Welcome to Middlemarch for Book Clubs

Is Middlemarch really a sure way to destroy a book club, as this article claims? Of course not, but the silly article got linked to a lot: for a while, it seemed everywhere I looked online I saw the headline “Middlemarch kills book clubs.” It was distressing to see such wide circulation given to the claim that my favorite novel–one I have read and reread for over a quarter of a century–is too old, long, and dull for contemporary readers.

The original story was (I hope) somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but even so it played into common prejudices about reading “the classics,” and I couldn’t stop thinking that it would be a shame if the resulting meme discouraged book clubs from actually giving this wonderful novel a try. What could I do, I wondered, to encourage them instead?

This site is my response.* My aim is to provide some useful information about the novel and its contexts, some framing questions for understanding and appreciating it, and some provocations for talking about it.

I don’t think any reader requires this kind of additional material to enjoy Middlemarch. I read it myself for the first time while backpacking across Europe as a teenager, and I loved it then, knowing nothing more than what I found on its pages. But I have spent many years since then as a student and a teacher of literature, and I strongly believe that it is possible to have a richer reading experience, particularly of a long and complex novel, if you have some expert guidance along the way.

By “expert guidance” I don’t mean someone telling you what to think or what to like: I mean someone helping you sort things out, notice things, and get excited about things — things that on your own you might not see, or see the significance of. I often think of The Antiques Road Show as a good analogy. It’s one thing to enthuse over something we like or to dismiss something we don’t. The experts on the Road Show, however, will help us see clearly what an object really is, by explaining when and where it was made, and by whom, and with reference to what standards of craftsmanship and aesthetic excellence. They point out flaws and beauties but also just particularities: the specific details that make the object interesting to the trained eye. In the end, we still like it or not (though for me, once I see the thing as these passionate experts do, it’s hard not to share at least a little of their enthusiasm). But at that point our response is something more than a simple reaction of taste, and I would argue that this is not only an educational benefit, it’s a conversational necessity.

It’s my hope that this site will encourage and support book clubs that decide to read Middlemarch because, if I do it right, it will convey my own love of the novel in a similarly contagious way. If you have ideas for things to add or take away, or a comment about how to improve the tone or organization of the site, please let me know.

Happy reading!

*Actually,  my first response was a blog post: “So Your Book Club Wants to Read Middlemarch? Great Idea!” That post includes some of the tips and suggestions that I’ve polished up and presented here.

6 thoughts on “Welcome to Middlemarch for Book Clubs

    1. Rohan Maitzen

      Ann, if you want to finish it, perhaps you’ll find the materials here helpful! You might look at the page called “Tips for Success.”

      Reply
  1. Denise

    Hello – it doesn’t look like your site is very active, but it came up when I googled “where can I talk about Middlemarch online” – ha! Have been at GoodReads and LIbraryThing and am looking for more in depth info.

    I’m 50-ish and had tried to read the book a couple of years ago, but didn’t get very far. I have the BBC adaptation, but didn’t want to watch it until I had read the book. A month ago, I started listening to the unabridged audio narrated by Juliet Stevenson and I was blown away! Couldn’t believe how relatable the characters were, how much humor there was in the dialogue and narration, and how much wisdom and empathy shown by George Eliot. The only disadvantage to listening instead of reading was missing out on explanatory notes and foreign language translations that the text would have had.

    I’m looking forward to getting some background info on your blog and to reading the book so that I can understand some of the political and historical context of the novel. By the way, if you need to suggest an audio version, I can highly recommend Juliet Stevenson’s reading – I think it’s by Naxos but I got it on Audible.com. She does a stellar job.

    Thanks for listening.

    Reply
    1. Rohan

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Denise! I never really expected there to be a great deal of activity here, but I do hope that the resources I set up prove useful for people who are interested in thinking more about the novel. I have heard great things about Stevenson’s reading: I’m usually not much for audio books (I am just so used to the tactile experience of reading on the page, I guess) but I’m definitely interested in listening to at least some of this.

      Reply
  2. Charity

    My sister and I have a long-distance book club of sorts, and we are reading Middlemarch this month. We’re going to make great use of your discussion questions and your reading tips, I’m sure! I’m linking back here from my blog so others in the club can also benefit from your tips and suggestions. Thank you so much for putting together this site!

    Reply
    1. rmaitzen Post author

      I’m so glad to hear that, Charity! I hope the materials are useful for your discussions, and I’d love to get any feedback you have. Have fun reading the novel.

      Reply

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