Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rambling on About Classic Literature and Modern Life

I've been working my way through Middlemarch for the last three weeks. I love the way George Eliot writes and this book is considered to be her masterpiece. I personally have a preference for Silas Marner, as being a focused, perfection of a short novel, as opposed to the sprawling, cover-the-waterfront type of novel that Middlemarch is. Still, there's a lot to be said for a big novel that you can kind of climb inside and inhabit, and I have to admire Eliot's ability to create a world between the covers of a book.

This is the kind of book I used to read all the time, but in the past five years or so I have drifted away from books that require so many hours of reading. I blame the internet for this, and I'm not especially happy about it.

I'm sure that reading Eliot lowers my blood pressure and creates new connections in my brain; in short, it makes me a better person. The sentences and paragraphs are individual works of art, not just for choice of words, but for their stunning combination of entertainment value and moral content.

Look at this:

"...other points in Mr. Farebrother...were exceptionally fine, and made his character resemble those southern landscapes which seem divided between natural grandeur and social slovenliness. Very few men would have been as filial and chivalrous as he was to the mother, aunt, and sister, whose dependence on him had in many ways shaped his life rather uneasily for himself; few men who feel the pressure of small needs are so nobly resolute not to dress up their inevitably self-interested desires in a pretext of better motives. In these matters he was conscious that his life would bear the closest scrutiny; and perhaps the consciousness encouraged a little defiance towards the critical strictness of persons whose celestial intimacies seemed not to improve their domestic manners, and whose lofty aims were not needed to account for their actions." (p.177)

That's not a passage to "skim"--sentences like that demand that I slow down and read them, and then they reward me with a special kind of happiness. I miss the days when I had the time to read long, complicated novels, but I can't say I would trade the fast pace and endless possibilities of the internet for the quiet enjoyment, the totally private enjoyment I have always associated with reading books.

I'm afraid that as rare as Eliot's readers were twenty years ago, there must be even fewer people reading her now. Of course I mean for her to represent a whole class of authors, that would include Dickens and Hugo and even Thomas Hardy and Henry James--people who wrote for readers who had lots of time to read. I'm afraid that our minds, collectively, will become less able to contain complex concepts, less willing to grapple with issues that take more than a few minutes to describe. That will not bode well for us. Issues are more complex than ever, not less.

I refuse to put the pleasures of reading books behind me.

I will find time to finish Middlemarch.

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