Nothing is worse than a conversation where your friends can’t stop referencing a new, hot book, and you — behind on this year’s reads — are utterly excluded. It’s a particular strain of FOMO less discussed by popular discourses on media culture, but it provokes the same feeling of being overlooked or left behind. You may as well walk away and let your seemingly better-read peers continue without you.
I hate this feeling, yet I write and talk about books constantly. There’s something irreplicable in the sudden burst of identification we feel when we learn that a friend shares a beloved author or book in common. It’s a way of feeling close to people. In these moments of connection, we forget feeling left out of past conversations because our literary experience was inadequate. I’m guilty of conducting these inaccessible conversations without regard to those who don’t read the same books as me.
How ought we discuss books then, accepting that some conversations are better than others? What is the anatomy of a “good” conversation about books that brings everyone in, regardless of their literary expertise?
Rebecca Mead answers this question in “My Life in Middlemarch,” a genre-bending exploration of “Middlemarch,” George Eliot’s 1871 novel on the intersecting lives of inhabitants in a rural town. Part memoir, book report and biography, Mead reflects on Eliot’s book as a lasting presence in her life.
From growing up in England’s countryside, going away to university, crossing the Atlantic to New York and raising a family, “Middlemarch” is Mead’s constant companion. It takes on new meaning and relevancy as she ages. A reporter by trade, Mead also recounts her investigation into the life of Eliot, the elusive and influential female author who mesmerized England’s Victorian literary genre.
Mead leaves the reader with a deeply personal work. A “meta” book about a book, “My Life in Middlemarch” is not entirely about one thing. It is neither literary analysis nor pure memoir, but rather something in between. As author Joyce Carol Oates puts it, Mead delivers a rare “bibliomemoir:” a book “combining criticism and biography with the intimate, confessional tone of autobiography.”
I was surprised to love “My Life in Middlemarch.” Mead’s journalistic work has always been interesting to me but there was nothing explicitly relatable about the book from reading the back cover: I’ve never read “Middlemarch,” nor am I familiar with Eliot from any other contexts. Nevertheless, the book was engrossing because Mead successfully communicates the universally relatable themes present in “Middlemarch.”
“My Life in Middlemarch” is a model for discussing books. By focusing on narrative particulars, not for their own sake, but instead for the sake of explaining some particular moment in her life, I was able to find myself in Mead’s analysis, despite my inexperience with the central text.
For instance, Mead recalls being a teenager whose absolute certitude about the world blinded her from nuance and ambiguity. At the time, she was fascinated with Dorothea Brooke — the heroine in “Middlemarch.” Dorothea is “the embodiment of that unnameable, agonizing ache of adolescence, in which burgeoning hopes and ambitions and terrors and longings are all roiled together,” Mead writes.
I didn’t need to know Dorothea from first-hand knowledge of “Middlemarch” to identify with this feeling. Reading this passage, I was connected not only to “Middlemarch” and Eliot but also to Mead, who looked to Dorothea and found something personally resonant.
As I learned about Mead’s love for “Middlemarch,” I was brought into the story because I too have a full arsenal of heroines who have done similar things for me. Jane Austen’s Emma, Jo March, Jane Eyre — all these young protagonists grew up with me while I experienced young adulthood and all its precocious moral posturing.
In this way, Mead’s discussion of “Middlemarch” is for anyone who feels the presence of important books in their daily life, any reader who explores their own personal development through literature. “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,” Mead writes.
Books open up something in us; they don’t merely impart a story. For Mead, “Middlemarch” spoke to her academic ambitions, her desire to leave provincial England, her own adolescent naiveties and familial aspirations. Her book is both narrow — focused on a single novel — and universal. Despite my own ignorance of “Middlemarch” and Eliot, I had the agency to engage wholly in the book because I (as someone whose life has also revolved around certain books) found a little bit of myself in every moment.
If we approach all our discussions of books like Mead, we give anyone permission to join in. Instead of competing to demonstrate our love of a text by remembering details and obscurities, we can focus our conversation on who the book helped us become or why it reached us in a particular moment in time. It’s a mistake to approach a book as an open and shut story whose relevance is contained in a finite plot. Instead, we should look within ourselves and share how our reading has impacted our own life and our view of the world.
Eliot writes in “Middlemarch,” “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending.” If we recognize this quality in books — that is, if we recognize their inherent finitude as potential for new beginnings and connections — our discussions can be open, warm and dynamic. And we’ll be all the better for it.
Anna Solomon PZ ’23 is TSL’s book columnist. This is because she likes books a lot. She also likes cereal, but there’s no cereal column at TSL, so she makes do with books.