Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014)

Within pages, the bookish will find a niche to inhabit in Rebecca Mead’s book, in much the same way that the author has inhabited the pages of Middlemarch.

Middlemarch Rebecca Mead

Bond Street Books – Doubleday, 2014

Perhaps not in exactly the same way, for as the author posits, that particularly profound experience might be rooted for the reader in one book alone.

She has returned to Middlemarch more often than any other book, approximately every five years, since she was a teenager.

“I chose Middlemarch – or Middlemarch chose me – and I cannot imagine life without it,” she proclaims.

And, yet, she acknowledges that her husband would name Proust’s cycle and a friend would choose David Copperfield and another friend would say The Portrait of a Lady.

Because sometimes a single book takes hold in a peculiarly intimate and resonant way.

And it’s not just about a single book, but also about a single reader.

And the match between them.

“My Middlemarch is not the same as anyone else’s Middlemarch; it is not even the same as my Middlemarch of twenty-five years ago. […] But we each have our own internal version of the book, with lines remembered and resonances felt.”

This is something personal, intimate even at times. But there is, too, a broader bookishness here that will appeal to bookish readers, even those who are not particularly fond of Middlemarch.

Because Rebecca Mead’s book is not just a love letter to George Eliot’s Middlemarch but also a love letter to reading.

“I wanted to recover the sense of intellectual and emotional immersion in books that I had known as a younger reader, before my attention was fractured by the exigencies of being a journalist. I wanted to go back to being a reader.”

And, even more specifically, Rebecca Mead explores the joys of re-reading.

   “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.
This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. It might lead us back to the library in midlife, looking for something that eluded us before.”

This kind of experience is chronicled in the writings of other bookish women. Wendy Lesser devotes herself to the subject of re-reading in Nothing Remains the Same, and Ali Smith and Susan Sontag and Margaret Drabble (among others) have written about the experience. But never mind that the subject has been considered before, because for the bookish, reading more about re-reading is never dull.

So My Life in Middlemarch is not only about being bookish, but about the shifting dynamic between a single reader and multiple rereadings, which means becoming better acquainted not only with the specific book but also the specific reader: more about Middlemarch and more about Rebecca Mead.

For readers who are familiar with Middlemarch, this process is of specific interest, for the content of the novel and the author’s biography are considered in some detail.

Enough detail for those who have not read the novel to find their feet in the discussion (I have read it, but only once, and more than twenty years ago) and enough to spoil the outcome (in later chapters, at least).

But not too much detail to eclipse the universal experience of the ways in which reading can transform and inform a life.

It also contains a good amount of information about the author as her experiences compare to and contrast with the experiences of the author and characters of Middlemarch.

“A book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book.”

For instance, readers learn that when Rebecca Mead revisited Middlemarch after she had become a stepmother herself, she found herself thinking about the author’s and characters’ experiences of mothering/step-mothering differently, the experiences reflecting and refracting, illuminating and creating layers of understanding that she had not discovered previously, about herself and about the novel and its creator.

Rebecca Mead’s readings of this novel across the years mark her own coming-of-age. Returning to them, she writes, is one of the means she has of “connecting with the child I was before I had ever heard of a writer called George Eliot”.

Over time, she attaches a different value to different parts of the characters’ experiences, considering “all our loves, realized or otherwise — all our alternative plots — go to make us who we are, and become part of what we make”.

All of our loves, bookish and otherwise. My Life in Middlemarch provides a haven for the bookish.

13 comments to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014)

  • Wonderful review – and it sounds like the book has a really good insight into the dynamic between each individual reader and a book. I know there are certain books that are like that with me – although interestingly some remain the same and some change. Very intriguing!

    • Once you’ve read this, it’s interesting to think about which book you would choose if you were to write a book like it about “your Middlemarch”. In this case, “George Eliot” is fascinating too.

  • This book has been getting lots of buzz and I’ve been wondering if it is just buzz or if it really is good. Sounds like it really is good!

    • I’m a sucker for bookish books to begin with, and Middlemarch has long been on my list of rereading, so I was predisposed to like it. If you were extraordinarily fond of either book or author, you might have wanted deeper/different analysis, or have had another set of expectations, but it was a good fit for me.

  • This sounds excellent. I can relate to much of it from my own multiple rereadings of Jane Austen. Each time I read I see more … Both in terms of her ideas and her technique. That’s partly because familiarity means I notice smaller and smaller details, and partly because my own life experiences result in my understanding humanity in greater depth. It’s a pretty complex interrelationship isn’t it?

    • It certainly is. And it sounds like you would really enjoy this. I just reread Pride and Prejudice this winter, after about 20 years, and I definitely noticed and responded to different elements in the story. I’d like to reread Emma next, as it’s the one I’ve thought of as my favourite, but perhaps that’s changed.

  • Kat

    BIP, I have been reading this slowly, and I must admit I have been disappinted by the first 50 pages. Why on earth doesn’t she mention the New Yorker? She keeps calling it “a weekly magazine.” I think my problem is that I have read a couple of really excellent books of this genre: Robert Dessaix’s Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev and Peter Stothard’s Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra. My friend Ellen, however, has told me that the book improves as you go along, and she was first disappointed, and then really excited. And so I must finish it: I know I must! Glad to see a second good review so I will go on with it!

    • I think there is more made of her having written for The New Yorker by the related-print-media than in her book, and I wonder if she didn’t want to distance herself (whether for her own reasons or upon request) from that position; if she really had to sketch a person in only a few sentences, maybe that style/intent is too far-flung from what she seeks to accomplish in her own book. The NYPL has a long broadcast of a discussion with her, and TNY work is only briefly addressed there as well. If Ellen shares your love of discovery of place in such a book, I’m guessing that’s why she enjoyed the latter part more. But I’m also guessing that you won’t see it differently. Maybe it’s partly poor timing? The first time I read Wendy Lesser’s book on rereading, I was actually bored and frustrated: second time, fascinated and gushing. Have made note of both titles you’ve recommended: thanks so much!

  • Ah, Robert Dessaix. I need to read more of him. But I haven’t read Turgenev. I guess I’d need to do that to read this one?

    • I was wondering the same thing, WG, but the brief bits online seem to suggest that the author’s passion comes through all the same. I’ve only read Fathers and Sons, but I would like to try this one. Maybe it would inspire me on the Turgenev score….

  • Truth be told, I need to tackle Middlemarch one day. I admire Mead for loving such a book this much to reread it numerous times over the decades and explore writing about her travels through it. Every time I know it must be different. Cheers.

    • If you don’t mind knowing the general plot developments in advance, this might be just the encouragement you need. (If you’ve watched the BBC series, you already know what happens anyhow!) Funny how some of the “biggies” just don’t get read. I know exactly what you mean!

  • Oh, do, BIP. Emma in a way was my least favourite until I reread it a few years ago and now I don’t have a least favourite! It is such a beautifully structured book on top of being, well, our Jane!

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