Lines & Literature | My Life in Middlemarch
What I've been reading (off-line, that is):
My Life in Middlemarch is a deftly woven novel, part history, part scholarly exegesis, and part personal narrative. Call it an homage or a "bibliomemior," I call it delightful. "Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism,” she writes, “and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. These are books that seem to comprehend us just as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grown with the readers as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree." (p. 16)
On a rainy afternoon, after retrieving my reserved copy from the library downtown, I sat at a cafe table, latte in hand, and began to read. My first mistake--I realized after only a few pages--was that I had jumped head first into a dialogue without first understanding the subject. That is, I had yet to read Middlemarch, itself. I immediately picked up that novel, as well, and read the two simultaneously. (Now that I have finished both books, I am appalled that I somehow received a degree in English Literature without ever picking up George Eliot's Middlemarch).
Mead shares her own personal history, as she relates the history of Middlemarch, drawing on how this piece of Victorian literature illuminated her own life. As a reader who empathizes deeply with the literature I delve into, I appreciated Mead’s connections and the hybrid charms of her combination homage/biography.
“Such an approach to fiction—where do I see myself in here?—is not how a scholar reads, and it can be limiting in its solipsism. It’s hardly an enlarging experience to read a novel as if it were a mirror of oneself. One of the useful functions of literary criticism and scholarship is to suggest alternative lenses through which a book might be read…Even so, all readers make books over in their own image, and according to their own experience. My Middlemarch is not the same as anyone else’s Middlemarch; it is not even the same as my Middlemarch of twenty-five years ago. Sometimes we find that the book we love has moved another person in the same ways as it has moved ourselves, and one definition of compatibility might be when two people have highlighted the same passage in their editions of their favorite novel. But we each have our own internal version of the book, with lines remembered and resonances felt.”(p. 172)
I knew very little about George Eliot (aka Mary Anne Evans) before I began to read, and now I feel like I know her a little better. Lately, I've been craving books like this: books with a scholarly voice, that dig into familiar stories, highlighting pieces that the casual reader would never have otherwise noticed. As a reader in a particular relationship with this novel, Mead expresses the purest form of appreciation for Eliot's work.
And I, in turn, appreciated Mead.