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My Life in Middlemarch Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 28, 2014

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Editorial Reviews Review

Rebecca Mead on writing My Life in Middlemarch

I first read Middlemarch, which many critics consider the greatest novel in the English language, when I was seventeen. The novel tells the interweaving stories of several residents of a provincial town in the Midlands; but to describe it this way is a bit like describing Everest as a really tall, ice-covered mountain. In its psychological acuity and generosity of spirit, in the deftness of its humor and immensity of its intelligence, Middlemarch offers everything we go to books for. It’s awesome, in every sense of the word.

I’ve gone back to it every five years or so since, and every time I see something new. When I was an anxious, aspiring teenager, it seemed to be all about the anxieties and aspirations of youth. In my twenties, stumbling through misbegotten love affairs, it seemed to be about the meaning of love and marriage. In my thirties, establishing my career as a writer, the novel seemed to offer cautionary insight into how one might or might not achieve one’s ambitions. By the time I was forty, conscious of the doors of youth closing behind me, the book seemed to offer a melancholy insight into the resignations of middle age.

So revisiting Middlemarch by writing a book about it was also way of reckoning with the life I had lived so far: of looking at the choices I had made, the paths I had taken, and considering the alternative lives I had left unlived. For it, I read the diaries and letters of George Eliot, the book’s author, who was born Mary Ann Evans in 1819; I visited the places she had lived, and I read about the lives of people who had been close to her. Having started out as the humble daughter of a provincial land agent, Eliot transformed herself into one of the dominant intellectual forces of her era—first as an editor and critic for the most important London periodicals, and only later as a novelist. “One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy,” she wrote to a friend when she was just twenty-four. She did find happiness: in love found late, and in a vocation discovered in maturity. “I feel very full of thankfulness for all the creatures I have got to love, all the beautiful and great things that are given to me to know, and I feel, too, much younger and more hopeful, as if a great deal of life and work were still before me,” Eliot wrote in 1861, when she was forty-one. Her greatest work was still before her: Middlemarch was ten years in the future.

I hope that I have written a book that can be read by people who haven’t read Middlemarch—though I also hope that my book will make those readers want to discover George Eliot’s masterpiece for themselves. I wanted to write a book that would speak to any passionate reader. Often, reading is thought of as escapism: we talk of “getting lost” in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and as I wrote My Life in Middlemarch I found that the novel spoke to me differently than it had during any of my earlier readings. Going back to Middlemarch gave me the chance to look at where I was in my life, and to ask myself how I had got there—and to think, with a renewed sense of hopefulness, about where I might go next.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* When Mead first read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a “masterwork of sympathetic philosophy,” as a young woman in an English seaside town, it became her polestar. A New Yorker staff writer and author of One Perfect Day (2007), Mead now explains why in this heady blend of memoir, biography, and literary criticism. She performs an exhilarating, often surprising close reading of the novel, which Eliot began writing at age 51 in 1870. And she takes a fresh look at Eliot’s daringly unconventional life, visiting the writer’s homes and casting light not only on the author’s off-the-charts intellect but also her valor in forthrightly addressing complex moral issues, cutting sense of humor, “large, perceptive generosity,” and the deep love she shared with critic and writer George Henry Lewes and his sons. Mead injects just enough of her own life story to take measure of the profound resonance of Eliot’s progressive, humanistic viewpoint, recognition of the heroism of ordinary lives, and crucial central theme, “a young woman’s desire for a substantial, rewarding, meaningful life.” Mead’s rekindling of appreciation for Eliot and her books blossoms into a celebration of the entire enterprise of writing and reading, of how literature transforms our lives as it guides us toward embracing “all that might be gained from opening one’s heart wider.” --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1st Printing edition (January 28, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307984761
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307984760
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (142 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #248,842 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Rebecca Mead was born in London, and grew up in the south-west of England. She was educated at Oxford University and at N.Y.U. Since 1997 she has been a staff writer at the New Yorker, and is the author of "One Perfect Day: the Selling of the American Wedding" (Penguin Press, 2007) and "My Life in Middlemarch" (Crown, 2014). She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, George Prochnik, and their son.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

75 of 80 people found the following review helpful By Bluestalking Reader VINE VOICE on January 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
My undergraduate degree is in English literature and my Masters in Library and Information Studies. Plus, I've been a lover of British Victorian literature as long as I was old enough to read it 'til today. Middlemarch is a novel I've read - and loved - twice. So, I went into the book excited someone had published a book about her experience reading it. It turned out to be more than I'd dared hope. It goes into so much depth talking about Eliot and her contemporaries, as well as the social criticism she's making in the book. I read it almost non-stop, even in the bathtub, which is something I rarely do. Only the best books (and The New York Times) make it to my bathtub. often falling into it, but that's a whole different story..

