the end of the book. In fact, the novel finished at the 77% mark in the book, with the last 23% comprising the eNotations and other material.

I was disappointed that many of the eNotation links contained the same information that the Kindle dictionary contains. Since the latter is faster to access by simply moving the cursor to the word to be looked up, those eNotations were rather superfluous. However, perhaps this depends on the dictionary the e-reader accesses, making the experience different with different e-readers.

There were a few of the more interpretive style and I appreciated those. One concerned the relevance of the play Camille which the narrator Jim sees with Lena. This sort of notation can be useful to students who may not, for example, know the play.

A useful feature is their identification system, which comprises a bracketed number at the end of each paragraph and each eNotation, making them easy to cite and to find. The number is obvious as you read, but you soon get used to it.

Theme indications

Now this one bothered me somewhat. See what you think: here are the first lines of the novel as they are presented in this eNotated version:

Last summer I happened to be crossing the plains of Iowa (TIME) in a season of intense heat, and it was my good fortune to have for a traveling companion James Quayle Burden – Jim Burden as we still call him in the West.

Throughout the novel sentences or phrases are treated like this – formatted in italics followed by (TIME), (NARRATOR) or (ELEGIAC). The “How to read this book” section at the beginning of the book explains that these italicised passages are cited in the relevant theme essay – Time, Narrator or Elegiac – at the end.  These are not really “themes” in the literary analysis sense: “Time” is a theme but “Narrator” relates to voice, and “Elegiac” relates to tone. I did find these a little intrusive and wonder whether they would have been better handled as links to the essay they occur in without the bracketed upper case word to show the way.

Additional information

At the end of the book are several items designed to add value. Most of these are not unique to e-Books. They are the eNotations (which you can click on to go back to the text), the three theme essays, a History of Nebraska, a Willa Cather Timeline, a Key Event Timeline, a Bibliography and Images. These are all useful value-adds. I liked the fact that the 12 images can be enlarged, something I can’t do with maps and images in the travel guide I bought last year. It was fascinating to see an image of a Dugout house in Nebraska, though photo credits next to the captions would have been good.

I’m not a Cather expert, but I found the Theme essays interesting – and expect they’d help both students and general readers. The bibliography is short and looks useful, though the most recent citation is dated 1987 which seems a little old. The novel might be a classic, but scholarship continues …

And now to the book itself

How do I love this book? Let me count the ways! I love its meditation on the past, on how the past intrudes into the present. Jim Burden is, really, “burdened” by his past. He meets Antonia when he is a 10-year-old orphan arriving in Nebraska to live with his grandparents, and she a 14-year-old Bohemian immigrant arriving with her family to settle there.  They end up on neighbouring farms and become friends when her father asks Jim to teach Antonia how to speak English. The novel then follows the next 30 or so years of their lives – the first four “books” cover 10 years from the novel’s opening, while the last “book” jumps to 20 years later. Jim, the narrator, keeps an eye on what happens to “my” Antonia over the years, but the book is as much about him and his inability to move on from the past. He says near the end:

In the course of twenty crowded years one parts with many illusions. I did not wish to lose the early ones. Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.

 I love its language and tone. It’s delicious to read. I’d probably describe it as “melancholic” or “meditative” but I wouldn’t argue with Bedell’s “elegiac”. Here is an early description as Jim arrives in Nebraska from the greener, more lush Virginia:

Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

Lovely, simple, spare writing.

And I love Cather’s description of pioneer life, and pioneer characters. Much of what she writes could easily apply to 19th century Australia. The landscape is different – but is similarly bare and harsh – and the ethic mix is different – but the experiences and hardship are universal. It’s a life and environment in which character is writ large – and Cather draws her characters beautifully. Even the minor ones – such as farm hands Jake and Otto who disappear early in the novel – are vivid. Here is Jim on Ántonia, late in the novel:

She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things.

This is one of those novels that stays with you and I’d recommend it to anyone. Would I recommend this eNotated edition? Yes. It’s a good attempt to take advantage of the eBook format and, while there are features that didn’t  work perfectly for me, at USD5.99, it’s hard to beat.

Willa Cather
The eNotated My Ántonia
eNotated by Barbara Bedell
eNotated Classics, V1.00 12/1/2011 (based on 1918 edition)
Kindle edition
ISBN: 9780982744864

(Review copy supplied by eNotatedClassics.com)

20 thoughts on “Willa Cather, My Antonia (Review of eNotated edition)

  1. Oh dear, oh dear, what will they think of next!
    I like the sound of the book and will add it to my wishlist (these days more a matter of time than money), but the eNotations sound ghastly. I find discreet footnotes in books enough of a pain, and the Kindle’s dopey popular highlights drove me mad until I figured out how to turn them off. I like a well-written intro, I like reading endnotes, and if I’m really puzzled about something I’ll look it up on Google, but the sort of intrusive – and in the case of Time/Narrator and Elegiac – inane interruptions to the flow of the author’s work would spoil the reading entirely for me.
    I’m sure you’re right about students loving it because it will help them to write an essay but I bet it won’t make ’em love the book like you do.

    • Thanks Lisa … if you have never read it (or any of hers) then do add it to your list. She’s a great writer and I think you’d like it/her.

      The links to the definitions etc aren’t so bad except for the content issue I described. I’d actually prefer them to footnotes that I have to go look up. They are lightly underlined and you just click on them. (I’ve recently seen an annotated Jane Austen which is a bit like those translated classics – you know with the original language on one side of the page and the translation on the other, only it has the annotations on the left and the text on the right. That works well because you can just ignore one side of the page if you like.

      BUT I didn’t like the UPPER CASE Time, Narrator, Elegiac intrusion at all because they were very intrusive.

      I hope some of the students fall in love with it.

