Despite my unwillingness to believe in the passage of time, it has in fact been a year or two since I graduated from college. I have neither current nor anticipated dependency on literature for my financial well-being. My emotional health would probably improve if I worried less about whether I’m reading enough, and more about just about anything else.
Which is all to say there’s no compelling reason for me to spend three-odd weeks reading 800-plus page Victorian novels about people doing things, things that don’t involve dragons or galactic empires. And but yet I remain interested in the quote-unquote work of figuring out for myself what makes Great Works great, which means now and then diving into something like Middlemarch, by George Eliot.
I liked Middlemarch. Quite a bit, I think. More than maybe I expected, in so far as I sort of expected it to feel like a slog, which it didn’t.
But I didn’t love it. Which—this is a book people love, today, correct? Am I wrong about that? To be clear, I am not yucking any yums, but I am curious, now, having read it, having read this novel that’s commonly in the running for “best English novel ever” status. Am I wrong to be surprised that it’s a book people love? It does not feel to me like a particularly lovable book, whatever that means. I’m curious what it is about this book that someone might love, about how or when exactly one might fall in love with it.
It’s not original of me to echo the sentiment that Middlemarch is a novel for grown-ups. Virginia Woolf said it first; she’s obviously smarter than me. And I was recently, finally re-re-re-prompted to read it by a bit of discussion on the Marlon and Jake Read Dead People podcast, in which they suggested the book makes for terrible assigned high school reading.
They’re right. If I’d had to read it in high school I would have been bored to tears. If I’d had to read it in college I would have written nice papers about recurring themes of modernity and feminism, and maybe I would have claimed to have adored it because that would have made me feel smart and attractive—more so than I ever actually was, to be sure—but I doubt I would have gotten it, would have connected with it. I wouldn’t have felt it.
The book deals with the perspective that comes with time and experience, with the conflict between dreams and reality; it shifts its focus from the marriage to what comes after the honeymoon, after you’ve hooked up with the stiff dude with the galaxy brain only to learn he’s a selfish, insecure toolbag, after you’ve married the hottie with the body like whoa only to find that your big ideas aren’t going to get you out of paying down that debt you incurred because the love of your life likes nice dishes.
At a time of life when I was (was?) all dreams, no reality, there’s no way any of that messaging was going to land. Never even mind you the complete lack of self-consciousness that would have caught on to whatever selfish, toolbag-like aspects of myself the novel might have mirrored back at me. (Reader, I squirmed.)
All of which makes me sincerely wonder, how does one love this book? At what age or station in life do you read this book and find yourself forming a life-long attachment to it? Was I really always that far out in left field through the initial chunk of my reading life that I missed the proper pop fly here? Or is it just all much more complex than I’m able to see? Am I still misunderstanding who I am and who I am not so much that I can’t see something clear as day that’s right in front of me? I don’t know.
I do know that—sure, buckle up, we're about to get real basic-b English major here—this tension between appreciating and loving the book, between understanding art and feeling it—oh, heck, between the life of the mind and minding one’s life—is important to me, and I wonder if it isn’t important to Eliot, too.
One of my favorite bits of the book comes from a conversation between Dorothea Casaubon neé Brooke and Will Ladislaw:
[Dorothea said] “You would hardly believe how little I have taken in of music and literature, which you know so much of. I wonder what your vocation will turn out to be: perhaps you will be a poet?”
“That depends. To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion — a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.”
“But you leave out the poems,” said Dorothea. “I think they are wanted to complete the poet….”
I mean, okay, Ladislaw’s getting at the heart of everything I idealistically claim I hope to achieve when I’m writing about what I’m reading, and yes, that’s hot. But then you have that deft turn to sweet, idealistic Dorothea bringing the man back out of the clouds and down to earth, to the practical concerns of producing things. And so in this moment while he’s maybe acting as an obvious foil against Edward “Check out the big brain on” Casaubon, the two are also kind of in the same boat, in so far as Ladislaw should probably settle down and get a real job, and Casaubon just needs to produce his own death, already. None of which makes what Ladislaw says any less true, in any case. It’s great, and, so, whatever.
Whatever. So: I read Middlemarch and I liked it and it made me feel kind of smart for a while, and there were bits I liked more than other bits and there were bits I kind of skimmed more than I might care to admit because there’s only so much nineteenth century local English politics stuff I’ve got the spare energy to care about, and the book also deals with interpersonal complexity in a way that is highly engaging and nuanced while also hitting a bit weird in today’s “both-sidesism” cultural climate, and the book also made me reflect on the passage of time, of my time, and it made me want to write papers about themes, though I probably won’t. And maybe that’s enough, for me. I liked it. I did it.
Then I followed it up with Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton, a novel about a zombie apocalypse that is narrated by a foul-mouthed crow who loves Cheetos and humans. It was fantastic.
But yeah, college Darby would have been an insufferable git about Middlemarch, if my college-era frequent, loud professions of love for Elizabeth Barrett Browning were anything to go by. I do periodically think I really should revisit Aurora Leigh; I also remain dreadfully afraid of surfacing whatever drivel I strung together about it for my senior thesis. It was a Marxist/Feminist reading. Surely, my insights have aged like the finest wine. Anyway, kids these days don’t read Aurora Leigh, do they? A shame. I loved that book. Also, I’m smart and attractive.
I’m probably not actually going to read the book about reading Middlemarch, but I’m curious enough about it to think about reading it. I’m also amused by Christine’s suggestion that I write a book about reading Infinite Jest, so that she in turn can write a book about reading my book about reading Infinite Jest. We have such fun in the midwest.
Cari Luna is doing a not-a-bookclub read-along of Doris Lessing’s novel, The Summer Before the Dark, in June. My copy’s in the mail. I’ve had The Golden Notebook on my pile for years but it scares me, and this one will at least be shorter. (I’ve been toying with the idea of doing something similar for a while, but I’ve been stuck in second gear for too long, and also I keep thinking I want to do it with a Thomas Pynchon novel, which is bonkers. Still, I like Cari’s take on it, and if I ever do something like that I will steal her format.)
There’s this Beavis and Butthead sketch that’s stuck with me across the decades about forgetting how to pee. I’ve been thinking about it lately, because when it comes to this blog, I’ve felt stuck. I’ve forgotten how to do it. To that end, I'm putting out a call for suggestions of books or other reading material about how to write about books. What do you read when you need to read about how to read? What do you return to when you need to be reminded how to write? I don’t quite know what I’m looking for. I hope you do.