What is reading, especially novel reading, for? What does it mean to love a book or to love reading? These questions hover over the pages of recent bibliomemoirs or autobibliographies that return to formative scenes of reading (Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch); recount “the serious pleasure of books,” as the subtitle of Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read has it; or transform reading into an endurance sport (Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf from LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading). The experience of reading these books about the experience of reading books often feels less like engagement in literary conversation than like listening to people talk about their dreams or love affairs or therapy sessions. Which is to say that such works rely not only on the companionability, allure, or brilliance of the author’s persona and voice, as all memoirs do, but also on an even more demanding and intimate attunement with her taste in books.
The much-reviewed My Life in Middlemarch by New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead reflects on synchronicities and analogies between and among the lives of characters in the novel, George Eliot’s biography, and Mead’s own life over the years that she has periodically reread the novel. Mostly admiring, and yet also begrudging, Mead’s reviewers have lamented that contemporary readers want their literary criticism and literary biography doled out as memoir rather than taken straight (Ruth Bernard Yeazell in the New York Review of Books), or critiqued the choice of Middlemarch as the novel through which to read one’s own life as “self-limiting if not solipsistic” (Joyce Carol Oates in the New York Times). Intimate attunement is difficult to sustain; our own taste in books and deeply ingrained habits of reading won’t tolerate it. An author’s touch of snobbery, a false or forced note, scorn for a beloved book, writer, or genre—it doesn’t take much to strain the connection.
And yet in some readers, even resistant ones, Mead’s memoir might mobilize a cascade of identifications with Dorothea Brooke, Tertius Lydgate, even Casaubon, as well as with George Eliot and Mead herself. This is fitting, if it takes place, because identification is the key reading effect—really the only reading effect—that Mead recognizes, even as she notes its limitations. While Mead tells an often tender and intelligent tale of book love, she writes as though her own bibliophilia, unlike many loves, were uncannily requited. That is, as she puts it, “the book was reading me, as I was reading it.” Identification glides so easily into projection that George Eliot returns her gaze.
Much of course will depend on one’s own experience of the romantic, literary, intellectual, and class striving that underpins Mead’s journey. Scenes like that of Mead’s parents giving the 11-year-old lover of words a Roget’s Thesaurus, inscribed by her father and with her mother’s homemade wrapper protecting the dust jacket, movingly capture a home life that supported Mead and at the same time propelled her out of the provinces to Oxford and then to the New Yorker, which she coyly refers to throughout as a nameless “weekly magazine” where she got her start as a “fact-checker.” Middlemarch offered the youthful Mead a mirror for her literariness and reflected back to her the self-regard of “being the kind of person who loved it.” If the novel initiated her as a teenager, it seemed presciently to reward her with new mirrors as she grew up, went to college, made a career as a journalist at that nameless weekly magazine, married a man with children, and had her own child.
Finding patterns in Eliot’s biography that resonate with her own—a provincial childhood, late-ish marriage, stepsons—Mead offers an especially warm reading of Eliot’s painful unrequited love for the icy Herbert Spencer. Though children play only a small part in Middlemarch, it’s Eliot’s evocation of childhood that in some ways most stirs Mead, because of the coincidence that Eliot conceived much of that landscape in Mead’s own “home place” in Weymouth, on England’s south coast: “In the green fields and shady byways of my youth, Eliot glimpsed the site of her own youth, in imagination, and when I read her books I am restored anew to that place of childhood. … [I]t is an opportunity to be in touch again with the intensity and imagination of beginnings.” It’s not Middlemarch, though, that inspires this reverie, but Eliot’s tragic second novel, The Mill on the Floss, which Eliot worked on during a trip to Weymouth. That novel’s childhood retrospect ends in catastrophe for Maggie Tulliver, a fate that Mead barely notices, so far is it from the teleology of modest successes and happiness achieved that she foregrounds in her experience of Middlemarch.
Though Mead’s own life has seemingly traded the provincial for the cosmopolitan, she misses opportunities for more expansive reflections on her own position.
Mead has made of Middlemarch a bildungsroman-by-proxy; Maggie’s curtailed life means that My Life in The Mill on the Floss wouldn’t play, no matter how often we might reread and find ourselves in that novel. In support of her experience with Middlemarch, Mead cites Dickens’s praise of Adam Bede, as having “taken its place among the actual experiences and endurances of my life.” Reading Mead’s Life invites one to reflect on that process and that phenomenon. As it has been for many people, and as Mead and her publisher must count on, Middlemarch marked for me, too, something of a passage, as an indispensable, if not the indispensable novel. For a while in my 20s I kept a commonplace book, and in that large, handsome, blue-lined accounts book I copied this out from Middlemarch: “Strange, that some of us, with quick alternate vision, see beyond our infatuations, and even while we rave on the heights, behold the wide plain where our persistent self pauses and awaits us.” Rereading Middlemarch at the same time that I read Mead’s memoir, I was shocked to find that this line was not a reflection on Dorothea Brooke, but on Lydgate’s infatuation with the murderous French actress, a backstory I had entirely forgotten, as I had forgotten almost everything else about Middlemarch beyond Dorothea.
