When I finished the last page of Middlemarch, it was a triumph on par with the time I climbed a mountain. Adam and I were on vacation at Yellowstone National Park, and he thought it would be a good idea to climb Mt. Washburn, a 10,000-some foot mountain he found as he researched the trip before we left home. I did not think it would be a good idea at all. However, I was then and am still blinded by love for my outdoorsman, and thus found myself clad in a sweatshirt of inadequate warmth, clomping up a gravel path and swearing with increasing volume.
“I can't breathe!” I growled, stomping ahead.
Being from Kansas and therefore unfamiliar with high altitude and any terrain with an incline, I was under the impression that I could hike up a mountain at the same brisk speed I use to walk to the mailbox. When that pace resulted in oxygen deprivation and crushing fatigue, I became furious with all mountains in the world and deemed them unfit for human activity. Adam's apparent enjoyment of the sadistic mountain and general good cheer in the face of this horrible exertion only enhanced my rage.
“So why don't you walk slower?” he asked reasonably.
An intriguing and wholly unforeseen suggestion! We walked slower, I ceased exhaling through my nose like a bull, and we actually made it all the way to the top of Mt. Washburn, which was nicely equipped with a lookout tower and flush toilets, and also full of people both much older and much fitter than me. But no matter—I had gone beyond what I thought I was capable of doing and came out the other side with a few sore muscles and a lot of pride.
Two years ago, I was surprised that I was able to walk up that mountain on my own power, and in the same way this month, I couldn't believe how much I didn't hate Middlemarch. I don't usually like to spend more than a few days on a given book. I don't usually want to work very hard at interpreting what I'm reading. I don't usually find Victorian literature appealing—it's too wordy, too prim, too old-fashioned. I don't usually like slowing down in order to read on a deeper level. But this month, I did all those things, and while it grated at times, I'm really glad I listened when Adam said, “You should do a Middlemarch in March Challenge!” (Because yes, this was all his idea, even though he abandoned all pretense of participating as soon as I let slip that George Eliot was the same person who wrote Silas Marner, one of the most hated books of his high school career. My bad. I thought he knew!)
As I hoped, reading Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch as a companion piece greatly enhanced my experience of reading Middlemarch for the first time. (Oh jeez, did I really just say “for the first time”? Am I going to read it again someday? Now I know I've gone round the bend.) I realize it seems counterintuitive to make the reading of a long book even longer by adding another book to it, but Mead's research into Eliot's life and her reflections on her own life's journey truly transformed the experience into something special. Mead's genuine love for the novel prompted me to see it through her eyes, and her interpretation of Eliot's life is generous and empathetic. She's the kind of insightful, compassionate biographer we would all hope to have. It's worth taking some extra time to read both books together. (Serendipity alert: Rebecca Mead was one of the guests last week on Diane Rehm, contributing to a Readers' Review discussion on why we read fiction. So cool!)
Even if you don't have the patience to take on Mead's book too, I think the key to enjoying a book like Middlemarch is to read it slowly, in sections, with breaks for lighter books in between. Think of it this way: when it was first published, it was released in eight installments with a one- or two-month break in between each section. That means the public was given approximately 100 pages of the story at a time over the course of an entire year. That is a completely different, and far less overwhelming, reading experience than we have today, sitting down with an 800-page brick and feeling as if we need to race through it as quickly as possible.
Eliot's contemporaries read Middlemarch the way we watch Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones—spending an hour or so a week on it, and then anxiously awaiting the next “season.” I think that's the best way to maintain your sanity while attempting Middlemarch and books like it—treat it like a favorite TV show and ration it out over time. Of course, shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black kinda ruin the metaphor here. I don't recommend binge-reading Middlemarch the way you would binge-watch TV shows that release entire seasons all at once. No one wants to brag at the water cooler on Monday morning about how she read a 19th century British novel for 16 hours straight this weekend. Or more to the point—no one wants to listen.
So if you've joined the Challenge late, like one friend I know who just received her long-awaited library copy, or if it's going to take you longer than a month to get through the book, like another sweet friend keeps lamenting, you have my blessing to keep this party going as long as necessary. The month-long time frame was an arbitrary choice on my part, selected so that I could move on to other books, not to goad anyone into reading faster or more often than they want to. Comments will stay open on the Middlemarch Challenge posts for several months. Feel free to join in the conversation anytime. The Middlemarch fun can continue well into April and beyond!
Thanks to everyone who poured their enthusiasm into this Challenge. Starting out, I thought I'd probably be reading the book alone, and I was OK with that, but it's been so much more fun reading it alongside such intelligent and supportive fellow readers. I've been overwhelmed by the willingness I've seen in people to read a long, challenging novel, especially when those people have degrees and day jobs in fields that have little or nothing to do with literature. Thanks for showing me that reading fiction is important for everyone, and that academics and pedants don't have sole ownership of works like Middlemarch. We claim great literature for ourselves and the common reader just by opening the covers together.
I have a few ideas churning for future Challenges, but I'm eager to hear any ideas you have as well. Is there a book you've always wanted to read, but you've been intimidated by? Is there a certain genre that you've avoided that might be worth a college try? Is there a lofty or lengthy book you'd love to read before you die? (I'd apologize for the rhyming, but I think we all know I'm not sorry.) Leave your ideas in the comments section below, or tell me on Facebook. Let's keep this group reading thing going!