by James Wallace Harris, October 3, 2014
Is there one novel that defines your life? Have you return to it decade after decade throughout your life? Has the author spoken to you across time, space and the gulf between life and death? Does the narrative commentary resonate with your heart and mind? Do lines of dialog feel like they are speaking to events in your life like you’re listening to a Greek oracle, or studying hexagrams from the I Ching? For Rebecca Mead, Middlemarch by George Elliot is one such book, and she’s written My Life in Middlemarch to explain her literary touchstone.
A year and a month ago I wrote “The Ghosts That Haunt Me” about such writers. Most of us have many such books and writers that haunt us, but Mead focuses on one novel, and one writer, and writes a whole book about how that one story haunts her life. If you read the reviews at Goodreads you’ll see that most readers give her four stars out of five, with few rating it a full five stars, and with some giving far fewer. How much you like this book will depend on whether or not you’ve read Middlemarch, how much English lit professor you have in you, and how much more you’d want from Mead.
Mead does a fair amount of travel and research to give us background on George Elliot and her most famous novel, but not nearly as much as a definitive biography. Nor is her tale of book-love a proper memoir. Personally, I was quite taken with her story as is, and it makes me want to reread Middlemarch for closer study. However, it doesn’t really live up to its promise either. And I’d really like to see someone pull off such a memoir. It would have to be far more personal, far more detailed, far more psychological. Not detailed in biography or close reading of the text, which I’m satisfied with Mead’s work here, but in giving us intimate personal reading details that make us feel true reading obsession.
Two books that come closer to mind of what I’d like to read is Among Others by Jo Walton, a novel about a lonely girl growing up reading science fiction, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, a nonfiction novel that integrates Plato into a man’s life. The passion I’d like to see is such biblio-memoirs is what I found in Possession by A. S. Byatt.
Even though I feel My Life in Middlemarch is a very worthy book, I longed to read Mead’s deep personal details about each time she read Middlemarch. I ached to know how a 20th century woman could find so much love and understanding in a 19th century woman. I wonder if I could do what I want with my favorite childhood novel, Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein.