Middlemarch for Book Clubs: the beta launch

OxfordJust over a year ago, I got somewhat exercised over a news story claiming that Middlemarch is the kiss of death for book clubs. My annoyance was exacerbated by the number of links it got from other sources, which added up to quite the anti-Middlemarch buzz for a while.

My first response was a post on this blog that included a list of 10 tips to help book clubs that wanted to read Middlemarch but felt they could use a little support. In that post I also made a bold pronouncement: “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 was and am well aware that there’s no shortage of information about George Eliot and Middlemarch already available, but the work of finding and filtering with an eye to what might be useful and illuminating for book clubs (rather than, say, scholars) is not insignificant, and having relevant basics gathered in one place might — or so I thought and hope — simply be convenient.

middlemarchsite

At long last, I have a full (if not necessarily finished) version of that site now up for people to take a look at. As you’ll see if you visit it, it’s not a very fancy thing — it’s just a free WordPress site. I chose what I hope is a clean, easy-to-read theme and set up what seemed to me like simple but useful categories. At this point I feel very aware of what is not there (many more topics could be covered under ‘contexts,’ for instance) and also of how what is there reflects my own interests and idiosyncrasies as a reader and teacher of the novel. Depending on the response to this draft version, I could certainly end up adding more material. But I’m not sure I want to try to neutralize my own perspective: good discussions arise from encounters between different people’s minds, and I wanted the site to convey the sense that there’s a person behind it. That’s why I let myself be kind of chatty, including in the questions.

There are lots more excuses explanations I could offer for what I’ve done so far, but I think I’ll leave it at that for now. I welcome feedback, here or at the site, particularly from people who might some day — or have already — chosen Middlemarch for reading with their own book clubs!

 

Middlemarch for Book Clubs: Preview #1 – Choosing an Edition

I’ve been working industriously on my Middlemarch for Book Clubs website. I hope to have a “beta” version of the whole site ready to make public by the end of June, but I thought it would be helpful for me to get some feedback on a couple of pages sooner rather than later. One reason is that I’m especially concerned about finding the right tone (not too didactic, but clear and practical; enthusiastic but not gushing), as well as the right balance between too much and not enough information. But also — and this is particularly important for a page like this one on choosing an edition — I can’t be sure if I’m providing the right information. I’d be glad to know if you think I’m on the right track, or, if not, what changes or corrections or additions you’d suggest.

Middlemarch for Book Clubs: Choosing an Edition

GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS

The first thing to consider is whether you want everyone in your group to use the same edition of Middlemarch. Even if you think that this would be a good thing, it may prove impractical, as people may already own copies, or may prefer one version over another for their own reasons. My classroom experience (as well as experience in my own book club) has taught me that it can be frustrating trying to talk about a long book when people quite literally can’t get on the same page. This is one reason to encourage people to use some system of navigational aids, like post-it notes! However, because Middlemarch is divided into Books and then into chapters, it’s not that hard to find common reference points.

The next question is whether you want to use a ‘popular’ or a scholarly edition. With a novel like Middlemarch, I think it’s a good idea to have a reliable, well-edited text with thorough annotations–not because you must consult them, but because you may want to. Scholarly editions not only include thoughtful introductions and explanatory footnotes (helpful for everything from literary allusions to historical contexts) but also point out changes made to the novel over its publishing history. One of the most interesting of these in Middlemarch is a tweak to its Finale that might spark some debate among the members of your book club, especially if you’ve talked along the way about how far Dorothea is responsible for her own bad choices.

RECOMMENDED EDITIONS OF MIDDLEMARCH

Oxford

Oxford World’s Classics: This is the edition I usually assign in my classes. It’s readily available, Felicia Bonaparte’s introduction is illuminating, the notes are good but not overwhelming, and the layout is readable and leaves enough room for annotations. In the current printing, there are two paragraphs out of order: bonus points for the person in your group who spots them! (I’ve notified the press and subsequent printings may be corrected.)


penguinPenguin Classics
: This is another fine, reliable edition, with a good introduction by Rosemary Ashton; it has the benefit of also being available as an e-book, which may be an advantage if some of your members use e-readers.


nortonNorton Critical Edition:
This edition is the most scholarly of the options, in that it conveniently packages a scrupulous edition of the novel with a selection of critical essays about it. If that’s the kind of thing your book club likes, this is the edition for you. If you doubt you’ll want to read the criticism, however, I recommend an edition with larger type!


broadviewBroadview Press Edition:
This handsome edition of Middlemarch is supplemented by contemporary reviews and documents (rather than the mostly 20th-century critical materials included in the Norton). It is annotated in great detail, with special attention paid to the role of the visual arts in the novel; it is the only one of these editions that includes illustrations. The footnotes do occasionally almost overwhelm the novel itself. This edition is also available as an e-book.

There are [will be] links to some free electronic full-text editions of Middlemarch on the ‘Links’ page. I don’t particularly recommend these for reading the whole novel, though of course you may find them fine for your purposes. The searchable e-texts are great, however, for finding lines you remember but forgot to mark with post-its!