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!

21 Comments to Your Book Club Wants to Read Middlemarch? Great Idea!

  1. May 17, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have anything to add at the moment…just that I am on side and totally supportive of your endeavour! I’ll noodle on suggestions now and as you progress.

  2. Tom W.'s Gravatar Tom W.
    May 17, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Another fine piece Rohan, many thanks! In case you’ve missed it, the current issue of Nineteenth-Century Literature (March 2012, Vol 66, no. 4) prints Cara Weber’s terrific “‘The Continuity of Married Companionship’: Marriage, Sympathy, and the Self in Middlemarch”, very well observed indeed, plenty to think about. I trust all’s well with you and yours!

  3. May 17, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    I think there’s definitely a market for a website like that. I’m part of a classics book club, and I know there are TONS of other book clubs out there filled with adults who love to read classics. We’d definitely use and appreciate a website with book club questions for Middlemarch, and for any other Victorian novels that you feel like writing questions for….

    We used your Mill on the Floss posts quite a bit when we read that last year.

  4. May 17, 2012 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

    First, the Middlemarch site is a great idea, great experiment. Let me know if I can help. Read things over, edit, I don’t know. Nothing technical – I’m on blogspot, for pity’s sake.

    You have mentioned looking at Oprah’s websites, I think? I remember her Faulkner site being impressive. Those might give ideas for friendly models.

    I am not sure that these 10 points do not apply to any book worth reading, Madame Bovary, for example. What are you trying to pull here?

  5. Robyn's Gravatar Robyn
    May 18, 2012 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Great idea! I like your plan! I am just finishing up a book that you might want to add to your list. It is called, “Angels Gate” by Andrew J. Rafkin and Louis Pagano. It is a true crime story based in Los Angeles in 1983 about the largest monetary drug heist in history. I can’t put it down! I love the action, suspense and mystery of the story!

  6. Rohan Maitzen's Gravatar Rohan Maitzen
    May 18, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Colleen! Anything you think of, let me know.

    Tom, I hadn’t seen that article, so I’ll definitely look it up. I’m glad you’re still reading; I hope your family thriving as well.

    Maire, that’s very encouraging! After I clicked “publish” I had a sudden fit of remorse about making that bold proclamation. What I really don’t want is to come across as in any way condescending: it’s about spreading the enthusiasm as much as anything.

    AR (Tom), you are right, of course, that many of my “top 10 tips” apply to more than Middlemarch–though not so much 6, 7, or 8, I think. But I don’t know Madame Bovary (for example) well enough to have any strong intuitions about what helps a first-time reader. My technical skills are pretty minimal too: so far I’ve set something basic up on Google Sites and also on another WordPress site, and I think I’ll persist with the WordPress one just because that’s what I’m used to.

    Robyn, thanks for the encouragement and the recommendation.

  7. May 18, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Loved this! I posted a link to this piece at the end of my own post detailing some long novels that are worth readers’ while.

    I’m reading Moby-Dick finally, but was put off for years by the perception that it was an impenetrable fortress of digressions on obscure whaling practices. I heard about Nathanial Fillbrick’s book, Why Read Moby-Dick, and have thoroughly enjoyed Melville’s masterwork. Seems like you might have the principles in place for Why Read Middlemarch?

    Hopefully soon I’ll be able to add Middlemarch to my own list. Thanks for this.

  8. May 18, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    Good piece. I just finished Middlemarch last week! I’d love to have read it with a book club. It did take me a few false starts, but then I got so wrapped up in all the stories that I wanted to read it all the time. I so appreciated Eliot’s generosity toward her characters.

  9. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    May 18, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Josh. I like the idea of something like “Why Read Middlemarch?” There is a lot of very good writing around on the novel already, of course. Zadie Smith has a very nice essay on it inChanging My Mind. Moby-Dick is yet another on my own list of “books I really must read.” You encourage me!

    Susan, that generosity is part of what I love too, though I also appreciate that there is also a certain astringency in her commentary and judgments. Understanding someone doesn’t always mean forgiving them.

  10. May 19, 2012 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    Rohan,
    I started reading Middlemarch this month. and enjoying it. I’m glad you plan to start an online site for the book.
    I read Silas Marner in high school but not Middlemarch.
    Edgar

  11. May 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Oh, I am very glad to hear that you are going to take on this project. It is so annoying to hear people complain about a book being too hard or a book club being too lightweight to take something on. And I generally think those book club guide questions in the back of books are on the lame side. I like questions that rise up organically from the discussion, but I happen to be in an excellent book group at the moment. I say “at the moment” because things can change, and we’ve had our ups and downs over the years, but things are good right now. Even if it’s not the group to read Middlemarch with.

