Your Book Club Wants to Read Middlemarch? Great Idea!

OUPMmA stupid article about how Middlemarch is the kiss of death for book clubs has been getting a disappointing amount of linkage in the past couple of days, including from sites you’d expect to be above that kind of pandering to the lowest common denominator (I’m looking at you, New Yorker!). I’d like to think at least some of that is ironic linkage: the entire article is so anti-intellectual and so condescending to book clubs, not to mention to Middlemarch, that maybe people are linking to it in the same spirit that they’d rubberneck when passing a traffic accident. Or maybe they think it’s from The Onion. You’ll notice that I’m not linking to any of its iterations: it doesn’t deserve any more attention. Maybe it doesn’t deserve any reply, either, but it’s frustrating to see something like that circulating so widely, and I absolutely hate the thought that people might actually decide not to read Middlemarch because of it!*

I’ve decided, therefore, to put together an online site to encourage and support reading Middlemarch–whether in book clubs or on your own. I’ll be thinking a lot about what to put on the site, and I’d welcome suggestions. I should say that I think there’s something uncomfortable about implying that you can’t just read Middlemarch on your own and have a great experience. The first time I read it, I was eighteen and backpacking across Europe. I loved it. I read it differently then than I do now, but I did not find it dry, long, confusing, boring, or in any way the kiss of death for my reading pleasure, and at that time I had no special qualifications beyond having been a bookworm ever since I learned to read with Robert the Rose Horse when I was about five. I wasn’t even intending to be an English major. When I read Middlemarch again for a course on the 19th-century novel, I loved it again, so much that I decided to write my Honours thesis on it, and eventually it also made up part of my Ph.D. thesis, and now I teach it in my own courses as often as I can. It’s the kind of novel that rewards that kind of long-term relationship: it’s rich with ideas and characters and it’s brilliantly constructed and includes passages of such extraordinary intelligence that it can leave me breathless, as well as passages of great pathos, sly hilarity, and even unashamed melodrama and romance. It’s long and, in some ways, intricate, but there’s no reason why it should be singled out as the book of all books that people can’t read if they want to, with or without someone else’s help–especially people who love reading enough to be in book clubs in the first place.

Why put together any kind of reading guide for Middlemarch, then? Why not just let people take their chances with it? Good question. Is there really a need for such a thing? Is there any demand for it? I’m not sure, though I guess I’ll find out about the demand part at least, when I get the site up and running. It is certainly common to include guides and discussion questions for book clubs in contemporary novels, though I often think they don’t promote very thoughtful discussion of the book itself (and sometimes, as with the question set included with my edition of The Siege of Krishnapur, the questions are just plain odd.) As a teacher, I have found that students both appreciate and benefit from having some context provided and some suggestions for things to think about when they read: if you’re going to talk about a book, especially a long and complex book, the conversation will be better (more focused, more specific, less impressionistic) if you have some common starting points. Also, if you are reading something for the first time, it can be challenging to sort out all the details you are taking in. ‘One cannot read a book, one can only reread it,’ Nabokov famously pronounced, but if you don’t have time to do a thorough rereading yourself, it can help a lot for another, more experienced reader to give you some ideas about patterns and problems to be alert to. Indeed, if I didn’t think it was possible for there to be some “value added” to people’s reading experience, I would have a hard time showing up for work every day.

So I’ll putter away at the site for a bit and then make it public and solicit feedback on whether it strikes the right note and seems useful. I know there are lots of literature guides online already, many aimed at the high school and college market. I hope to do something a bit different–though exactly what, I’m still thinking about.

In the meantime, here are my top ten tips for any book clubs that have had the great idea to read Middlemarch.

