- On reading Middlemarch and being twenty-one: “Eliot’s ability to describe people was, in its subtlety and depth and scrupulousness, so many levels above my pay-grade. My own attempts were feeble in comparison. ‘He plays bass and dislikes capitalism and has long hair and an intense look,’ I’d say to a friend in explaining why I liked a certain guy, and the truth was that it was the best I could do.”
- Jules Verne was unquestionably imaginative: a science-fiction pioneer. And yet … “Verne may be a master of sorts, but he is not a master of high art. A casual reader, even in English translation, can see that Verne’s prose is rarely more than serviceable and that it gets overheated when he presumes to court eloquence … Each of Verne’s heroes is a nonpareil, the most remarkable man in the world—as long as the reader is immersed in his particular story. Only in other Verne novels—and in television commercials for a Mexican beer—can one find his equals.”
- Dungeons & Dragons has turned forty, and, “for certain writers, especially those raised in the seventies and eighties, all that time spent in basements has paid off. D&D helped jump-start their creative lives.”
- Archie will die by taking a bullet for his gay friend. “Archie taking the bullet really is a metaphor for acceptance,” Archie Comics publisher and co-CEO Jon Goldwater said, in case you didn’t get it.
- From Bach to Deadmau5: a prehistory of electronic-music festivals traces their roots to the nineteenth century.
Mansfield Park at two hundred.
Poor Fanny Price. The unabashedly mousy, pathologically virtuous protagonist of Mansfield Park—which turns two hundred this year—is Jane Austen’s least popular heroine. She spends most of the novel creeping around the periphery of the titular park, taciturn and swallowing tears; she tires after the briefest of physical exertions; she looks down on her wealthier cousins for engaging in flirtatious amateur theatrics; and for most of the book’s five hundred pages, she refuses to voice her long-held love for her cousin Edmund.
Austen’s own mother reportedly found Fanny “insipid”; the critic Reginald Farrer described her as “repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice.” Even C. S. Lewis—in the voice of his demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters—let loose a vitriolic rant about Austen’s most priggish heroine, calling her “not only a Christian, but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile … Filthy, insipid little prude!” Even if we are to separate Lewis from Screwtape, it’s difficult to see Fanny as anything but, to quote Nietzsche’s famous description, “a moralistic little female à la [George] Eliot.”
And indeed, those who defend Fanny tend to see her as a Christian heroine in the mold of a Dorothea Brooke. As the Austen biographer Claire Tomalin puts it, “it is in rejecting obedience in favor of the higher dictate of remaining true to her own conscience that Fanny rises to her moment of heroism.” But to read Mansfield Park as a kind of Middlemarch is to miss the far more complicated story Austen has told. Fanny Price’s story is less about her individual virtue, or her richer relatives’ lack thereof, but about class, about privilege in its most insidious form—before the term ever cropped up in contemporary social justice discourse. Fanny isn’t moral or upright because she wants to be, but because the role—along with a whole host of so-called middle-class values—is forced upon her. For all we know, she may well wish to be as carefree, as filled with dynamic sprezzatura, as Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s more fortunate heroines, but the social dynamic, and the circumstances of her birth, deny her the security necessary for such frivolity. Fanny has too much at stake to be easygoing. Read More
This afternoon at one, join our contributing editor (and, of course, daily Daily correspondent) Sadie Stein for a live Web chat with Rebecca Mead, hosted by Jezebel. The topic: What Would Dorothea Do? In honor of Mead’s engaging new book, My Life in Middlemarch, they’ll be discussing, as Sadie says, “George Eliot, Dorothea Brooke, what the novel can teach us today, plus life, love, and, yes, sex in Middlemarch.”
It promises to be a lively and enlightening discussion about a lively and enlightening novel. For my money, whenever I make eyes at someone, which, as you can imagine, is almost constantly, I still think of a line from Middlemarch: “They were looking at each other like two fond children talking confidentially of birds.”
And whenever I confront the dubiety of my future: “Even Caesar’s fortune at one time was, but a grand presentiment. We know what a masquerade all development is, and what effective shapes may be disguised in helpless embryos.—In fact, the world is full of hopeful analogies and handsome dubious eggs called possibilities.”
And whenever I encounter a physically unattractive person: “It is so painful in you, Celia, that you will look at human beings as if they were merely animals with a toilette, and never see the great soul in a man’s face.”
And whenever I’m too hungover to pull up the window shade: “We must keep the germinating grain away from the light.” (I think of myself, you see, as germinating grain.)
If you haven’t read Middlemarch, you still have a few hours to catch up before the chat. In all honesty, though, you should read Middlemarch. Believe the hype. It is the best.
