‘Dracula’ in your inbox: Newsletters for reading the classics

Projects like ‘Dracula Daily,’ a newsletter that emails Bram Stoker’s novel in chronological order and in real time, bring literature to a new generation of readers, who then comment about the works on social media

Bulletin novels allow "sipping" reading.
Bulletin novels allow "sipping" reading.Carlina Teteris (Getty Images)

Since the beginning of May, 33-year-old Rafa Baena’s inbox has included an email with the subject line “Dracula Daily: [date email received].” Inside, he finds an extract of Bram Stoker’s original text, which corresponds to that day in the novel. Dracula is an epistolary work, made up of letters, diary entries and newspaper clippings, all of which are dated. Because the action takes place between May and November, there is the option of reading it as the Dracula Daily newsletter suggests, resisting the urge to devour the book and reading only what corresponds to the day you are on.

Like Baena, 265,000 others around the world receive the emails sent out by web designer Matt Kirkland, who came up with the idea for the newsletter while reading Dracula in the summer of 2020. “My daughter would always ask me ‘what happened today?’ She meant whatever I had read that day, but I realized that the dates were very close to the time we were in, and it occurred to me that it could be read in real time,” he explains. That is, on July 24, you read what the novel says about that date and nothing else. In addition to a change in the usual reading rhythm, that also means altering the order of the original work, which does not always follow the calendar. “I thought it would be fun to read it in chronological order and that an easy way to do this could be a newsletter, someone sending you what to read on the day indicated. Once I had the idea, I saw that it was an easy thing to do and decided to do it,” he relates. In May 2021, he started what he now calls the first “season” of collectively reading Dracula. He had about 1,500 subscribers, which he thought was a great success. In 2022, he decided to do it again, and the newsletter took off: he surpassed 200,000 subscribers.

One of the effects of this mass reading of Dracula in 2022 was the creation of many other similar newsletters. The elements are simple: a work that is already in the public domain and an account with an electronic newsletter service. Not all works lend themselves as well to such a date-specific division, but that is not essential. Some of these literary newsletters simply divide them into parts that can be easily read in an e-mail and set a regular period for delivery; others choose novels where the action takes place over a few months and try to deliver the installments to coincide with it, more or less. For example, the Whale Weekly newsletter began sending out the text of Moby Dick in November 2022 and will continue to do so for two years. They have done some research work beforehand to try to match the timing of the action as closely as possible. Melville doesn’t give exact dates, but it is possible to guess roughly when everything happens from other clues.

Kirkland says that he has lost count of the literary newsletters that have been popping up, but he estimates that there are now over a hundred of them: Les Miserables, Pride and Prejudice, the Sherlock Holmes novels, Dangerous Liaisons, Samuel Pepys’s diaries, Edgar Allan Poe’s works, Frankenstein, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall... They are done in the work’s original language or in English.

But why this interest in reading classics in small bites via email? “Serials or serialized stories have already worked at other times in our history and everything comes back around,” explains Elisa Yuste, a consultant who specializes in reading. Moreover, this type of reading “adapts very well to the content consumption habits of the digital era,” she adds. For her part, Dr. Ana Cuquerella, an expert in electronic literature and computational creativity and professor at the University of Villanueva in Spain, points out that “real-time delivery is a mechanism widely used in digital literature,” since it gives “a sense of reality, of updates.” As an example, she cites a 2008 blog, WW1: Experiences of an English Soldier, as the first work she saw that used this style. “It was a blog created by the grandson of a WWI British soldier. The format is epistolary. The entries respect the chronological order in which the original letters were written. A family story becomes the followers’ story; there were thousands of them, eagerly awaiting news from Private Lamin and commenting on what happened with other followers, experiencing it as if it were happening, crying when they sense[d] the tragedy,” Cuquerella says.

Reading via email, commenting on social media

That collective commentary after reading each installment — the same thing that happens with television shows — is a fundamental component of the format’s success. Matt Kirkland is clear about the fact that his Dracula Daily postings exploded in popularity thanks to the activity that emerged on social media, especially Tumblr, where a visit to the hashtag #DraculaDaily (warning: there may be spoilers) shows the full breadth of the content created following each installment: memes, illustrations, linguistic and historical commentary, theories about what is actually happening....

“When readers are immersed in a story they like, a personal bond is created with the narrative elements, and it generates a sense of belonging to the community of fans who share the same passion. Commenting, analyzing and sharing content on social media allows them to express their enthusiasm, connect with other fans and become part of a community that shares similar interests,” says Dr. María José Establés Heras, a professor and researcher in the Department of Applied Communication Sciences in the School of Information Sciences at the Complutense University of Madrid, a specialist in fan studies and transmedia literacy. “This is how fandoms (a neologism created from fan and kingdom, i.e., the realm of fans) of a given cultural product — in this case, Bram Stoker’s novel — are created,” she explains.

Dracula Daily’s success on Tumblr was such that there were even users like Inés, 33, who followed the novel through memes, without ever signing up for the newsletter (she had read Dracula some time ago). “What I liked about the experience was the communal reading, which is how a lot of books used to be read (especially from that era and earlier). On Tumblr, people would comment on everything from silly jokes about a scene to brainy literary analysis and historical context about minutiae. Suddenly, all the characters were alive in their historical moment, and they weren’t doing things for the sake of doing them, it was just that in that era they had to be done that way, it was the expected or necessary thing to do. Or not, and they were breaking the mold. And many of the things that I had observed during my individual reading were things that were clearly there, that everyone could see,” she says of her own experience. This year she started listening to Re:Dracula, a radio version that also publishes its contents according to the dates of the novel. The creator of Dracula Daily is amazed to say that he was asked for permission; he has not been able to follow it regularly. Baena had to leave the reading halfway through “for academic reasons,” although he hopes to complete it in the 2024 edition. “I owe it to the Count, or he will unleash his evil influence on me...,” he says.

Approaching classics in a different way

Inés subscribed to the Dangerous Liaisons newsletters in both the original French and in English. “I’d been wanting to read it for a long time, but it was impossible for me to read such a huge book on my own, and [it’s] from the 18th century, to boot. So, I took advantage of this format,” she says. “I loved it because it’s as if they were writing the letters to me, you get the gossip little by little in real time. It’s fascinating.”

Like Inés, many people are somewhat intimidated by certain classics for reasons that can range from length to language, form or lack of custom, so projects like these can help give new life to these texts for a new audience. “I’ve seen quite a few fans say, ‘I never thought I’d be able to read this book,’” Matt Kirkland notes. A regular reader of Victorian literature, he had not considered that his newsletter could have this effect, but experts in electronic and transmedia literature are not surprised. Ana Cuquerella explains that these types of projects are “alternative ways of getting into the original.” She gives the example of something she does in class. “In every course, I show my students the feeling of rootlessness and hopelessness with a rap by El Piezas... it’s about [Federico Garcia] Lorca’s Romance del emplazado. They don’t know that, but when they listen to it, without exception, they are all able to decipher the underlying message. Then, seeing that this rapper translates it into their language and that they can understand it, they approach Lorca in a totally different way, actively trying to discover what he has to say to them today,” he says.

Literary newsletters do not represent such a dramatic change, but they do bring the text closer to the reader through activity on social media. “I don’t know if you appreciate the details more because of this format [being forced to read little by little] but having thousands of people commenting on each sentence and noticing different things does,” Inés reflects.

Can you say that you have read a classic if you have done so through these bulletins? “If the only thing being done to a work is fragmentation, I personally would say that you are enjoying the original,” says Elisa Yuste. Changing the order, as in the case of Dracula Daily, is another matter. What often happens, Matt Kirkland admits, is that people start with the newsletter and end up going to the book. “Sometimes users who have just unsubscribed from the newsletter write me to explain that it’s not because of anything bad. They just couldn’t wait; they bought the book and have already devoured it,” he says.

Will there be more “seasons” of Dracula Daily? “It doesn’t take too much work, so I guess as long as there’s interest, I’ll keep doing it,” he says. For the moment, the project has already made the leap back to paper: a few weeks ago, Kirkland published a book with the text in chronological order with many of the memes, illustrations and comments that have appeared under the hashtag over these past three years.

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