    I love hearing how a book can strike a reader differently at different life stages, so thank you for telling a little bit about your various readings. I wonder if that’s a theme that could be probed a bit more on your new site? Thanks, too, for the 10 tips–good guidelines for any reading experience.

  12. Deb's Gravatar Deb
    May 20, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    I’m not in a book club, but I love MIDDLEMARCH. I read it for the first time when I was pregnant with my oldest child, who is now almost 20. I took it with me to the hospital and read while I was in labor (well, the first few hours, ha-ha!) In all the photos of me and my new baby from that day, you can see the distinctive green cover of MIDDLEMARCH in the background. Thanks for the memories…and good luck with getting more people (and more book clubs) to take on MIDDLEMARCH. I think it was Virginia Woolf who said it was the wisest novel she’d ever read.

  13. Kristen's Gravatar Kristen
    May 20, 2012 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I first read Middlemarch when I was about 23 and it significantly changed my perspective on life. So much that we very nearly named our one-week old daughter after Dorothea (a family name won out in the very end). As a study of human nature, relationships, hopes and dreams related to life and marriage, it is exceptional. An old wise friend asks every engaged couple he knows to read it before they are married, so sure is he of the wisdom it offers to those embarking upon the adventures and challenges of marriage. The theme of living significant, intentional lives although those lives might not be known or famous in any ways is surely extremely pertinent in this cultural moment – one that revels in celebrity-watching while simultaneously wanting to understand what it means to ‘think globally, act locally.’ I would love to see this great novel read widely, so I wish you every success in your efforts.

  14. May 21, 2012 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    Well done! I found the original article mildly funny, but of course, you’re entirely right: I’m sure any book club could thrive on Middlemarch.

    I read it myself for the first time last year while discovering the English countryside and fell in love with the novel—it even inspired me this article: http://www.themillions.com/2011/07/quintessentially-english-middlemarch-between-bristol-and-bath.html I look forward to taking a look at this website of yours.

    All best

  15. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    May 21, 2012 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Edgar – I think it’s a shame Silas Marner is assigned so often in high school: it seems unlikely to win hearts and minds at that age, and it may turn people off reading more George Eliot later. I’m glad it didn’t have that effect on you!

    Charles-Adam, I remember your essay–it was very evocative of your experience of the landscape. I don’t quite agree about the ‘loose baggy monster’ description: the novel (pace Henry James, who was not a great reader of it) is very adeptly structured!

  16. May 23, 2012 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    Thank you! I had the same reaction when I read that supposedly funny essay. I loved Middlemarch in high school, and I should re-read. Honestly. I’m so tired of people acting like if something is difficult, it’s not worth doing, and if something isn’t immediately relatable to whatever they think they are, it’s not worth reading.

  17. Molly's Gravatar Molly
    May 25, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this. Over the last four years I have been reading one novel for every year between 1800-1900, and Middlemarch is one of my favorites. You have inspired me to read it again as soon as I finish off the last five books on my list.

  18. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    May 26, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Lisa, I couldn’t agree more. I’m impressed that you loved Middlemarch in high school, especially given how many people have told me they read and hated Silas Marner then. you must have had a brave teacher–or perhaps you were just reader enough to choose it on your own!

    Molly, what a great–and ambitious–project! Were there some years for which it was hard to choose something you were keen to read?

  19. Molly's Gravatar Molly
    May 27, 2012 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    I have read multipul books for several years. I’m not sure if I would have had the guts to take this on if I had planned it ahead of time. I was given my great-grandmother’s library when I was 21. She had some beautiful complete works and so I just started reading. After finishing all the novels of Dickens, Scott, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Eliot, Stevenson, and Hardy, I realized that I had covered a good portion of the century. After that, filling in the gaps just made sense.
    It is actually quite difficult to find books for some years. A lack of choice has led me to some gems I never would have found else. And one or two duds.
    I am planning on reading biographies of these authors next. I would greatly appreciate any suggestions you have.

  20. Dagwood's Gravatar Dagwood
    June 3, 2013 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    I recently started Middlemarch and then stumbled upon this site. I’d love to follow this.

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