Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

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work for me and it did clearly work for lots and lots of people (I found the characters wearying, the themes obvious or outdated, and the prose dragging… but hey, personal opinion!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.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

carig (#4,986)

I think it's totally fine to dislike or even hate "Middlemarch" or suggest reading other things instead, but I think this is the dumbest and laziest piece of writing I've ever seen on the Awl. Which normally has some of the smartest writing out there. Not the least because "A Doll's House" isn't a novel. I mean, suggesting reading YA lit like "Black Beauty" or "Alice in Wonderland" instead of "Middlemarch"? They're not trying to do the same thing at all. Nor are Russian novels, written by men, in another language. "Middlemarch" is important in British literature because of its place in the evolution of the novel in English. Again, if you hate it, that's totally cool. Just critique it in some sort of context. Listing a few books you like better that happened to be published in the same decade in different countries isn't really much of a context, without placing what was going on in that decade in those countries in context.

scrooge (#2,697)

@carig Gosh, that's a bit harsh. But, then, I guess the finger photo was a bit harsh, too, so karma is about settled.

spanish bombs (#562)

@carig Agreed. I came looking for a great list of books similar to read that are not Middlemarch. Although I have to say, I read Vilette because of an Awl/Hairpin recommendation, and it was astonishingly awful. Entertainingly awful, granted, but it sucked.

carig (#4,986)

@spanish bombs I love "Vilette," but it's definitely an acquired taste. I wouldn't recommend it to any of my friends that weren't already big into Victorian literature.

Pound of Salt (#15,166)

@spanish bombs Heh I read it after that article, too. Can't believe she was arguing it was better than Jane Eyre.

Mistress Sparrow (#239,284)

@carig Agreed. It is so weird to read backlash-for-the-sake-of-backlash against a 140-year-old novel. I read and loved Villette on the Hairpin recommendation, which is the quality of insight I normally expect from this site. This essay is drunk: go home. (As a Middlemarch lover, Rebecca Mead's book is already embarrassingly satisfying, and I'm only a few chapters in.)

LHOOQ (#18,226)

@spanish bombs The Villette recommendation nearly reached Slate levels of contrarianism. I read it in my first year of university whilst waiting for my laundry to finish, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others who are similarly committed to serious time wasting — students, prisoners, people on bed rest . . . .

Mr. B (#10,093)

being myself a woman in her early twenties, learning to live and love all on my own for the first time

This is a unique and important experience, and I hope you write much more on the internet about it. Do let the public know when you outgrow describing novels as "tomes."

Shortshorts (#259,037)

Try it again when you're 40

EnLaSelva (#259,038)

Am I the only one who thinks that otherwise okay think pieces appear cluttered by an excess of parenthetical thought? I recall that D. Wallace was all over that game, though the footnotes preserved some structural integrity in a way that multiple parens don't quite.

KarenUhOh (#19)

It's okay for you to not care so much for it. It's equally okay, maybe even okayer, to like it or sort of love it or even read it four or four and a half times.

It's, like, a classic, you know?

AddieJoy (#259,076)

Jules Verne was nowhere close to fathering science fiction. Frankenstein was published in 1818.

Lcanon (#240,865)

I just thought it was funny that Eliot got away with calling the manor house in the book Freshitt.

mackload (#259,107)

Confirming that any reading is not, in fact, good reading. But just the incentive I need to take a month or two off the internet and try and clear some of the garbage out of my head…

I don't understand why this was written. (But I think MM is the greatest book I'VE read.)

Patrick M (#404)

Is Middlemarch what we're calling The Goldfinch? Or

LHOOQ (#18,226)

Everything about this is wrong.

Post a Comment