Characters from George Eliot’s Middlemarch(The Jenson Society/Wikimedia) You know you’ve always meant to; now it’s put up or shut up.
His classification of human employments was rather crude, and, like the categories of more celebrated men, would not be acceptable in these more advanced times. He divided them into “business, politics, preaching, learning, and amusement.” He had nothing to say against the last four; but he regarded them as a reverential pagan regarded gods other than his own.
— George Eliot, Middlemarch
George Eliot’s Middlemarch advertises itself as “A Study of Provincial Life,” but it has a great deal in it that might be of interest to Americans who just right now have some extra time on their hands for reading: medical progress and medical quackery, political progress and political hackery, Christian zeal and Christian zealotry, thwarted travel plans, stifling domestic situations, financial distress and bad debts, an overbearing rich guy nobody really likes, and a pending election. It also has some of the most intelligent observation and sharpest prose you will encounter.
Go have at it.
If not Middlemarch, then maybe one of the other big ones. People who read novels all have the one that got away — the one big famous book they have started, and maybe started a dozen times, but never finished. Or maybe they never even started it but always meant to. There are many books that have a reputation for being that novel: The Red and the Black, Bleak House, Ulysses. Many ambitious readers have run aground on the cetacean chapters of Moby-Dick.
War and Peace is a famously tough one. There is a lovely little musical based on it called Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (some of you may remember that I once was thrown out of a performance of it) that begins with a comic cumulative song (the most well-known cumulative song is “The Twelve Days of Christmas”) in which the chorus explains that there is a précis in the playbill:
This is all in your program!
You are at the opera,
And you’re gonna have to study up a little bit
If you wanna keep with the plot.
’Cause it’s a complicated Russian novel,
And everyone’s got nine different names.
So look it up in your program!
We’d appreciate it — thanks a lot.
For years, my great white whale was Middlemarch. I do not know why I found it so difficult to crack open. It has a large cast of characters to keep up with, but it is not as populous as a Dickens novel; there’s a bit of Big Sweeping Historical Background there — the Reform Act of 1832 — but, like Vanity Fair, it is basically a domestic novel into which history occasionally intrudes. I suppose I have some trouble dropping myself into English provincial life in the early 19th century — I barely made it through The Mayor of Casterbridge in spite of having the best Hardy professor you could ask for. I finally got around to starting it on one of those very fun cruises National Review organizes. And I regret having waited so long: It may be the best novel I have ever read.
It is a novel about people who make bad choices, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons, sometimes, especially in cases of romantic attachment, simply because they are young and callow and do not know what they really want, what will really make them happy, or that they are, in the famous phrase from Vanity Fair, “striving for what is not worth the having.” Some of the characters bear up under their mistakes with honor and perseverance, and some do not. There are not any shocking, unexpected twists in the plot — there is a sense of inevitability about how things play out: Character is destiny, as some of us conservatives used to say.
Books used to be expensive. Because we live in an age of wonders — and we do, in spite of the current trouble — you can read Middlemarch for free online, though I prefer and recommend having the actual book. I do not think there has been a rush on great novels at the shops or on Amazon.
One of the little tortures of the current epidemic is that there is so little to do — and by that I do not mean that I am bored (I am not), but that there is so little to be done, that the most useful thing that most of us can do in response to the coronavirus is passive: self-quarantining, and quietly taking care of ourselves so that we will not be an unnecessary burden on others. I have plenty of writing to do and a stack of reading to get through. And I am glad those are my problems — other people have serious ones, beginning with sickness and joblessness, and they need our help. I am confident my stock portfolio will recover. In the meantime, I think of Irving Kristol’s laconic response when a friend told him that civilization was collapsing: “It’s still possible to live well.”
I do not like didacticism in literature. Novelists, poets, and playwrights are the last people from whom you should seek moral instruction. But there is quiet wisdom in Middlemarch, which concludes: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”