In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead writes about Middlemarch as the novel that’s attended her through life. She’s read it every five years since she was seventeen. It’s informed her choice of mate, her self-conception as a mother and her views on aging and ambition. Though Mead doesn’t say it, given her own career, I imagine it also constitutes her mechanical rabbit: “A reader marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished at George Eliot’s intelligence,” she writes. In the author’s telling, Middlemarch is the favored novel of over-achieving teenagers and the professors they become, and George Eliot is the genius whose powers they covet.
This is all as it should be. It has everything to offer a giant brain bent on feeding and fattening itself. But it’s also a fucking great book, in the plebian sense that implies: hot, life-sucking women! Powerful, shadowy men! There’s even drug addiction and gambling, and lessons about fashion. (The holier you are, the less you should accessorize). Mead’s article doesn’t mention any of this. For her purposes, it’s irrelevant. The piece is half memoir; it must place Middlemarch within her own circle and experience. In so doing, unfortunately, it perpetuates the notion that Eliot’s novel, and by extension all renowned 19th-century novels, is an educational tool, and therefore not a fucking great book.
Novels originated as a bourgeois entertainment, and many of the best—those considered largely classroom fodder—still function as such. It’s admittedly a certain kind of entertainment (bucolic escapist hyper-drama) and one I’m predisposed toward (I used to run through the woods on family camping trips in Ontario blasting Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” on my Walkman and screaming the lyrics). But I know many people with similar tastes, who would just die when Madam Merle is revealed as Pansy’s mother (!), but who would never take up a Brit lit classic because of their pedantic reputation.
I’m not a student or an academic, and my brain is normal-sized; but I’m not quite an average reader, either. I have a BA in English, from nowhere worth mentioning; sometimes I get paid to write, between getting paid to be a secretary. I’ve also never read the Stieg Larsson trilogy or books three through seven of the Harry Potter series, nor have I read Freedom by Franzen or Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell—but not because I don’t want to. I’ve just been busy. I had to hold Seryozha Karenin in my arms and reassure him that his mother loves him very much, it’s just that his dad’s a loser. I had to sweat over Emma Bovary’s reckless spending. I had to cry, have a heart attack, and then crawl sick to the bathroom when Maggie Tulliver…when Maggie…when she…
Most people who read these books do so as students, compelled by a course syllabus. Outside of humanities departments, they’re hardly read at all. Barnes & Noble might disagree: five years after launching its Classics Series in 2003, it announced that 10 million copies of the included titles, from Crime and Punishment to Ivanhoe, had sold. But the books are being sold less as reading material than furniture. Buyers are encouraged to purchase in bulk (you can currently buy the Classics Library Set, 199 volumes, for $1,486.05, or 11 percent less if you order online), and the first word describing them on Barnes & Noble’s website is “handsome” (followed by “authoritative” and “affordable”). They do look nice on the shelf. And there’s no need to read them, thanks to the interest of Hollywood and the BBC. They can be enjoyed passively, easily, and quickly on-screen. The original versions—the novels—must offer more than Colin Firth emerging wet and muscular from a pond, as he does in the 1995 TV production of Pride and Prejudice, but do we need more than that?
We have enough to read. Our choice of books is endless. In 2004, Laura Miller reported in the New York Times that a book of fiction was published in the US every 30 seconds; by 2009, that number had more than doubled. We are in a period of great authorial ambition; the drive to write professionally is strong, and self-publication is easier than ever. Despite our ambitions, however, and the technologies and MFA programs so widely available to spur them, most creative writing produced is not as good as Middlemarch, or any number of books considered must-reads by those who know them and unreadable by those who don’t. This isn’t a reason not to read contemporary fiction, but it is a reason to not read it exclusively.
Which brings me to Oprah (finally). Since starting her book club in 1996, Oprah has chosen 64 titles for the people of America (among them one by John Steinbeck and three by Bill Cosby). In an unprecedented move, she opted for two 19th-century titles last year. Her followers gamely took up Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. “Dickens message of change applies to Americans today, just as much as it did to the English in the 1850s and 60s,” wrote one member on the club’s web page. “Even the title has as evrryday [sic] meaning,” added another with lesser spelling skills. (A less enthusiastic member did call these picks of Oprah’s “strange” and suggested an alternative: Super Rich by Russell Simmons). The experiment was, largely, a success.
Maybe 2011 could be the year of Middlemarch. Average readers won’t respond to it like Rebecca Mead and her peers, but they won’t be asked to. Even if George Eliot’s masterpiece and those like it are received as nothing more than distractions from filing and terrible weather, they’re still fulfilling their function as books. They surely deserve more, but just as surely deserve nothing less.