I had not intended to boast about this recent accomplishment, but Thursday’s quote of the day in the New York Times has provoked me. The quote is: ”Can you any longer read Henry James or George Eliot? Do you have the patience?” The quote is from Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University, in a new story about the current consensus that the book is outdated and publishers are integrating video and other razzle dazzle into books and e-books — which will now be called, of all things, “vooks.” (I did not have the patience to read the NYT story in full, I will admit.)
As a matter of fact, after several failed attempts, two of which may have occurred before the advent of the Internet — which was, therefore not to blame, I have finally read, in full, George Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch. To be sure, it required extraordinary measures, including turning off my computer on weekends, sitting in computer-free places indoors and out, foregoing nightly TV talk fests for a while, and neglecting facebook entirely. To be honest, it also helped that I persuaded my book club to make it the September book — giving us much of the summer, and creating both peer pressure and a deadline. That I missed nothing important, and actually recreated the formerly familiar, almost-zen state of submerging oneself in an author’s created world for hours at a time, has made it hard to go back to newish bad habits.
What I gained was substantial. I am prepared to conclude, in the company of a long line of readers, that Middlemarch is the greatest English novel ever written. (Of course, that matters little if our culture is giving up serious literature entirely.) The author’s insights into human psychology are stunning, even 140 years later, when we are all presumably much more sophisticated about motives and thought processes. Furthermore, I forgive my younger self for not sticking with it. It is no book for a 20-year-old — or even a busy 30-year-old. Even if I had read it back then, rereading it at mid-life would yeild far greater insight. Life experience makes a real difference. I recall being too upset to by Dorothea’s headstrong act of self-immolation in marrying Causabon in a state of total misapprehension of who and what he was the first time I tried. Now it seems clear enough that we all walk blind into many of our choices in life — and some of them don’t work out.
One reason that the much feared impatience doesn’t get in the way of reading Eliot is that she, unlike some of her contemporaries — Dickens comes to mind — does not pad her prose. You can read a long, twisting sentence if it says something substantive and interesting. The book, and I gulp to say this, warranted its 785 pages.
All of this is to say that we probably want to exercise our attention spans as we do our limbs and muscle groups, lest we lose the valuable part of our culture while Twittering madly.