In his cheekily titled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard notes that “our memory of books, most particularly those that matter to the point where they become part of us, is endlessly reorganized by the unconscious stakes of our present circumstances.” As Mead’s rereadings discover, Lydgate and Rosamond, Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, the whole Bulstrode affair, usually occupy the periphery for readers in their teens and 20s, only moving to the center of vision later in life. Like a latter-day docudrama, Middlemarch sketches in the destinies of all its main characters in its “Finale” chapter: “Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years?” Mead interleaves the finished lives of Eliot and of Eliot’s characters, finding herself in their midst, but also finding new sympathies for the characters disparaged or entirely overlooked in her youth and, through them, refreshed sympathy for her own parents.
Mead writes, she says towards the end of the memoir, from the midst of her “own home epic,” a phrase Eliot used in Middlemarch to describe marriage, but which also, by extension, has come to identify the novel itself. Combined with the novel’s subtitle, “A Study of Provincial Life,” that phrase signals Eliot’s alignment of the domestic and provincial with the world-historical. But though Mead’s own life has seemingly traded the provincial for the cosmopolitan, she narrates it onto an oddly modest stage, missing opportunities for more expansive reflections on her own position. I come away from My Life with the feeling that Middlemarch calls to Mead again and again because, although in her account it expands her sympathies and marks her life’s passages, it also seems to flatter her own choices. She writes that “[a] book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book.” It perhaps goes without saying that our own lives tell us how to misread too, remaining within a bell jar of identification, missing, again and again, for example, Eliot’s nuances of tone, her critique of provincial life and of the forces of industrialization and modernization, and even of the very identifications that send one back again and again to an old novel.
The author of Why I Read, Wendy Lesser, took a more expansive approach in her earlier memoir-in-books, Nothing Remains the Same: Rereading and Remembering (2003), which narrates the experience of rereading as both a reflection on time passing and as a critical reassessment of the books reread. That book addressed how different kinds of books draw one differently at different stages in life: Lesser writes about her precocious and besotted reading of Don Quixote at age 11; encountering Henry Adams’s 1900 Education in college, and then reading it again circa 2000; rereading Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, and Portrait of a Lady, and finding that Anna and Dorothea “in some ways died on [her]” in middle age, though Isabel Archer came to life. Lesser’s current book, less personal and more strictly literary than the other books under review, like them fetchingly captures the allure of reading and the intense relationships it’s possible to have with the people in books. Immersing herself for a summer in Alexander Herzen’s four-volume My Past and Thoughts, for example, Lesser felt that ordinary social life paled; when out with friends, she admits, “I would find myself thinking, ‘Who are these people? I want to be back with my real friends, Alexander and Natalie.’”
Lesser’s quirky chapter structure (a predictable “Character and Plot,” but then “The Space Between” and “Elsewhere”) gives the flavor of a genial undergraduate seminar syllabus, even to the concluding “Inconclusions,” and a reading list of “A Hundred Books to Read for Pleasure.” Yet Why I Read’s ambling narrative offers many vivid readings and shrewd juxtapositions. Under the sign of “Grandeur and Intimacy,” for example, Lesser explores the “sudden and vehement contrast in scale” in works as various as King Lear and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “As kingfishers catch fire.” Like Mead (“the book was reading me”), Lesser’s enthusiasm animates her books and gives them agency: “We may think we are choosing what books to read, but they choose us as well.” Somehow even the least sentimental bibliomemoirist inevitably practices a version of bibliomancy.
If you want to read over someone’s shoulder, you could do a lot worse than Lesser’s. One admires her learning and can learn much from her extensive and interesting canon (Eça de Queirós’s The Maias and Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow, to name just two of several books that were new to me). There’s so much to like and be interested in here, so much, it may be, to identify with: Lesser’s devotion to Henry James, her struggle to read Goncharov’s Oblomov, and then her account of that novel’s immense and Proustian rewards. Aware perhaps of the challenges of her own narrative, she notes the “doubt that the nonfiction writer instills in us” by “mak[ing] us depend on that friendly fellow who engagingly … recounts an interesting set of events or observations, and then … undercuts that dependence by making us suspicious of his veracity.”
Lesser wisely interprets that risky breach of the author-reader bond as a potential spur to readerly sympathy; as she writes of her vacillating feelings in reading and rereading George Orwell, the reader must both believe and doubt. While I believe in Lesser, I cast my own doubt on the genre she’s adopted here, which produces, along with insightful readings, longueurs and truisms as well. Why I Read belongs to what strikes me, in this iteration at least, as a tattered, even vestigial belles-lettres tradition, which has lost its bearings, and which these book-memoirists are struggling to revivify.