Where do letters come from? Why do they change? What are they, really? What makes a q a q, and what quiddity does it share with Q? These are questions that most kids outgrow around the time they learn how to read. Ewan Clayton has written a book for the rest of us. In The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing, he leads us through the formation of the Roman alphabet, the development of medieval scripts, the evolution of Renaissance and modern typefaces, the rise of cursive, the twentieth-century invention of “print” handwriting as a progressive educational tool, the unexpected success of e-mail, and into the future of data storage. A calligrapher (and former monk) who helped Apple create its onscreen fonts, Clayton is as interested in a digital Gill sans as he is in uncials written with a quill. Although different readers may warm to different chapters of his book, my galleys are dog-eared throughout. Whether his topic is Roman inscriptions, the bookkeeping traditions of the East India Company, the first admission of handwriting as evidence in a court of law, the pitfalls of the paperless office, or the experience of copying sacred texts, Clayton writes with ingenuous charm and contagious enthusiasm, often illustrating his points with “calligraphic studies” of his own. I only wish there were more of these—more illustrations in general—because he turns a line of type into an object of contemplation and makes it okay to be curious, all over again, about the ancient symbols we all spent so long learning to use, and to ignore. —Lorin Stein
Nell Dunn’s 1963 short story collection Up the Junction ain’t for the faint of heart—think bleak birth and mundane death, impersonal sex, pub patrons whose breasts evoke “two cheeses in a gauze bag.” As a young woman Dunn forsook her posh West End upbringing (she’s the daughter of late businessman Sir Philip Dunn) to move to Battersea, South London, where she found work in a sweets factory. At 127 pages it’s an all-out romp, capturing a particular cultural moment and inspiring several more: eponymous works by Ken Loach (a 1965 BBC Wednesday Play), Peter Collinson (a 1968 feature film) and “Squeeze” (a 1979 #2 UK single) all owe their debt to Dunn. —Abby Gibbon Read More
George Eliot’s Middlemarch has been my favorite novel ever since one summer nearly thirty years ago, when I read it on the recommendation of a Victorian literature–obsessed college friend. I’ve read it twice since then, which might not seem like a lot for a favorite book, but it is nine hundred pages long, and its richness holds me for many years at a time.
I love Middlemarch, published in 1872, for many reasons. I love Eliot’s gently intrusive narrator, her aphoristic habit of mind, her asides on medical research and philanthropy and manners. She can be extremely funny at times, a fact often overlooked by impatient readers. But Eliot’s wonderful narrator appears in her other great books as well—Daniel Deronda and Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner—so why is Middlemarch my best beloved?
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this particular novel, more even than Eliot’s others, is all about people trying to be good—out of religious belief or a desire to improve the lot of the common man or the love of a woman or in expiation of past badness. The attempt is portrayed as difficult, almost killing at times, and many of the characters fail at it spectacularly. The novel is set against the backdrop of political do-gooding: the great British reforms of the late 1820s and early 1830s, which greatly expanded the number of Englishmen (not women, of course) who could vote. It was a time when the concept of the good itself was beginning to have a more democratic and less aristocratic connotation.
At the center of the many story lines in Middlemarch (marriages, deaths, legacies, falls from grace) is Dorothea Brooke, a nineteen-year-old orphan with a decent inheritance who has dreams of doing some great work in the world. At first she wants to improve the cottages of the tenant farmers who work on her uncle’s estate. Her plans are not met with much enthusiasm; those around her are the sort who think things are fine just the way they are. Courted by a local landowner who is considered a very good catch, she instead decides to marry a much older scholar whom she imagines to be some sort of genius. She will be his helpmeet; she’ll learn Greek and Latin so that she can help him guide his magnum opus into the world. Unfortunately her new husband, Casaubon, turns out to be a dry and humorless pedant who over time crushes Dorothea’s every impulse toward joy and intimacy. She, knowing she is bound to him legally, and feeling bound to him morally, fights against her resentment and loneliness, and although she no longer believes in his talent or his project, gives over her days to providing the lowly secretarial aid he demands. Read More
Dear Paris Review,
I am currently suffering from a major depression, which has caused me to lose my job and my relationship. I see a therapist and a psychiatrist, and I believe and hope I’m beginning to recover. I have been a major reader all my life, but the depression has made it difficult for me to concentrate, so I haven’t been able to read much lately. I’ve been reading bits and pieces of books I’ve read before many times (Darkness Visible, Diving Into the Wreck), trying to get something from them.
I suppose I’m looking for two different types of book as I recover: books that will show me why to live and how, and books that will allow me to escape my present torture. Both need to be pretty easy to follow—for instance, I recently bought The Myth of Sisyphus after reading William Styron’s reference too it, but it’s too difficult for my slow brain right now.
I’ve been where you are and know exactly the state you describe: one of the many distressing aspects of depression is the inability to lose yourself—and for those of us who have always found comfort in books, this is particularly scary. It goes without saying that everyone’s recovery process is different, and without a sense of your exact tastes—although it is clear you are an ambitious and curious reader with wide-ranging interests—it is a little tricky to suggest comfort reads. (After all, that is so bound up with one’s history and associations, no?) But I can tell you what has worked for me, and for some people I know, and hope that the suggestions, and the knowledge that you are in good company, will prove helpful.