On Reading and Not Reading Middlemarch
Personal reflections on memory, vocation, and a very big book.
“Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing? If it happens to have been cut in stone, though it lie face down-most for ages on a forsaken beach, or “rest quietly under the drums and tramplings of many conquests,” it may end by letting us into the secret of usurpations and other scandals gossiped about long empires ago: — this world being apparently a huge whispering-gallery. Such conditions are often minutely represented in our petty lifetimes. As the stone which has been kicked by generations of clowns may come by curious little links of effect under the eyes of a scholar, through whose labors it may at last fix the date of invasions and unlock religions, so a bit of ink and paper which has long been an innocent wrapping or stop-gap may at last be laid open under the one pair of eyes which have knowledge enough to turn it into the opening of a catastrophe.”
Before I elected to major in English, I had a very specific strategy for buying books. I would go to the bookstore, grab a coffee at their in-house Starbucks, and wander the fiction section. I’d reach for authors whose names I recognized and otherwise whiz past the ones I didn’t (regretfully, I almost certainly passed up many good reads thanks to this bias). I liked books that I understood at the time to be “classics,” and there was a rough list of notable authors whose work I wanted to read. At the bookstore, I’d scan the shelves, pull out a title here and there, and after some deliberation purchase a single book. I’d take that book home, read it, and when I was finished with it, I’d go back to the bookstore to perform the ritual again. This was a strategy I liked for a few reasons.
For one, it kept me honest. I’ve long since neglected this buying and reading practice, and I now too-often find myself swimming in unfinished books. The issue is that if I permit myself several books at once, I’ll exploit my tragic naïveté to commence an infinite number of them that will go forever unfinished. As any child could likely tell you, one cannot commit to too many projects at once and approach those projects with any kind of meaningful effort. Besides, it feels bad. The only thing worse than shelves full of books you’ve never read are shelves full of abandoned books that stare back at you in silent disappointment — the cutting disapproval of a single crack in the spine visually representing the precise moment of your desertion. Worse: they’re never really on the shelf. As a matter of course, bookshelves are for read and unread books. Half-read books roost indiscriminately on random surfaces — nightstands, coffee tables, little stacks on your dresser next to where you keep your car keys and sunglasses. You leave them lying around because, like plants, they need attention if you want them to survive, and also because you need to leave them out in the open for easy access. Returning a half-read book to the bookshelf is the white flag of the bibliophile.
Mostly, I liked this system because every book I read was exactly the book I wanted to be reading at that moment. There is a sense of timeliness that often strikes when reading a book; for whatever reason, it can sometimes feel like you’ve got just the right one for the occasion. Since I’ve lost this general purchasing habit, I’ve often found myself reading books out of a sense of rushed obligation. Maybe I’d overbuy some books under the impression I’d read them all before buying new ones. I would inevitably neglect most of them and maybe finally read one out of guilt. It’s a weird sense of accountability to the author, to the physical object of the book itself that I’ve brought into my home, to my own sense of identity as a “literary guy.” Reading what you want to be reading is one of the greatest feelings, especially for people who read for their profession, who often find themselves reading something they’d rather not be. And with this system, I always read precisely that which was on my mind, what I was just then itching to read. It is the purest and most joyful version of picking up and reading a book.
Then, I decided to study literature, and this system grew to be unsustainable. Years passed, and as a student, I didn’t always get to pick what I read. You read what you’re assigned — in undergraduate introductory courses and graduate school seminars alike. As a scholar, I experience a pressure (from within and from without) to specialize, and specialization is (if I may be so bold) the stark opposite of reading whatever you want whenever you want. Not to just, like, blame the industry or something (though you could!), but the need to specialize and market oneself in a tragic and brutally competitive market leaves little room to leisure read, and even less for the mental and emotional battle against guilt and self-reproach when you do. Books are wonderful, but they can be hard to read — especially long ones — and when my reading habits changed from linear to a zigzagging dotted line, I no longer felt like I was really reading books. I accepted this reality as an obligatory occupational hazard, resolving that someday I would return to reading books the way I liked to. Such are some of the personal woes I’ve faced in my relationship to books and how I go about reading them.
