A Case for Reading Something Other Than "Middlemarch"

Results from a new survey say that, if you are an Average American, two-year-olds read more often than you do. And if you read literature at all, that’s something, because 28 percent of U.S. adults did not read a single book in 2012. If there has ever been a sure sign of the collapse of civilization, it is numbers like these.

So let’s get this straight: I’m not telling you to completely avoid George Eliot’s 1871-ish (it was published serially) novel, Middlemarch. That would be silly—any reading is good reading, especially if that reading is of an ambitious 880-page Victorian novel. And don’t get me wrong, there are also about a gazillion great reasons to read Middlemarch, not the least of which is that 2014 is the Year of Reading Women, and also that Middlemarch’s musings on marriage, personal freedom, and that vague category of “life” are mostly still relevant today. Perhaps the best reason of all to read Middlemarch is so you can further enjoy Rebecca Mead’s fabulous new memoir/biography, My Life in Middlemarch, out today (she’ll be speaking at the New York Public Library tomorrow).

Mead herself is, in part, responsible for all the talk about Middlemarch lately—and for the Middlemarch reverence. But I find myself, a bibliophilic proselytizer, struggling to join in the conversation. Simply, Middlemarch is not the best novel ever written. It is not even the best novel written in the 1870s.

In many ways, this is totally personal: Middlemarch didn’t work for me and it did clearly work for lots and lots of people (I found the characters wearying, the themes obvious or outdated, and the prose dragging… but hey, personal opinion! We all have our own opinions!). However, I do glaringly fall right into the target audience of People Who Should Have Middlemarch As Their Favorite Book, being myself a woman in her early twenties, learning to live and love all on my own for the first time. And while it seems as if everyone/the Internet is telling me that I ought to worship Middlemarch, that it’s empowering and that it’s “important,” I look at the decade of the 1870s alone and go, “Yeah, but what about all of these books?”

The 1870s were, to say the least, fruitful years for literature. They saw the publication of Anna Karenina and A Doll’s House—both of which, like Middlemarch, challenged marriage norms in their given societies. Additionally, Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1871: Through the Looking-Glass heralded the return of his independent young protagonist. Jules Verne put out both Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in the ‘70s, “fathering” science fiction and influencing contemporaries such as Leo Tolstoy, Jean Cocteau and, a personal favorite of mine, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. (Even The Brothers Karamazov was most-of-the-way finished before the 1870s ended—if you want to dedicate 800 pages to a single, brilliant, all-encompassing novel, then let that be the one!). Here at home, American audiences read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and (female author!) Black Beauty in the 1870s; both were widely loved.

My point is, Middlemarch is not the be-all/end-all of literature. It is not even the be-all/end-all of feminist literature, social criticism, or 1870s European literature. There are better-written books, wiser books, more thrilling books, better romances and better tragedies. Rebecca Mead’s quote to the New York Times, “You do have to have read Middlemarch to be a completely evolved human being,” is preposterously untrue. But, importantly, there is a huge (huuuuuuuge) difference between “the best book ever” (a fools errand in pinning down, although it’s thrilling to debate) and a book that changed your life and affected you, as Middlemarch did Mead or Brothers Karamazov and dozens of others did me. The loveliest of facts is, different books change different lives (and here’s some recent proof).

Henry James, in his 1873 review, called Middlemarch “at once one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels… a treasure-house of details, but… an indifferent whole.” Salman Rushdie notoriously could not finish it. I find myself sympathetic to them both. If you’re going to read 880 pages of fiction this year (and you should!), I think you can find better than Eliot’s tome. But what do I know about you? Maybe Middlemarch will be your book to bring everything into focus.

Perhaps I should not be so quick to dismiss Middlemarch. As I grow older and revisit it later in my life, then maybe it will click. But until then, I’m going to keep on reading. Hopefully you will, too. The two-year-olds will rule us all soon enough; we don’t need to make it any easier for them.