  1. Yes, do! Why would anyone want to talk you out of it?
  2. Remember: it’s just a novel. It’s a great novel, and a long novel, and a Victorian novel, but these are not reasons to approach it with the preconception that it is difficult or inaccessible, an obstacle to be overcome like some kind of fictional Mount Everest. Novels are for reading–Victorian novels more than most! It’s also a very funny novel, though its humor is rarely of the knee-slapping kind. Just because it’s a “classic” doesn’t mean it’s dead serious, or that you have to be.
  3. Don’t rush it. It was originally published in installments; consider reading it this way, one or two books at a time, over several meetings. Every page has its share of details to savor.
  4. Mark it up! You’ll want to be able to find the good bits later. I think that what actually kills a book group–or at least makes it a lot less worthwhile than it could be–is people airing unsubstantiated opinions and gesturing vaguely towards the whole book as “evidence” (or insisting “that’s just my opinion”). Talk about the actual book–the words on the page–as specifically as you can. The longer the book, the more challenging that is, for sure, but you chose Middlemarch, after all. So do your best to learn your way around it, and leave yourself a helpful trail of crumbs. I’m a big fan of the Post-It for this purpose (here’s what my teaching copy looks like), but do what works for you. E-books allow highlighting and bookmarking; for some people, an old Penguin paperback and a pencil in hand is all they need or want.
  5. You don’t have to read up on George Eliot to appreciate Middlemarch, but she was a remarkable woman who lived a truly unconventional life. She also had strong ideas about the role of fiction in our lives. Consider finding out about her–just don’t start with Brenda Maddox’s terrible George Eliot in Love. The Victorian Web has some useful material.
  6. Middlemarch is a “multi-plot” novel–though, as you’ll discover, eventually the various plots converge around a shared crisis, and along the way there are many points of intersection. Still, there are a lot of people to keep track of! Consider making your own list of dramatis personae as you go along.  I actually think it’s fun to construct family trees, especially of the Vincy-Garth-Featherstone-Bulstrode connections (not to mention the Casaubon-Ladislaw-XXX connection–I’ve avoided a bit of a spoiler there!). Just as useful is to think about things the different plots have in common: what themes or problems do the characters share, across the various storylines? Why, for instance, do Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate belong in the same book although for most of it they spend very little time in the same plot?
  7. As you read, keep in mind that one of the most important ideas behind both the plot and the form of Middlemarch is that things look different from different points of view. (A great early example is the number of different perspectives we get on Mr. Casaubon.) This is a simple enough idea but it has significant consequences for the novels’ characters (who often aren’t very good at imagining how the world looks to other people), for us as readers (and as human beings), and for the form of the novel: once you take this idea really seriously, you’ll stop asking why the novel is so long and start thinking that it should have been even longer.
  8. Another thing to keep an eye on is the novel’s chronology. Because you aren’t rushing, you will notice the many times the story backtracks and brings us up to the same moment from a different starting point or following a different character.  I talk about Eliot’s manipulation of chronology a lot when I teach the novel, because it’s technically impressive as well as closely related to the issue of seeing things from different points of view (see, for instance, this post).
  9. Persist! Any long book–really, any book at all–may occasionally lose its grip on you, and then you start setting it aside in favor of other things to read, and the next thing you know you’ve lost all your momentum, which in turn becomes a reason not to pick it up again. The best way out of that slump is to pick the book up, settle yourself in your most comfortable chair, and read for a solid hour until you are back in the groove. Often (though of course not always) focusing thoughtfully on a book will really improve your relationship with it: you will find the rhythm of its language, and regain your traction with its plot and characters. The external motivation of reading for a class or a book club is good for inertia too. (I’m speaking from experience here. I’ve just finished Madame Bovary. I started it two years ago and put it aside “just for a while,” and only came back to it this month because my book club chose it for our next read. I didn’t end up loving the book, but I’m very glad I read it: reading is not all about my personal taste, after all, and that taste is also not immutable. But I had to get myself to focus. Needing to put a little discipline in your reading is not a sign that the book is a failure.)
  10. Watch the BBC adaptation if you want to. The article-which-shall-not-be-linked-to warns strongly against watching film versions, apparently because the author thinks you are lazy children who will always look for the easiest option. Of course you don’t want to end up talking about the adaptation and the book as if they’re interchangeable, or talking exclusively about the film–it’s a book club, right? But you can handle that. In my opinion, the BBC Middlemarch is not a great adaptation, though it’s a good effort. It does a decent job at putting together the main plot lines, and some of the casting is perfect (Mr. Brooke and Mr. Casaubon especially), so it might help animate the story lines for you, or help you remember who people are. (I usually show some clips to my classes, mostly for this reason.) The novel has a lot more to offer than the adaptation, though, as you’ll quickly realize if you have been listening to the narrator, thinking about point of view, or puzzling over chronology while you read. The film version is very linear and also very literal: it has nothing like the structural complexity and interest of the original, and thus does nothing to get us thinking about the larger problems raised in the novel about interpretation, point of view, sympathy, or morality–not to mention science, or aesthetics, or history… The major loss, though, really is the narrator–a loss it has in common with pretty much all film adaptations of Victorian novels. They always send me back to the original novels with renewed appreciation for the novel as an art form.

