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Just like actual real life, as opposed to an idealized real life, my reading life does not always fall into planned order. Just like an irked and irksome child, it just won't listen.

By now, I had planned to write a diary about The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt's third novel that has captured the imagination of many and has been on both the bestseller lists and best-of lists for 2012.

I have been reading it since November. I've still got more than 200 pages to go. It's not because I don't like the book; I find it fascinating. But it's not been a book I want to inhale. I want to let the various sections sink in after they've been encountered.

While ideas about those sections have been simmering in a big pot on the back burner of my imagination, the front burner has been occupied with Rebecca Mead's new book, My Life in Middlemarch.

The New Yorker writer chronicles her lifelong love affair with George Eliot's big, beautiful, devastating novel. Mead notes not only how different times in her life have affected her reading of the book, she also writes about parts of Eliot's life, craft and her times.

In one section, Mead writes that initial readers of Middlemarch did not expect what happened. They expected Dorothea Brooke to be the heroine and the point-of-view character throughout the novel. But that's not Middlemarch. We not only see marriage, for example, through Dorothea's newly disillusioned eyes, we also see its horror from the perspective of her husband, Casaubon. We are told that having Dorothea does not enrich his life but constricts it. And there are two other marriages as important to what Eliot wants to convey as that of Dorothea and Casaubon.

Middlemarch's contemporary  readers did not expect that certain characters will end up with the ones they do -- they expected different outcomes. They also did not expect that the focus would leave Dorothea, yet that's what happens. Miss Brooke originally was a different story, and not part of Midddlemarch at all.

Why did Eliot make those decisions? What did she decide to emphasize what she did and not meet general expectations? I know I expected the same as those early readers did, and it was confounding.

I'm seeing the same with the reactions of some readers to The Goldfinch. Why does Theo, the main character, sometimes have the fortitude to do what he needs to save himself, and yet so often is abjectly hapless, lost in his pills and booze? There are several other events that lead to the questions of huh? How or why did that happen?

As I'm thinking through these ideas as they apply to what I've already read in The Goldfinch and wait to see how they will apply to the rest of the novel, I realized that is exactly what happened when I first read Middlemarch and other novels that I've returned to read again.

The plot is often just the roadmap. But the more important parts are what happen, what we see, as we go through that journey of reading.

Eliot touched on this idea in one of her essays, The Natural History of German Life. Mead quotes it in My Life in Middlemarch:

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. ... Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellowmen beyond the bounds of our personal lot.
So I shall wait to see what Tartt had in mind in The Goldfinch and look forward to reading Middlemarch again to see what their creators had in mind. I owe it to them to extend my sympathy to see what experiences they amplified and what it tells us about the human condition and thus about myself.

Eliot is explicit in her aim. Again, Mead notes words from the Middlemarch author when, in writing to her publisher John Blackwood, she states:

My stories always grow out of my psychological conception of the dramatis personae. My artistic bent is directed not at all to the presentation of eminently irreproachable characters, but to the presentation of mixed human beings in such a way as to call forth tolerant judgment, pity, and sympathy.
As Mead notes, when Eliot and her contemporaries used the word "sympathy", they're using it in the way we usually use "empathy" today, the ability to generate fellow feeling for our fellow beings. To be able to use this ability, to see the world from a perspective not my own, has led me to consider more fully my own perspective and to clarify it. It's the "only connect" from Forster yet again, the "no man is an island" from Donne.

It's not only a way in which I try to make better sense of the world, it's a way in which I try to make my own world a more habitable place. It's not an idealized life I lead, but it is one in which I am learning to delve into more fully and appreciate more deeply every day.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Feb 18, 2014 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thank you! (11+ / 0-)

    You are making me think again.

    I understand that many people were surprised about Will Ladislaw and Fred Vincy.  Someone was unkind enough to say after the movie came out, "Oh, so that is why the two young men each ended up with the prize."  They meant because the two actors were so cute.  

    I was a bit incensed, but I did see their point, too.

    I liked the landowner Sir James Chettam who loved Dorothea and ended up with Celia a lot.  

    I liked it that Fred had to change and that Mary waited.  

    I liked Dr. Lydgate, too, and I felt really sorry for him.  

