I have kind of a bad habit of skimming some of the things I read online. It starts when I’m reading about the news of the world – I can only read so much about all the terrible things that happen in the world on a daily basis. But then I make my rounds of Bookriot and Bookish.com and The Huffington Post book section. Often on these sites there will be articles called “Books We’re Talking About” and this is when I read the headline, click on an article and read the first 2 paragraphs and skim the rest.
I think this is where I first heard about Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.
I mention this because I think it’s important to understand that what I thought I was going to read and what I ended up reading were two very different things. I thought I was reading a fictional story about a woman whose life somehow is affected by/mirrors George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I started reading and thought I was going to read a memoir about a woman whose life was affected by/mirrored George Eliot’s Middlemarch.
My Life in Middlemarch is neither of these things.
Instead it is more of a briefly outlined biography of George Eliot and how her life experiences formed her writing of Middlemarch. It is a critical discussion of Eliot’s best known (and arguably her greatest) work. I found myself wishing that this book had been around when I was reading Middlemarch in university; this book would have been excellent bibliography material.
Don’t get me wrong – this book was well written, thoroughly researched and shone original light on George Eliot’s life. But it wasn’t what I thought I was going to be reading and it was so not the right kind of reading for the holiday season.
That said, it is exquisitely written. In the first pages, Mead writes the most perfect description of books and reading:
“Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. 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.”
I liked the passage so much, I took a picture of the full text and tweeted it.
Even reading the introduction I thought I was getting this memoir of her life and how much she had been affected by Middlemarch, how she returned to this book time again to find pieces of herself she didn’t know were there. Early in the book, there are tastes of this but then it drops off altogether, in favour of biographical details of Eliot herself and how her life formed her work.
I’m just glad I didn’t re-read Middlemarch in preparation for this. I want to re-read it now but as a reaction to this book. If I had re-read Middlemarch only to read a nearly 300 page critical essay of it, I think I’d be kind of put out.