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A Study of Reading Habits

Coming to serious terms with Middlemarch.

By From the April 2014 issue

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By Rebecca Mead
(Crown, 304 pages, $25)

Here is a variation on a phrase you will encounter often in the course of reading about Middlemarch: “When I was such-and-such years old, I read Middlemarch for the first time.” Everything else unfolds from there.

This is, of course, very close to how Rebecca Mead opens My Life in Middlemarch, her literary memoir. But Mary Gordon used it in 1994, for her New York Times article “George Eliot, Dorothea, and Me.” Patricia Meyer Spacks used it in “The Power of Middlemarch,” an essay in a recent issue of Daedalus. Zadie Smith has used it in an interview. I’ve used it. I’m using it right now: I read Middlemarch for the first time at sixteen and I wrote in my journal that I was sure it would predict a miserable end for me. (It didn’t.)

These stories matter because they demonstrate how people read Middlemarch: as a book about themselves. Middlemarch is a book always taken personally, even though it doesn’t seem calculated to provoke such devotion. My Penguin paperback clocks in at well over eight hundred pages, and the book’s plot is entirely concerned with the triviality of day-to-day life. Beautiful Dorothea Brooke marries old scholar Edward Casaubon, expecting him to be a genius (he is not). Young Will Ladislaw pines for Dorothea and tries to make a name for himself (with mixed success). Ambitious young doctor Lydgate marries society beauty Rosamund Vincy (and pays for it with his career). And so on.

This fascination with the mundane is actually the source of Middlemarch’s attraction. It gives, or at any rate seems to give, its attentive readers a unique vision of their own lives and the lives of others. To the Middlemarcher, nothing could be more natural than measuring out your life in Middlemarch readings.

The vision granted into Mead’s own life is not so surprising, given that My Life in Middlemarch is a memoir. But the book is as much—and possibly more—about George Eliot as it is about anything else. Loosely following the structure of Middlemarch, Mead uses the book as an opening into Eliot’s life and her own, a technique that would be disorienting if it weren’t so charming. In less skilled hands, the book could have felt like a movie constantly flashing backward and forward—“meanwhile, in the life of George Eliot”—but instead, it has the easy rhythm of a good conversation, moving among these three topics easily and drawing attention to how they are connected.

This interconnectedness, as Mead well knows, is itself Middlemarch-esque. Eliot’s creation of the novel, the novel’s influence on her subsequent life—it all seems like a model for Eliot’s interest how our actions can touch others in ways we can’t anticipate or wholly understand. Mead considers the characters of the three different parts of her own book with a kindness that reflects Eliot’s own focus on empathy. Sitting down with the book, you are not only reading a tribute to Middlemarch, but also seeing a person whose thinking and perception have been shaped by living with the novel for such a long time.

How many books can claim this kind of loyalty? There are many novels that are as good as Middlemarch (or so I’m told), but not many—perhaps not any—of which it might be written, as it is by Mead, that “the book was reading me, as I was reading it.” No one seems to pick up Middlemarch without reading it that way—even those who dislike it. (“I hate Dorothea,” a friend said to me. “She’s me when I was thirteen years old.”)

Could there be a My Life in War and Peace, or My Life in the Brothers Karamazov, or My Life in the Magic Mountain?None of these really invites the reader to self-identification the way that Middlemarch does. Indeed, some books seem to deliberately alienate the reader. When Tolstoy encourages us to view his characters as will-less insects swept about by forces they do not understand, the reader is not really inclined to assume a place among them.

Of course, it’s certainly true that excellent non-autobiographical essays have been written about Middlemarch. One could even say that the kind of self-identification that Mead indulges in prevents a proper reading of the book. Good literature, surely, is more than a carnival cutout, where the passerby sticks his head through a hole and pretends to be another person. The expansive emotional nature of Middlemarch, with Eliot’s constant invitations toward just such pretending, might indicate that this book cultivates intellectual immaturity.

So the most interesting part of My Life in Middlemarch is not Middlemarch, Eliot, or Mead. It’s instead Mead’s defense of “the naïve reader,” a reader she defines as “the kind of reader who approaches a book not with an academic’s theoretical apparatus or the scope of a professional critic, but who reads with commitment and intelligence, and with a conviction that there is something worth learning from a book.”

Mead does not make a systematic defense of the naïve reader. The book itself is that defense. She gently reminds us along the way that she never read Middlemarch as a professor might. And indeed, she says she returned to Middlemarch because she wanted to be reminded of how to read a book for itself, breaking her journalist’s habit merely to “consult them fleetingly, then shelve them.” So My Life in Middlemarch could be retitled “A Portrait of Naïve Reader,” an exercise in showing how to let a book speak directly to you.

Middlemarch too shares this preference for naïveté. Its heroes are the characters who experience intellectual life passionately. These characters, such as Will Ladislaw and Dorothea Brooke, are eventually granted happiness. The scholarly characters—dry Mr. Casaubon with his heaps of notes for the book he will never begin writing, and Dr. Lydgate with his medical research—by way of contrast, end the book completely destroyed. Intellectual quests leave Casaubon (and perhaps Lydgate) deficient, possibly incapable of love and certainly incapable of empathy.

Mead is more merciful than Middlemarch. She points out that she found scholarship alienating on her first encounter, but also learned from it how to read more closely. And certainly the book itself is extensively researched, as much as it is also an exercise in naïve readership. So if Middlemarch harshly rejects the scholarly life, Mead’s book assumes the middle ground: it encourages neither solipsistic enthusiasm nor cold detachment, but a love that seeks—and is deepened by—greater knowledge of its object.

The question that will remain is whether or not Mead’s work can stand alone. The answer is yes and no. As a book, My Life in Middlemarch makes sense by itself. Because it’s as much a biography of Eliot as it is a memoir of reading or a summary of Middlemarch, there is a narrative thread that can be followed even by those who never read Eliot.

But My Life in Middlemarch is also an invitation. It invites us to read a particular book and to read it—and other books—not as a chore but as an exercise in enthusiasm. In that sense, the reader who puts it down without immediately picking up Middlemarch has missed something important. 

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About the Author

B. D. McClay is the associate editor of the Hedgehog Review.