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.
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.