Just over two years ago, deep in my dissertating years in Gainesville, the exact book I wanted to read was Middlemarch by George Eliot. I had just come off a semester working on a chapter of my dissertation on modernist literature and desperately wanted to read something that wasn’t that. Middlemarch represented for me at the time this iconic nineteenth century monument — a book I’d heard enough about to understand it was intensely important but about which I hadn’t done sufficient digging to really know why. In any case, it declared itself to me for whatever reason as just the thing to read that summer. I went to the local bookshop to buy it and a few other books that I thought I could juggle alongside it.
That summer turned out to be really important to me. I watched some of my best friends graduate with their doctorates and leave for promising careers in and out of academia. I started going to the gym again after a lull and reconnected with some friends I’d made there. I hosted barbecues and indulged in cooking long and complicated recipes. I spent afternoons drinking with friends in bars and backyards and brewery patios. The World Cup was on, and I’d go watch games at eleven in the morning with what felt like the entire town crammed into the only bar that would open on Sunday mornings. I spent a week in New Haven visiting my partner who was there on a research fellowship. We ate pizza, went to museums, took a weekend trip to New York City where I reconnected with a good friend from high school. Back in Gainesville, I sprained my ankle falling off a skateboard and was in a boot the rest of the summer, which included a booze-fueled birthday party for my friend’s one-year-old and a veritable porch kegger for another good friend who was leaving town for a job. I got a new camera and started taking photos again. A Venezuelan food truck opened up where I ate my way through a palate of memories from my childhood in Miami. There was union organizing and a Mitski concert and sweaty walks home from nights out dancing. It was a beautiful summer, everything a summer should be. Not once did I touch my copy of Middlemarch.
By the time fall semester came around, it was time to apply for jobs — my first cycle on the academic job market. My summer fête was over, and the commencing academic year was probably going to be my last in graduate school. My days were occupied by writing the final bits of my dissertation and applying for jobs. The entire year went by quickly and with little allowance for leisure time and leisure reads. My partner and I ended up getting jobs, and by March we knew we would be leaving Florida for Oklahoma. In April, my birthday came, and a few days later my partner and I got engaged. Some of the friends who had left town in earlier years visited to celebrate with us. It was really beautiful. Later that month, we defended our dissertations. Then it was summer again. Like the one before, I told myself I’d read Middlemarch. Instead, I milked everything I could out of my last summer in Gainesville.
When we moved to Oklahoma in August, I left a lot of unread books behind. Better to just leave them already, I thought. I donated books that weren’t in my area of specialization and those that I was almost certain never to get around to reading. I don’t know why, but I hung on to my copy of Middlemarch — unread, binding unbent. I didn’t plan to read it anymore. I figured I never would. To be honest, I think I kept it because it was still completely untouched, and I felt stupid giving it up. The books I donated I had at least attempted to read. Many were used books I’d gotten at the semi-annual used book sale. I hadn’t read them, but at least I was donating them in a state of once having been read. So, I hung on to Middlemarch, with no intention of reading it and with little sense of what it meant to hang on to it.
In Oklahoma, I grew increasingly uncertain about my career. I’d heard the warnings about the state of academia for a decade now, and only months living in the post-graduate school working world I’d felt the crisis firsthand. My colleagues were wonderful, students excellent, department supportive. Nevertheless, I felt disconnected from literature even as I was knee deep in it. I worked on publishing an article on one of my favorite novels. Flipping through the book to piece together my argument, I wondered when was the last time I’d read it without a pen in hand. I scanned through some of the fiction and academic manuscripts I felt I needed to read for my own book, thinking foremost about my publications and branding as a scholar. Should I double down on this area of focus or work to better market myself within the vocabulary of the latest niche categories gaining traction on job postings? The semester came and went, and I grew dejected. I liked my job, and I liked the research I was doing, but I desperately missed reading books without thinking about them as cards in a hand or as the subjects of “future projects.”
