Since 1989, I’ve been promising myself I’d return to Middlemarch (George Eliot; 1871). Thirty-two years later, nearly to the month, I’ve (finally) kept my word: Members of the reading group that attempted to penetrate the mysteries of The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky; 1880) earlier this year are now working their way through Eliot’s wise novel. Although one of our core principles is to avoid secondary sources, I must confess to (quietly) enjoying the companionship of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014), as well as the most recent episodes of The Readers Karamazov podcast.
Book One, Chapter 1
Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.
Book One, Chapter 6
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!” Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts — not hurt others.
Book Two, Chapter 16
This was one of the difficulties of moving in good Middlemarch society: it was dangerous to insist on knowledge as a qualification for any salaried office.
Book Four, Chapter 42
Here was a man who now for the first time found himself looking into the eyes of death — who was passing through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we called knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue. When the commonplace “We must all die“ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness “I must die — and soon,” then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first. […] In such an hour the mind does not change its lifelong bias, but carries it onward in imagination to the other side of death, gazing backward — perhaps with the divine calm of beneficence, perhaps with the petty anxieties of self assertion.
Other books I’m reading are listed in the sidebar.
As we head into August, I realize that I’ve read 128 books so far this year (eighteen since my last annotated list), but I still need to sort through the list to see which of my annual goals / reading challenges remain unmet. Note that in this annotated list, I’ve moved away from presenting the books in the order in which I read them, opting instead to cluster related titles.
■ As You Like It (William Shakespeare; 1599. Drama.)
■ Hamlet (William Shakespeare; 1601. Drama.)
By my count, thirteen works remain in my quest to reread all of Shakespeare’s plays this year.
Act I, Scene V
O day and night but this is wondrous strange!
And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy….
■ Hamnet (Maggie O’Farrell; 2020. Fiction.)
■ The Dead Fathers Club (Matt Haig; 2006. Fiction.)
I appreciated both of these books, the former less than most readers, though, and the latter (commonplace book passage follows), more.
Its like how in War soldiers are told to kill other men and then they are Heroes but if they killed the same men when they were not in War they are Murderers. But they are still killing the same men who have the same dreams and who chew the same food and hum the same songs when they are happy but if it is called War it is all right because that is the rules of War.
■ How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education (Scott Newstok; 2020. Non-fiction.)
What a delight to read John Warner’s recommendation of this and Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (which I read earlier this year).
[W]e claim to know thinking when we see it, despite the difficulty of definition. And if we believe cultivating it is a good thing, then we are often perverse. We’ve imposed educational programs that kill the capacity to think independently, or even the desire to do so. While we point to thinkers — Leonardo, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Curie — who modeled the disciplined, independent, questing intellect we claim to revere, we reinforce systems ensuring that our own young people could never emulate them.
■ Hawking (Ottaviani and Myrick; 2019. Graphic non-fiction.)
■ The Trojan Women (Euripides): A Comic (Anne Carson; 2021. Graphic fiction.)
■ Family Tree, Vol. 3: Forest (Jeff Lemire; 2021. Graphic fiction.)
Feynman (Ottaviani and Myrick; 2011) was a stronger work, but Hawking certainly engaged me, as did the offbeat graphic interpretation of The Trojan Women. The conclusion to Family Tree, however, was a disappointing jumble.
■ Trojan Women (Euripides (trans. E. P. Coleridge); 415 B.C. Drama.)
After reading Carson’s graphic adaptation, I turned to the play itself. Once again, Harvard’s Reading Greek Tragedy Online was a fabulous companion. (Related episode here.)
■ Home Fire (Kamila Shamsie; 2017. Fiction.)
She felt, as she did most mornings, the deep pleasure of daily life distilled to the essentials: books, walks, spaces in which to think and work.
■ Antigone (Sophocles (trans. Don Taylor); 441 B.C. Drama.)
Partway through Shamsie’s gorgeous retelling of Antigone, I decided to reread Sophocles’ play and watch the 2012 production on National Theatre at Home, the latter of which is first-rate.
■ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (J.K. Rowling; 2001. Fiction.)
■ Fox 8 (George Saunders; 2015. Fiction.)
If George Saunders wrote it, I want to read it.
■ Bury Your Dead (Louise Penny; 2010. Fiction.)
Penny’s sixth Gamache novel kept me company on the most recent long drive to see my daughters. (Ralph Cosham is the perfect narrator for these mysteries.) I finally had an opportunity to finish reading it mid-month.
■ The Hummingbirds’ Gift: Wonder, Beauty, and Renewal on Wings (Sy Montgomery; 2021. Non-fiction.)
This seemed rather slight, which made sense when I realized it is a repackage of a chapter from Montgomery’s longer book, Birdology (2010).
■ Postcard Poems (Jeanne Griggs; 2021. Poetry.)
See this entry.
■ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (Sam Quinones; 2015. Non-fiction.)
In 2019, I read Beth Macy’s Dopesick (2018), which put Dreamland on my readerly radar. Both will inform my upcoming appointment with the tome that is Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty (Patrick Radden Keefe; 2021).
■ Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called “Alien” (Jeremy N. Smith; 2019. Non-fiction.)
What a quick and engaging, if imperfect, read. More information here.
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