A few paragraphs into her consideration of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, New York Magazine’s Kathryn Schulz lays out a refreshingly practical definition of what constitutes a great book:
As a rule, I am allergic to the adjective “best,” which asserts only the inferiority of all other things—not a useful or appealing function, for those of us who are promiscuous thing-lovers. But here is one benchmark of a book, and a very difficult one to achieve: whether, while you are immersed in it, it mutes all other claims upon your taste and convinces you it’s the greatest thing ever written. That’s how I felt last month, when, for the third time in my life but the first in more than a decade, I read Middlemarch.
Schulz’s re-reading of Middlemarch was inspired by Rebecca Mead’s new book My Life in Middlemarch, which I ordered even before I finished Schulz’s essay:
Mead first read Middlemarch when she was 17 and found a foothold in it. Eventually, she would climb it through college and coming to New York, through love and its loss, thorough parenting and stepparenting, through all the life-stuff that sloshes outside of and into those stages: ambition, frustration, loneliness, desire, arguments, intellectual life, aging. Virginia Woolf famously said of Middlemarch that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” For Mead, it also turned out to be a book to grow up with. In My Life in Middlemarch, she weaves the story of that private relationship together with biography and literary criticism; the whole, gracefully executed, makes a pleasing aperitif or digestif to Eliot.
Middlemarch is splendid, I know from prior reading; Mead’s book too sounds wonderful, a prospect I’ll soon test. In the meantime, let me say that while reading this Schulz review, as while reading other pieces of her work — even her irritatingly well-argued explanation of why she despises The Great Gatsby, a book I adore — her writing muted all other claims upon my taste and convinced me it was among the smartest, most elegantly penned criticism ever written. She writes devilish well and — a dangerous thing in a critic — turns a quote with the best of them:
Toward the end of “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” [Eliot] leaves off excoriating bad writers to describe that rarer creature, the excellent one: “She does not give you information, which is the raw material of culture—she gives you sympathy, which is its subtlest essence.” Eliot gives us that, and asks something in return. Seeing ourselves in her book is just a start. What she really wants is for us to see past ourselves.
Kathryn Schulz, What Is It About Middlemarch?. Read it, and all those books too.