Having just sent out another article, I decided I’d try a semester off from scholarship entirely. I wanted to see if I liked teaching and reading without the stressors associated with playing the long game for a tenure-track job at a research university. The rules were simple: for one semester I would not try to publish, and I would read whatever I wanted. I took my teaching seriously, but I allowed myself four months of joyful pause from building a portfolio and crafting my professional identity. For the first time in a long time, I started devouring books. I was elated. There’s a small bookstore in our new town in Oklahoma. It’s next to a coffee shop, and there’s a really sweet dog that’s always there. My system was back in play: I would take care of my grading and lesson planning, then pop into the bookstore with no sense of what I was going to buy. It was liberating to once again wander the aisles and just pick a book. I was falling in love with reading again.
February brought with it the elevated threat of pandemic, and by March, we were exceedingly nervous on our flight to Miami for my sister’s wedding. It was a beautiful night. My sister and I bonded a lot that day as I hung out with her and her bridesmaids most of the afternoon. We laughed at how drunk our dad got and shared tears over how happy he was. After the wedding, things got worse, and we no longer felt it would be safe to fly back to our respective states. The four of us rented a car and drove through the south to get back to Oklahoma. My sister and her now husband spent two nights with us before leaving for their home in Colorado. My partner and I officially entered quarantine in mid-March.
Like most everyone else, we started binging a lot of tv. While watching Sex Education on Netflix, I noticed Maeve, one of the main characters, was reading Middlemarch. The cameo onscreen wasn’t quite enough to move me to revisit the novel, but it was enough to make its presence known. Over the next few days, I saw the novel everywhere: on tv, in think-pieces, in other books I read. Out of boredom, I opened a Twitter account and inserted myself into the world of academic Twitter where I was met by scholars praising Middlemarch. It seemed like the whole world was reading it, and, by late March, I was reading it too. I got about 300 pages in before I decided I just wasn’t enjoying it. The writing was moving, but I was just entirely unable to pay any attention. The world was spiraling and I couldn’t bear to read about Dorothea’s misadventures in marriage or the intricacies of Middlemarch politics. I waved the white flag and put it back on the shelf. Instead I read The Shadow Line, a book about Latin America, Under the Volcano, and, after first watching its tv adaptation, I finally got around to reading Normal People. Sally Rooney’s novel is great — I really liked it — but the entire time all I could think about was Middlemarch. It’s the model for — and briefly, the subject of — Rooney’s other novel, Conversations with Friends, just as the epigraph and general framework to Normal People are borrowed from another of Eliot’s heavyweights, Daniel Deronda. At this point, the constellation of references and cameos becomes too much to ignore.
In the final days of June, I shared to my meager Twitter following that I was taking another crack at Middlemarch, and I heard from many that it’s a great novel to be reading right now. I took this to mean that being stuck in quarantine is a good time to finally revisit that long and arduous novel you’ve always meant to read, or perhaps something to do with last year marking the 200th anniversary of Eliot’s birth. But as I read, it became increasingly clear that Middlemarch speaks to a lot of the conditions bearing on us in the current moment. As one person put it, it’s a novel about “medical progress and medical quackery, political progress and political hackery, Christian zeal and Christian zealotry, thwarted travel plans, stifling domestic situations, financial distress and bad debts, an overbearing rich guy nobody really likes, and a pending election.” (I might add to this that said “rich guy” is a fraud who grows rich through inheritance and corrupt business practices, who pays people off to bury the dirt they have on him.) Perhaps more poignant is that quarantine and pandemic loom largely in the background of Eliot’s novel, as it’s set between 1829 and 1832, during the height of the second cholera pandemic — “and yet there are people who say quarantine is no good,” Eliot laments. Yes, indeed.
As I read through Middlemarch, I paid attention to what people had to say about it. A lot of people online seemed to be reading or rereading it and sharing their personal experiences. It’s a favorite among a lot of readers, and many seem to bond over its extremely touching final passage on the value and universal import of “unhistoric acts.” To be sure, Middlemarch has a lot to offer its readers. In its cast of characters readers might find any number of familiar experiences that Eliot renders on the page with astounding subtlety and precision. It’s certainly true that the depth with which Eliot constructs her characters makes it easy for readers to come to identify with different ones, even within a single reading. Rebecca Mead actually wrote an entire book about this. I identified, for instance, with Dorothea’s lofty idealism, Casaubon’s self-destructive intellectual work, and Lydgate’s frustrating relationship with his chosen vocation. In a recent article, Mead writes that Middlemarch is “a book that grows with the reader as the reader grows.” As a first-time reader, I can only take her word for it, though I don’t doubt that when I read Middlemarch again later in life, it will ring with a refreshing timbre for the moment.