Those of you who have already read Middlemarch, or who are in book groups (or both!): please add any further tips  in the comments!

*I realize the original article is at least partly tongue-in-cheek, or at any rate mildly satirical. But still!

Help Wanted: “novelists and poets published in the last sixty years”

In a comment on my ‘About’ page, Bruce Cooper makes the following request:

I have no academic qualification and, to a very large extent, have relied on the works of FR Leavis to guide my reading of poetry and fiction. The reliance has not, I believe, been without merit and I am indebted to him for my deep and ongoing enjoyment of English literature. But, sadly, I’ve had no such guidance for novelists and poets published in the last sixty years and my age (65), and the limited time I have to spend on this most cherished pursuit, press upon me to seek from those better informed a literary canon for the period as well as the names of good literary critics who might assist in finding, to some degree at least, what I’m looking for.

I’d be most grateful if you’d be willing to have a shot at this.

Bruce, I don’t consider myself to have deep expertise in recent poetry and fiction: my own primary field for teaching and research is Victorian literature. However, I do read outside that field, of course, and I also have had to get a lot smarter about more contemporary literature in order to teach our survey course in ‘British Literature After 1800.’ In that effort, I have found the Cambridge Companion series extraordinarily rich and helpful. There’s a volume on almost any subject you can think of, including, say, Contemporary Irish Poetry, Literature of World War II, Malcolm X, Modern British Women Playwrights, Twentieth-Century English Poetry, and Postmodernism.

I also spent some time with some general introductions to contemporary fiction, all of which I found clear and lively. One was the Blackwell Companion to The British and Irish Novel 1945-2000, edited by Brian Shaffer. In this volume, a range of experts address both general issues in the history and theory of the novel in this period and more than two dozen particular novelists from George Orwell to A. S. Byatt. Shaffer also has written a guide to Reading the Novel in English 1950-2000, also from Blackwell. And the essay collection Contemporary British Fiction, edited by Richard Lane, Rod Mengham, and Philip Tew, from Polity Press, also contains a lot of very interesting material.

I think it is possible to derive from these works (and from standard teaching texts such as the Norton Anthology) a pretty good sense of the ‘canon’ for this period, though just how long that list would become would depend on what, if any, limits you set. Even if you stick to “literature written in English,” setting aside work in translation, you’d have a lot to cover, taking into account works from many countries. The reading list for our Ph.D. comprehensive exams in modern British literature is several pages long, and we have separate exams for Canadian, American, and postcolonial literature–though to be sure, these lists are aimed at producing specialists, not well-informed general readers.

But let me throw this question open, as I know I have readers who are more knowledgeable than I about contemporary literature. Recommendations, anyone? How should Bruce proceed? What critical guides or voices would you recommend? Where would you look (or, for that matter, not look) for help in compiling a manageable reading list for novelists and poets published in the last sixty years?

P.S. I have thought of making a kind of regular ‘ask the professor’ feature here. I get questions all the time, from students but also from friends, family, and colleagues, from “Why do we call George Eliot ‘George Eliot’ when we don’t call Charlotte Bronte ‘Currer Bell’?” to “What would you recommend for my first attempt at reading Dickens?” or “What’s so great about Finnegan’s Wake if nobody can understand what it says?” I don’t always have a good answer, but I often know someone I can ask. Do you think that would be fun? What would you ask? What has someone asked you that you couldn’t answer? Maybe this could even be a bit of a column in Open Letters (“Open Questions”?), if there’s enough interest. (I should probably ask this general question in a more prominent place eventually, but this seemed a good time to at least air it in a preliminary way!)