Mead is a natural writer. Her prose just glides effortlessly (which is not at all effortless for a writer to accomplish), making it so easy to sink into the book and forget the world. I became lost in it, reveling in Victorian era literature. And, though I'd never heard of her previously, I felt I had a good sense of who she was personally from how thoroughly she described the impact the book really had on her. She brought the book, George Eliot and the whole era alive.

Lovers of Victorian literature, this is your book. It won't disappoint, I positively guarantee it. Those who love books about readers, writing and books will love it, as well.It will probably make my list of top ten reads of 2014.
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53 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Angela Reads on December 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I loved reading Middlemarch by George Eliot, and I have always loved "books about books" so I ordered this book right away, and I was not disappointed.

Middlemarch is a favorite book of the author, Rebecca Mead, and she has read and re-read it throughout her life. I was a little worried that this was going to be a memoir all about the author, with only bits of Middlemarch thrown in. Instead it was nearly the opposite - this book is mostly about Middlemarch and the author of Middlemarch, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) - with only bits and pieces of the author's life thrown in the mix.

Each time Rebecca Mead has read Middlemarch she has gleaned different meaning from it, and the more she learned about George Eliot and her life, the more common ground she discovered between her and Eliot. It really is amazing how many similarities are found in their lives. In this book Mead breaks down Middlemarch into its books and discusses each section - weaving in biographical information about George Eliot and her family.

I had never read anything about George Eliot before and very much enjoyed learning about her life and the time in which she lived. I also enjoyed another glimpse into Middlemarch and the meaning behind the beloved novel.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoyed reading Middlemarch and anyone who loves "books about books".
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By E.M. Bristol VINE VOICE on January 30, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As the author Rebecca Mead puts it, "Middlemarch," is indeed a "brick of a book" at 900 leisurely paced and philosophical pages. This is probably why my main memory of reading it in school was anxiety over finishing it before the exam. However, Mead, who grew up in rural England, and studied the book as a youth had a much different impression. "Aching to get away," from her small world and go to Oxford (though "anywhere would do"), she said, "I couldn't believe how relevant and urgent it felt." "Middlemarch" had insightful things to say about being a young woman desiring love with a kindred spirit, and also the hopes and dreams of later life. As Mead grew up, married and embarked on a career in journalism, she continued to turn to "Middlemarch" for inspiration. Here, she goes to Eliot's various homes to find out more about the writer's life, as well as seeking out Eliot's manuscripts and letters (and those of her partner, contemporaries, and on one occasion, a stalker-like correspondent of Eliot who published a collection of her sayings). The result is an extraordinarily perceptive look at a writer who has fallen out of fashion, but who is still very much worth reading.

Some of the topics explored here include Eliot's decision to risk ostracism in order to live with George Henry Lewes, a man who helped her enormously with her work, but who was also technically married to someone else; her subsequent marriage to a man twenty years her junior after Lewes' death; her choice to break with her religious upbringing as a young woman; and the contrast between falling in love as a youth and developing a lifelong partnership/marriage.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful By John P. Jones III TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 20, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I've read a number of books, and they all seem to have been written by women, about the impact of literature, and / or of a particular author on them. This would include Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, Emma Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma and Gloria Emerson's Loving Graham Greene: A Novel. If this be a sub-genre of books, then Rebecca Mead's "My Life in Middlemarch" has been the most satisfying and fulfilling for me. Part of the reason, for sure, is that Ms. Mead has helped me overcome some of the sins of my youth.

Mead has read George Eliot's Middlemarch (Penguin Classics) four times. The first reading was at age 17. I STILL have not read any work of George Eliot. When I was 15 or 16, I barely escaped being forced to read Silas Marner and Two Short Stories (Barnes & Noble Classics), which the literary scholars in my high school class had universally proclaimed to be the most boring book ever. It was even set in the 19th century, and what could we learn from that? Fortunately we were given the choice of reading the more "hip" The Catcher in the Rye I must have been in my 30's before I discovered that "George" was a woman.
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