For now, on this first read, I can say that it did fall rather fittingly upon my anxious mind, nervous grip, and hungry heart. Just the other day, on a mindless Twitter dive, I came across an English professor asking whether you’ve ever read a book “at exactly the right time in your life.” I answered with Moby Dick, which I first read one summer during my college years. I worked the morning shift at an ice cream shop at the mall. Nobody really goes to eat ice cream at the mall all that early, so I had the time to read. I don’t know why, but it was a book perfectly suited to the tyranny of the sticky Miami summer that draped over the monotony of the job. That summer — however tedious — was one of the more vivid moments in my career as a reader of books.
But I now submit for consideration: this summer, the one where I read Middlemarch. Few other books have held such resonance as this one has held at this moment in my life. I really liked Middlemarch. It is beautifully written, and the characters are powerfully rendered. But more than its merits as a wonderful work of fiction, it has reinvigorated my love of reading and of books. And as relatable as its characters may be, so is its vision of a town. It is, after all, subtitled A Study of Provincial Life, as Eliot explores the characteristics of township and the complex experience of community. It leaves me thinking about those summers in my old town, the summers where I did everything but read Middlemarch. The experience of reading it in this summer of confusion was serendipitous, because it does so thoroughly address the current situation. Even still, reading Eliot’s novel was for me as much about the time I did as the times I didn’t. These days, time passes in unusual configurations, and my sense of location feels unsure and unsteady. Reading the book in this bizarre irregularity of clockwork and lacking specificity of place leaves my mind to wander to the times and places I long for.
Midway through the book, I spoke to a friend over the phone. We talked about politics and the pandemic, about Venezuela, boyfriends, and academia. We’ve both experienced frustration over the precarity of the industry and questioned whether in its current state of crisis it had room for us. She submitted the novel idea that perhaps the mistake is to think of our work as scholars as a vocation after all; perhaps it is merely a job, a thing we do for money, a single practice among countless others that define us. It seems obvious now, but it was helpful to hear. In Middlemarch, Casaubon falls ill; “the source of the illness,” we’re told, is “the common error of intellectual men — a too eager and monotonous application: the remedy was, to be satisfied with moderate work, and to seek variety of relaxation.” He later dies, not having finished his opaque manuscript. The tension Eliot captures here of being torn between intellectual labors and the threat of a life unlived is not lost on me — I’m glad I didn’t read Middlemarch two summers ago, or last summer. For one, I spent those summers living days I would not trade and won’t soon forget. But moreover, I’m glad I read it now, in this moment of tension and bourgeoning realization of the possibilities of life and work, of what it might look like to keep them cordoned, of what it can look like to be a scholar but also to read books and enjoy them. I’m grateful now, at this moment in my life, to have read Eliot’s brilliant contemplations on these and other human questions.
Today, I long for a town that I have come to call home and miss dearly. I am learning about how to envision scholarly work in my future. I am living through a pandemic of epic magnitude. Quarantine navel-gazing leaves me increasingly aware of my internal life and how it is shaped by and subject to the external forces of political and social change. I don’t know that Casaubon’s occupational hazards or Lydgate’s professional failures have necessarily given me any clarity with regards to my own life and the role of my vocation within it, but I know Eliot has. In reading Middlemarch, I’ve discovered once again something quite simple: that I love to read books, that I loved to read books well before I was a scholar of them — “through whose labors it may at last fix the date of invasions and unlock religions.” I enjoy analyzing books, and I like teaching people about them, but I love reading them for their beauty, their transcendent human stories, and their impact upon my own life, and I think that’s something I had allowed myself to forget. I’ll follow Mead’s cue and read Middlemarch again, some time from now, and see what changes — which characters I will identify with, which struggles I will understand all too well, what tender insights it may render most moving, what questions it will pose and answers it may offer, what unhistoric acts and memories of summer it may help hold steady against the passing of days.