I was walking around Washington, D.C., my hometown and the city where I lived for 34 years, while reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. I imagined all the selves I had been while walking on a few blocks full of my own, my family’s and my country’s history. There were the National Archives, where my ex-husband works, the high school where my 90-year-old grandmother (and native Washingtonian) had graduated back in 1942, the Martin Luther King, Jr. library where I received my first DC library card and first met that ex-husband 15 years ago. I walked by the department store where my grandfather used to take me for breakfast with Santa. The old venue the 930 Club, where I saw so many bands all through my teens and 20’s, was now, sadly, a J. Crew. I went to the lovely café at the National Gallery to meet my fiancé for lunch. Later we met at the bar at the Mayflower, where I’d gone for lunch with my divorce lawyer years ago. We walked over to dinner in a restaurant in the lobby of the building where I worked for much of my 30’s. So many selves am I, so many different lives I’ve led. I am that six year-old from Santa’s lap; I am that 16 year-old taking in Modern English; I am that 30 year-old on a date; I am 45 now. We spend so much time considering our past, yet we tend to imagine ourselves being the same when we consider the future, not envisioning how much we will change. A lifetime of reading fiction has taught me to think of my own evolution, so, I imagine myself at 50, 60, 75, 90, when I’m as old as my grandma is now, here in our mutual hometown.
Some of us are anchored to our past and present and supposed future selves as much by fictional universes as by the actual people, places and experiences that formed us. In My Life in Middlemarch, Rebecca Mead’s hybrid memoir (a biblio-memoir), Mead takes us through her lifetime of reading Middlemarch at five-year intervals. She examines not just what it is to be a reader, but what it is to lead a life informed by reading. Pivotal novels make something happen in us that stays with us, changing us forever. We can’t always say what those novels teach us or what they are “about,” but we can understand that we wouldn’t be who we are without them. For Mead, that novel is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. In her memoir, Mead explores her lifelong history of reading and re-reading the novel and the various selves she has brought to the reading and exploration of it. As Mead considers how the novel shaped her, who she was at each reading, how her reading changed because of what was going on in her life, what has transpired since her last reading and how her own life had been shaped by the reading itself. So it is with a favorite work of fiction: when we revisit it, we have the opportunity to consider our past selves – who we were when we read this book before and before and before – as well as who we are now and who we might become.
I think of who I have become because of the book most seminal in my own life—John Irving’s The World According to Garp. Who would I be if I hadn’t read it at 15 and re-read it a handful of more times by the time I was 25 and then another handful more over the last 20 years? I consider the different selves I’ve been at different readings and the different object lessons and life lenses with which the book has provided me. The juxtaposition of absurdity and beauty. The imperative to use my voice. The necessity of both providing and seeking forgiveness. That containing a lingering sense of tragedy and persistent foreboding does not preclude one from being happy; That “disabilities” – a word both wretched and inadequate — were interesting and of course worth noting and not at all grotesque but instead lovely and glorious. That feminism was rich and right and sometimes cut off its nose to spite its face. Or, in the case of Garp, its tongue. Who would I have become without Garp to shape me? What would I have missed in this life?
Rebecca Mead asks herself similar questions in her memoir. As a teen in England, through her formative adult years in New York, journey into marriage, becoming a stepmother and then a mother, and now growing wiser and more seasoned, she revisits Eliot’s world. Mead shows us again and again that we are all our past and present selves when we read a book, and the next time we re-visit it, we will be all those selves and the new self this reading has helped create.
Mead tells of her first reading of Middlemarch:
I couldn’t believe how good it was. And I couldn’t believe how relevant and urgent it felt. At seventeen I was old enough to have fallen in love, and I had intellectual and professional ambitions, just like Eliot’s characters…The questions with which George Eliot showed her characters wrestling would all be mine eventually. How is wisdom to be attained? What are the satisfactions of personal ambition, and how might they be weighed against ties and duties to others? What does a good marriage consist of, and what makes a bad one? What do the young owe to the old, and vice versa? What is the proper foundation of morality?
She echoes these early questions repeatedly through re-readings. Mead lays out her own interior life for us in light of her reading, and it is a rigorous interrogation of some of life’s most fundamental questions. Eliot teases out her characters’ inner workings with great acuity, and those characters held up next to Mead’s willingness to show us her own personal development are a potent part of what makes Mead’s biblio-memoir so compelling. Rather than any similarities between the plot of Middlemarch and Mead or Eliot’s life or between Mead’s life and Eliot’s life, it is the grappling with interiors that make both Middlemarch and My Life in Middlemarch resonant works.
One note about Mead’s memoir that merits particular focus is the continual, often subtle, exploration of joy. Mead holds up close the joy of re-reading a beloved text, the joyous themes that Eliot explores, the joy Mead finds in her own life. It is delightful that a writer as thorough and serious as Mead draws attention to so many types of joy, including the “larger vista, a landscape changed by books, reshaped by reading” that might be the ultimate joy that comes from reading. That’s what My Life in Middlemarch offers: a landscape changed, a powerful joy.