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Tue Feb 18, 2014 at 05:25:46 PM PST

  •  I'm sailing in a smaller, similar-shaped boat (10+ / 0-)
    It's not because I don't like the book; I find it fascinating. But it's not been a book I want to inhale. I want to let the various sections sink in after they've been encountered.
    Song of Solomon, and now The God of Small Things, are sumptuous enough books to journey through. I guess my multiple TBR filters are effective (it helps to have 1000+ TBR to choose from), because every book I've read in the last year (but one, the decent but less than compelling Bottle-Factory Outing) has been engaging, and rewarding to ponder.

    Several of them - these last two especially - wanted to be read over time, with breaks for digestion. A book that is particularly beautiful, or deep, or dark (and these were all three) is not for skipping through. It wants to work upon you, and digest you a little, as it goes.

    I've been taking occasional breaks to watch half an episode of Doctor Who. But if I didn't have a diary approaching, I'd be inclined to put the book down for a day, and just soak what I've already read in my imagination. The God of Small Things takes some chewing, with all the bitterness and jaggedness at the bottom of its cup.

    But at least we're both reading solid books, which ask our attention and involve our own creative juices.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Tue Feb 18, 2014 at 05:54:28 PM PST

  •  I think when we read (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Limelite, Brecht, RiveroftheWest, bookgirl

    we are, in a sense, re-writing the book to our perspectives, our backgrounds, our sympathies (empathies), since they cannot possibly match perfectly what the author hoped for.  That is why I really like Mead's analysis of Middlelmarch and the fact that she dug into Eliot's writings about her writings.  

    Literary critics disagree as much as the courts do about "originalism" vs. "growing document" regarding the constitution.  

    But, hey, it makes for so much fun.  Especially when we agree to disagree.  I have not read Middlemarch, but, wow, I would love a full discussion here if others are up to it sometime in the future.

    Lovely diary, as usual, bookgirl.

    R.I.P., Amy Winehouse

    by jarbyus on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 06:12:31 AM PST

    •  So good to see you! Mead does (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest

      a very good job in honestly recording her reactions to the novel over the years, what she found out about Eliot and how she thinks some things apply. She's also good at not going into the type of psychoanalysis that some literary critics who were not psychologists indulged in for a spell.

      At least, she doesn't do that to Eliot. Mead is honest about how things that have happened in her life may have affected her readings of the novel over the years. But she does it in such a way that I don't feel she is violating the privacy of other members of her family. Pretty classy.

  •  A Beautiful Irony that I Enjoy (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brecht, RiveroftheWest, bookgirl

    is, as you say, how BIG novels are bite-sized.  That is, they're often best enjoyed small bites at a time.  I find this to be true for me.

    When a BIG novel is also a fantastic story full of interesting characters that the author has made me care about and intertwine my imaginary life with, then I don't want to rush our relationship.  I want to take it slowly, savor each word, every nuance, and revel in the doings, emotions, and incidents as they unfold beneath my reading eye.  So I ration myself -- perhaps a chapter every few hours throughout the day -- with long breaks between readings.

    It's the shorter novels that I barrel my way through.  Engulfing them and swallowing them whole, sometimes at a single sitting.

    I have much more self-discipline when it comes to rationing my bites of BIG books than I have doing the same with food!

    Readers & Book Lovers Pull up a chair! You're never too old to be a Meta Groupie

    by Limelite on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 07:28:04 AM PST

    •  We're on the same page here, including (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, Limelite

      that thing about good food!

      My reading this way goes back to Byatt's Possession. That was one fascinating big book. But I so enjoyed setting it down when the storyline changed from one set of characters to another to just let it all sink in.

      No idea of that book would stand up to reading again. But that first time -- what a delight to savor in smaller bites.

  •  Middlemarch (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, bookgirl, Brecht

    is a book that deserves reading any number of times; I'm looking forward to reading Mead's book. I first read Middlemarch in high school, but it didn't really have that much resonance for me as a 16-year-old, other than being a great story. I re-read it every few years, and Eliot's brilliance comes through in different ways every time, especially her remarkable empathy for her characters.

    Life is a shipwreck. But we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats. — Voltaire

    by agrenadier on Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 08:26:41 AM PST

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