on August 23, 2006
Every so often a book appears with a fresh approach to familiar classics
which reinvigorates our belief in the importance of literature to the
experience of culture. Edward Mendelson is a Professor of English and
Comparative Literature at Columbia University. As the subtitle declares,
The Things That Matter revisits seven novels with an aim of exploring a
central theme from each that can tell us something about how to
interpret emotional challenges that beset us in the course of our
lifetime. Frankenstein is offered as an examination of birth, Wuthering
Heights of childhood, Jane Eyre for growth, Middlemarch for marriage,
Mrs. Dalloway for love, To the Lighthouse for parenthood, and Between
the Acts for the future. Mendelson's premise is flexible enough to avoid
heavy-handed exegesis; what he has given us is a literary roadmap into
moral and emotional conundrums that the authors of these books have
confronted through story and character.
The selection spans two centuries and the authors are women. Three of
the books were written by Virginia Woolf. Mendelson believes that women
"had a greater motivation to defend the values of personal life against
the generalizing effect of stereotypes..." He makes a good point:
certainly the authors of these books took great pains to examine the
emotional life and its influence on actions and choices.
One gets from his book a keen sense of Mendelson's reverence for the
individual experience, whether as a reader, a writer, an artist, or
merely a soul confronting contradictions; and he seems to be saying that
the best literature offers visions in lieu of answers, and that the
visions given here have something of emotional truth derived from what
women know especially.
Authors exist in a relationship to their characters that creates a
second dynamic to the narrative. "The novels that I write about in this
book all emerged from their authors' arguments with themselves." From
this can be inferred arguments that authors have with their characters,
disapproving of their behavior even as they create situations that allow
it, and with their readers, for whom the story is told. It is precisely
the interpersonal aspects of literature and the visions that emerge from
speculation that excite Professor Mendelson, and he has given new light
to familiar books in this thoughtfully insightful meditation.
on February 9, 2007
I just read "The Things That Matter," having seen it on my library's shelf and picked it up out of curiosity. I loved this book not only for its content but for the timing with which it showed up for me to read. My brilliant-at-math-and-science-stuff child was having a challenge with English Lit class; this book has given me a way to relate to them the value of novels to real life stuff, especially thinking about how "universal ideas" in life play out in personal actual life.
I found Mendelson's critical reviews of "What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life" timely and well written. I highlight below several points that struck me.
. I have never, never, NEver realized the intricate complexities of "Frankenstein" til I read Mendelson's analysis. I had heard that the authoress (Mary Shelley) was brilliant and accomplished and connected in her time, but to be honest all I could image in my mind prior to this book was the film treatments of a) Boris Karloff, and b) Mel Brooks. Suffice it to say I have a whole new appreciation of the rich ideas and paradoxes Shelley wove into her story!
. Mendelson does a fine job of weaving seven stories into seven Stages of Life (Birth, Childhood, Growth, Marraige, Love, Parenthood, The Future). Never mind the excellence of each chapter's analyses; the crafting of the whole book, and its demonstration by example of its meta-theme that "things that matter are written about in great literature," excite my professional admiration for a job of craftsmenship and talent well done.
. Further exciting my admiration are several points mentioned in the preface and in the essays as Mendelson distinguishes "universal ideas" that these authoresses (Mary Shelley, Emile Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf) present in their narratives:
1) He chose all woman authors because "it has nothing to do with any fantasy that women have greater moral and emotional intelligence" but rather "a woman writer [in the 19th and 20th centuries] had a greater motivation to defend the values of personal life against the generalizing effect of stereotypes." This is still an issue today for ALL of us, I think, whatever our personal circumstances or lifestyle choices.
2) That opposite life principles may be equally true, that what is publically espoused may be privately doubted. Or said colloquially, "The opposite of a Great Truth may be in itself a Great Truth." Examples include, in "Frankenstein," the espoused principle that a good upbringing of a child will result in a good character of an adult. But: "The opposite may also be true."
To read Mendelson's "take" about these works and their authors has made me feel more acquainted with seven "tastes of greatness!"
I echo Tom Casey's review below. I read some of these novels thirty years ago, and started re-reading them two years ago. What perfect timing, then, for Edward Mendelson's very interesting approach on these novels. On the surface this book does not appear to be the typical academic work it is, but each chapter on its own could have been a doctoral thesis. To tie these seven novels into passages of life is quite remarkable. In addition, footnotes, though infrequent, shed light on very important issues of the times that are easily overlooked. To enjoy this book one should have a fairly good knowledge of the novels. But you can read the essays in any order that you want; each essay stands alone. Highly, highly recommended.
on January 31, 2008
"This book is about life as it is interpreted by books. Each of the chapters has a double subject: on the one hand, an English novel written in the nineteenth or twentieth century, and on the other, one of the great experiences or stages that occur, or can occur, in more or less everyone's life." These opening lines of Edward Mendelson's work of literary criticism - The Things That Matter - encapsulate his intent. A study of seven classical novels by Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Mendelson's essays present his thesis that novels provide insight into specific stages of life and, these novels, when viewed collectively present a "history of the emotional and moral life of the past two centuries."
