This Week in Reading: Rebecca Mead and Hilary Mantel

51lTjui4LeL._SY300_As mentioned in our inaugural post, books are everything to Mallory and me. We are lifelong fools for books, and we want to share that with you. One way we’ll be doing that is our Emily Books Book Club, which you’ll be hearing about shortly from the titular Emily, one is the glorious Jaya Catches Up, and another is probably going to be me just telling you what I’m reading, and how I feel about it. Like this! I’ll be here every Monday afternoon at three.

I had a really transcendent reading experience over the weekend, in the guise of an eight-and-a-half-hour flight. The earlier part of the week, of course, was completely caught up in the site launch and the hacking and the constant re-reading of complimentary tweets about pubes and occasional stabs at being a parent, so all I’d managed to do was finish Yael Kohen’s delightful We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, which I am very happy to recommend to all comers interested in that topic.

On the flight, prior to being permitted to access my Kindle, I opened a review copy of Rebecca Mead’s new book, My Life in Middlemarch. I am linking it for you below, but it literally does not come out until January 2014, so there is no reason to bother. I just can’t wait to talk about it, essentially, and what I’d really love is for all of us to commit to reading or re-reading or re-re-re-reading Middlemarch prior to next January, so we can have a glorious group discussion of both George Eliot’s masterpiece and Rebecca Mead’s brilliant memoir/biography/personal history/book review/conversation on said topic. For the record, you do not need to have read Middlemarch to appreciate it. It has been years, for me, and diminished my enjoyment not a jot.

Mead’s book grew from “Middlemarch and Me”, a piece that appeared in The New Yorker in 2011. Paywalled, so do what you have to do, subscribe, ask your friends. It was pretty much the best thing ever. It was beautiful, and astute, and penetratingly intelligent, and it was the sort of thing that makes you sick with envy if you’re in the habit of writing about yourself while pretending to write about other things and will never, ever be this good at it. And, as you may recall, it included these words: “But ‘Middlemarch’ is not about blooming late, or unexpectedly coming into one’s own after the unproductive flush of youth. ‘Middlemarch’ suggests that it is always too late to be what you might have been–but it also shows that, virtually without exception, the unrealized life is worth living.”

No, I know. I know. So I was excited to read the book, which offered the ultimate dream: that the magazine article you are devouring might suddenly say, “hey, do you want to meet up later?” and continue on for a few hundred pages in much the same vein it started. I do not want to get too much into the book itself, here. I’d like us, ideally, to read it together (AFTER Middlemarch, come on, you guys), but I will say that it is a work of exceptional generosity of spirit, and this paragraph hit me like the Ghost of Christmas Present lobbing a mincemeat pie at my head (I am totally not supposed to quote it, because these are uncorrected proofs, so keep it to yourself):

I didn’t go to libraries so much anymore. I’d become a journalist, so rather than immersing myself in books I tended to consult them fleetingly, then shelve them. I read much less for pleasure than I liked, and my grasp on literature–the field in which I’d sought to distinguish myself at seventeen–grew a little shakier every year, like a foreign language I didn’t have sufficient opportunity to speak.

So, obviously, newly chastened, freshly aware of the dangers of juggling four books and two thousand RSS feeds and kicking over piles of unread galleys to get to my bathroom, I read all 672 pages of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in one go, finishing the last one as we began our initial descent into Newark. One mini-bottle of wine, two bathroom breaks. AFTER finishing the 278 pages of My Life in Middlemarch, because this girl’s still got some obsessive immersive literary gluttony left in her.

It was incredible. Oh, Wolf Hall‘s great, had you heard? Had you heard that mentioned somewhere? You may have, because everyone else read it in 2009 and awarded it prizes, and I only pretended to, because it’s 672 pages long and about the Tudors, so I knew I was GOING to love it, someday, eventually. And lots of people don’t like it (they are wrong, seriously, seriously wrong), but it’s extraordinarily good and I cried, embarrassingly, on the plane, at several parts, such that the painfully correct German man sitting next to me could no longer ignore my tears and began offering me his Swiss Air International chocolate squares to make me stop.

Wolf Hall is far too long, and not nearly long enough. If I were Mantel’s editor, I’d have made her cut a hundred pages for publication, then, as punishment for verbosity, write me four hundred more for my own pleasure. Yes, I know there is a sequel. Yes, I bought it before getting to Passport Control. All my life I’ve longed for someone to turn a gimlet eye on Thomas More’s murderous, heretic-torturing ways and tedious sense of moral superiority, and now I can rest.

But the experience, just the simple experience of reading an entire novel in one go, as I used to do three or four times a day, was immensely meaningful to me. No looking to see if Thomas Cromwell has any living descendants who are roughly my age. No image-searching “Wulfhall” to see if the ancestral seat of the Seymours is still around. No getting distracted by re-reading Royal Bodies. I’ve been working on devoting an hour a day to cordless reading, it’s been okay, but it’s rarely the same book. I dip in, I dip out. It doesn’t really work.

So, as we stride forward together into The Toast‘s books coverage, let’s try to give them what they deserve: our full and undivided attention. I don’t know what we’ll talk about next week. Probably Bring Up the Bodies, and Helen Garner’s The Spare Room.

Works Referenced:

George Eliot, Middlemarch (Indiebound | Amazon)
Helen Garner, The Spare Room (Indiebound | Amazon)
Yael Kohen, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (Indiebound | Amazon)
Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Indiebound | Amazon)
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Indiebound | Amazon)
Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch (Amazon)

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