I have only read Middlemarch once, many years ago, and while I have never felt the desire to read George Eliot’s most famous work again, I find, strangely, that I think about it quite a lot. There is no other book I can think of to which I have such a relationship. In particular, I think about Casaubon and Dorothea, two figures who have become archetypes of, respectively, single-minded obsession coupled with mediocrity, and idealism and romanticism coupled with an overly-developed sense of duty. These two characters have always struck me as the most tragic literary figures, despite the fact that nothing dramatically awful happens to either of them. Perhaps it’s because I’m an academic, but Casaubon and Dorothea depress me like no other characters in literary history. The character studies that make up this book, in other words, are so carefully and sharply delineated, and the types Eliot chose so specific and yet so recognizable, that they entirely transcend their fussy, provincial, Victorian, English context. These characters are all immediately recognizable today, in an entirely different context.
While I enjoyed Middlemarch and found it to be very smart and perceptive, I was surprised when a friend told me that he reread this book every single year. It is a very long book, and not really what most people would call a page-turner. With New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead’s new book, My Life in Middlemarch, I realize that my friend was not alone, and that there are many people as fervently attached to this novel and its wisdom as my friend. Mead uses Eliot’s Victorian novel in a wonderfully incisive combination of memoir, biography, and literary criticism. My Life in Middlemarch is a deep dive into the characters and structure of the novel, and Mead relates Eliot's book to different aspects of Mead's own life and history.
My Life in Middlemarch, however, is not really about Middlemarch. Or rather, it is only partially about Middlemarch. Mead’s greater point, and the reason this book is worth reading, even by people who have never read Middlemarch, or read it and hated it, is that for lifelong readers, books are not just things to be loved and read: they love and read us, they shape our lives. But this is not a book about the joys of books, and the comfort they provide. What sets this book apart from other bookish memoirs is that Mead is very adamant that books don’t just make us feel cozy and happy; for real bibliophiles, it is more complicated, and thus much deeper, than that. As Mead puts it, “Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, 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. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.”
(I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.)