Biographer and former English professor Phyllis Rose is another veteran of the bibliomemoir; her witty and self-aware midlife memoir, The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time (1997), was anchored only tenuously to Proust or even to reading. Now she’s returned to the genre with a literary stunt. The Shelf from LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading recounts a year of reading the books on a more or less arbitrarily chosen library shelf, suggesting either a desperate flight from ennui or a readerly (and writerly) compulsion motivated less by ideas than by a desire to test stamina and forbearance. LEQ to LES: the dictionary header–like organization of knowledge appeals in the same way that Roget’s appeals to bookish people for whom not only books, but individual words, and even letters, have meaning. More than this, the randomness of the experiment—find a shelf, consume its books—almost sounds like fun, in a sort of old-school avant-garde Cageian way. Rose even invokes Oulipo towards the start of her account, and by the end asserts an existentialist virtue for the project: “Every time you read a work of fiction, you are committing an acte gratuit, a gratuitous act that proves your freedom.”
Cheerful, digressive, rambling, conversational, Rose frames the narrative of her year on a library shelf, somewhat irrelevantly, by hurricanes Irene and Sandy. For all the contradictions of its inception, and all the divagations of the narrative, whose rambles include elaborate Internet searches for information about obscure authors that in one case turns up a YouTube video of a funeral, Rose’s account underscores the compulsive and impulsive nature of much reading. “What, then, should I read?” Rose asks as she begins browsing the shelves. This yearning question afflicts many readers, perhaps especially those encircled by books. Reading, it turns out, even for a devoted and professional reader like Phyllis Rose, can devolve into a terrible struggle against distraction, boredom, and alienation. As a consequence, the writing-up of her “experiment” reads like a series of blog entries, lightly filtered observations. She tries again and again to read Mikhail Lermontov’s 1839 A Hero of Our Time, a classic of Russian literature, and the keystone book of her chosen shelf, in multiple translations with prefaces by Nabokov and by Gary Shteyngart. At last, and only by reflecting on how her own son moved from young manhood to fatherhood, she finds a purchase on A Hero’s picture of romantic youth. By the end of her year, she rereads it, with a pleasing sense of familiarity, and falls into a kind of motherly reverie about the death-by-duel of its young author, Lermontov.
Her experiment affirms her distaste for detective fiction; leads her to appreciate little-read classics of another era, like Gil Blas, and a famous potboiler, The Phantom of the Opera; and requires her to slog through a lot of bad books, confirming the truism that most of what has been published has always been bad. Because of the dull badness of Rose’s chosen books, her attention often turns from textual experiences to paratextual ones, in Gerard Genette’s extended definition of the term as material related to a text that might be bound with it (front and back matter), or might appear before or after its publication, in the form of publisher’s materials, or author interviews.
Rose ponders the fact of how few women are represented on her random shelf and explores the gendered politics of publishing and literary reputations.
As Rose reaches thus beyond her shelf she befriends (IRL, as one might say) two of the neglected writers whose work she finds most interesting, Rhoda Lerman and Lisa Lerner, who are also two of only three women out of a shelf of 23 books and 11 authors. At the center of The Shelf, Rose shares a plangent moment of identification with one of those women, who had fallen silent for a decade or so, noting that she too had “entered the zone of silence” as a writer. She offers respect for these silences because writers should write “when they had something to say”; people sometimes just change direction or their “interests were too different and too demanding to be filled in one life-time.” As for her own hiatus, “I barely knew which was the case for myself.” Rose leaves it at that, evading a deep self-inquiry (or at least not reporting it), while noting throughout the challenges women still face in writing and publishing. The middle chapters ponder the fact of how few women are represented on her random shelf and explores the gendered politics of publishing and literary reputations. V. S. Naipaul’s sneering misogyny makes a predictable appearance here, but, happily, so does Dorothy Van Ghent and her 1953 The English Novel, as a counterweight, from which Rose quotes a dazzling passage on Jane Austen. Like Wendy Lesser, Rose ends with a list of books “on the inner shelf of texts that accompany me through life.”
What to make of these versions of the Harvard five-foot shelf? Memoir-by-other-means and nods to reading-group culture, they also mark affiliation, membership in a club of readers that unites these authors with the audience they seek. Wendy Lesser’s implied question—“Why do you read?”—threads through all of these books, as if to say: “There must be a reason for all this reading that I can’t help but do, let me try to understand and explain it.” The hint of apologia may just be abashment for the self-inquiry and self-exposure that bibliomemoirs traffic in, if not for the privileged employment that makes room for all of this reading. I also find something melancholic in these works, in the Freudian sense in which one becomes ever more firmly attached to a now internalized lost object. That is to say, as one returns again and again to particular books or to the very experience of reading, it may as likely be with a hope of encountering what was lost, or even of encountering loss itself, as with the hope of experiencing something new. Our reading may have darker motives and less complacent consequences than these books allow.
What, in the end, are these books for? In some ways, they provide the mental furniture for what George Eliot called the “home epic,” but in a minor key: these are books designed to furnish the home epic’s guest rooms. If reading might feel unsettlingly compulsive, it is still, these books all implicitly claim, fundamentally and inherently virtuous, enriching, and broadening. But why should we think so? Don’t all readers know that one of reading’s most powerful somatic effects is soporific? Reading and rereading might just as soon put you to sleep, literally and figuratively, as wake you up.