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.
*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.