Mendelson has aimed his work at readers of any age, the only prerequisite being knowledge of the seven novels. He writes in a conversational manner, as if lecturing directly to the reader. Theories and supporting arguments are presented within the text, footnotes included only when critical. Woven throughout is information about the prevailing theories and literary themes of the period.
In the section on Wuthering Height_s Mendelson explores Brontë's idea of romantic childhood, tracing its roots to the romanticism of Wordsworth and Freud. His _Wuthering Heights is a very different one than the one commonly studied in high school. Heathcliff and Catherine are desperate to recapture the total unity experienced as children, to merge two selves into one. Whereas the commonly held perception is of a novel of thwarted passion and cruelty, Mendelson believes Brontë deliberately led readers to this conclusion and away from her true meaning. "She disguised Wuthering Heights as a story of doomed sexual passion perhaps because she regarded her potential readers with something close to contempt...they could not understand what this book tells them."
Each of the authors is examined with the same focus, each essay meriting its own review. Mendelson states that he "could easily imagine a similar book to this one made up of entirely different examples."
I'll keep my fingers crossed that inspiration strikes and Mendelson shares more of his thoughts on life and literature.
Armchair Interviews agrees.
In case you ever thought less of women writers than their male counterparts look no farther than Mendelson's review of seven classics all written by women who wrote what matters in life with vivid, vibrant language.
Starting with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein that is the result of an inspirational motto by Mary Wollstonecraft: "A great proportion of the misery that wanders, in hideous forms, around the world, is allowed to rise from the negligence of parents," to early attachments in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, to early disattachment by Charlotte Bronte, to the humdrum beats of ordinary life in Middlemarch by George Eliot, to the realization of life's illusions in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, to a rebellion in To the Lighthouse, also by Virginia Woolf, and finally to the disillusionment met in Between the Acts, yet again by Woolf.
Great books as can only be understood best by this book.
on June 29, 2008
"This book is about life as it is interpreted by books."
So begins the introduction of Edward Mendelson's The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life. As a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, Mendelson has read and discussed many novels. What interests me more than his being well-read, though, is his approach to reading novels.
Novels, of course, present a world full of life and characters of their own and should be read to understand that world and those characters. Mendelson takes a view like my own, however: that novels are not meant to be read in vacuo. "A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding."
When I began to read novels in earnest I was a bit late to the game; most of my unassigned reading while I was growing up was taken from the topics of the sciences and computers. Before I had entered my twenties I had achieved unusual proficiency in those areas, even for a specialist, but I was embarrassed by my ignorance of literature. Of course I had read the usual works covered in the public school system but no one had managed to impress upon me the value of novels. Consequently, it would be more correct to say that I skimmed the usual novels and I could regurgitate various facts about The Scarlet Letter, Lord of the Flies, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but they didn't mean much to me at the time. So instead I read The C Programming Language, TCP/IP Illustrated, and UNIX Programmers Reference. Even much of the history that I managed to read was for a rather specific topic, as was the case with The Codebreakers.
Rather than attempt to go through life hiding my ignorance of literature and constantly fearing its exposure, I decided to solve the real problem by actually reading novels and attempting to understand them. I started with some that I remembered enjoying in high school, such as Alas, Babylon. I then returned to The Scarlet Letter and branched out to things that I should have read but had managed to avoid and in the process discovered the likes of Jane Austen. Though my love of books was always present, it was in returning to the novel that my love of reading grew.
In The Things That Matter, Mendelson takes us on a tour of the stages of life, discussing each in turn as it is considered in one of the seven novels featured.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë (1847)
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (1847)
Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871-72)
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (1927)
Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf (1941)
In Mendelson's capable hands, each of these novels is able to take on particular meaning. Not only are the events of the author and the historical context considered, as might be true in any literary criticism, but each is tied back to the stage of life that is the focus and what it means. In discussing meaning, Mendelson does not arrogantly push a pet theory on the reader. "Theories belong to science," he writes, "which relies on repeatable results that can be tested by experiment or refuted by fact..." Reading a novel is a personal experience and writing about novels is from an individual perspective.
Readers are invited explicitly to join in the dialogue, judging what is written for themselves, and considering meaning for themselves. Disagreement with the writer is the reader's prerogative. I love how Mendelson treats the situation. "I hope our disagreements, when they occur, can provide the comforts of both heat and light."
I enjoyed The Things That Matter thoroughly, as I'm sure will any reader who thinks of novels as worthy of reflection and consideration beyond what they mean to the author.
on June 1, 2010
I had great hopes for this book but finished somewhat disappointed. I'd have preferred that the seven classic novels be by seven separate writers. Instead, Mendelson chose three by Virginia Woolf. Woolf is a very fine writer but her over-representation skews the book. Rather than have Woolf represent "Parenthood," why not Austen's Pride and Prejudice, with a fresh reading on Mrs. Bennett's mania for her daughters' marriages?
on May 28, 2014
Consistently intellligent, informed, insightful.
Brings enormous erudition to bear on a commentary that is useful to all readers, book club readers and graduate students in literature
on January 5, 2007
My daughter, who received this from me, says it is a terrific book with amazing insights into books we've read in the past and couldn't analyze the way this author does so well. She says the one on Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" is especially revealing.