  2. I was offered a review copy of one of these but declined because I was too swamped with other things. I’m glad you got one because it sounded like an interesting concept. Perhaps after their first few editions they will take reader feedback and make some improvements. I think I’d be annoyned with the theme annotations in the text but everything else seems like it would be really useful especially for students.

    • Thanks, Stefanie. I shouldn’t really have accepted as I have so many Aussies I want to read but I had been thinking for a while that I’d love to reread Cather but didn’t have a copy. So that plus the eNotated idea swayed me. I’m glad I did and I do hope they take my comments in the spirit intended and develop the idea

  3. Though I am not averse to footnotes, and religiously read them if they feature in a hard copy book, I must admit I would hate e-notations, as I, like Lisa, loathe the highlight feature on the kindle and turn it off. I hope e notes are not going to become a feature of ebooks. Nothing would send me back to physical books faster.

    • Thanks Anne … interesting how different we all are. I find the links and other people’s highlights pretty easy to ignore though I’ve still only read a few books on my Kindle. It was just the upper case thematic indications that I found really intrusive.

      I hope they can work through all this as I think we do need to think about how we can develop the potential of the electronic format. Comments like all those here will hopefully help the process.

  4. Oh, I think those eNotations would be more of a blessing than a curse for me! Reminds me of reading that edition of Anna Karenina that had hundreds upon hundreds of endnotes, many on every page, and my inner obsessive felt obligated to flick to the end and always read what each footnote was about. It destroyed the flow of the book for me! Eventually I forced myself to ignore them and then loved the book wildly.

    • Thanks Hannah … I agree that clicking to see an annotation does’t interrupt the flow anywhere near as much as flipping backwards and forwards to notes at the back. There’s some fine-tuning to do yet but it has possibilities I think.

  5. Sue, I love that you connect the sensibility of an American pioneer novel with the tone of some 19th C. Australian novels. We’ve talked before about the similarities in tone and setting of some Australian fiction and novels of the American West, and not just 19th C. novels. That is a reason I enjoy so much Australian fiction. Feels like home.

    • I understand that! Thanks Fay. There’s a lot that’s different of course – particularly the whole Scandinavian thing – but the settling a new harsh country overtakes those differences doesn’t it.

  6. This sounds like a beautiful book and I have jotted it down as a definite TBR. However, like many others commenting here, I have no interest in the e-Notated version. When I read a novel, I want to immerse myself in it and I simply can’t do that if I’m constantly interrupting my reading pleasure. If I want to know more about a particular topic, I’d much rather read end-notes or search online.

  7. Yes, I love Cather, too. Many of her books are great, especially Song of the Lark and Professors House. They may also remind you of an Australian context.

    Thanks for reporting on the enotation. I think I would find the insertions in the text just too invasive. I appreciate ebooks generally because I can read books not otherwise available, but I prefer hard copy. What annoys me worst is the difficulty or impossiblity (depending on the source) of marking and finding passages I want to ponder. They are fine for a first reading, but not for a reflective one. I think students and reviews need reflection more than more information.

    • Thanks mdbrady. I have read The professor’s house, and Death comes for the archbishop, and liked them both. I’d really like to read O pioneers and Song of the lark as I think they work with My Antonia? I’ve also read a few short stories and newspaper articles.

      As for marking books … yes, I’m still not convinced that marginalia (I guess that’s what you mean) work as well on ebooks. I can highlight and make notes and with amazon books I can find those online in a fairly easy to read format BUT as well as marking passages I tend to make notes in the end papers as I go, making notes about themes, style etc. I can’t do that in an ebook. I find that quite frustrating and is one reason I still read mostly hard copy.

  8. I am always thrilled to see an appropriately laudatory review of My Antonia. It is a university required read that instantly became a favorite of mine. I’ve re-read it at least twice since and it holds up well. The spare writing is, as you note, beautiful and, I think, is partly what keeps it from aging poorly. Cather is never particularly purple in her writing.

    I have an eNotated classic that I need to get to. Like you, I have found others’ highlights on the Kindle not terribly distracting. I do find it amusing, sometimes, what becomes a “popular highlight”.

    Thank you for bringing back memories of this great, great book. (And in your Delicious Descriptions post as well. This novel is a great candidate for that.)

    • Thanks Kerry. I look forward to seeing which one you decided to review. I’m glad I’m not the only one who isn’t bothered by the highlights. I suspect people would laugh at mine if I made them public because I have very specific reasons for highlighting sometimes – it might be an idea, a lovely description, or even just a plot point I want to remember.

      Interesting point about her spare writing helping the work not age. I’d probably argue that it is more the universal emotions she is exploring but I guess the fact that she conveys it without superfluous detail that might bog it down helps ensure that her focus remains clear.

      As for Delicious Descriptions … it was hard to choose. I highlighted so many!!

      • Whispering,

        I don’t publicize my highlights because I cannot imagine they would, as a rule, be particularly helpful or interesting to others for precisely the reasons you note. My highlighting tends to be personal and idiosyncratic.

        You would win the argument. Universal emotions are definitely a key to the longevity of a novel.

        I had started through her works, but have had One of Ours waiting in the wings for over a year now. This reminds me I should keep plugging along at that project if I mean to complete it.

        • You should though I can talk as I’ve only read a few of hers, and I have far to go in two of my own projects, reading the oeuvre of Thea Astley and Elizabeth Jolley. One blogger I read – and I won’t quote her because I’m not sure I remember which one it is (isn’t that terrible) has a page called “Completist reading” where they list the authors whose oeuvre they are trying to read and mark them off as they go. I like that idea but haven’t actually formally instituted it for myself (yet). Oh, and I’m glad you understand my kindle highlighting behaviour.

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