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Getting lost and finding yourself in books

In the current issue of Commonweal you'll find my review of Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, which I recommend highly, especially but not only to fans of the George Eliot novel. Mead writes perceptively about Middlemarch and Eliot, but also about reading and literature in general. Here's a passage that I especially admired:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself.

As I wrote in my review, I share Mead's strong attachment to Middlemarch, and to Eliot in general. But I have also been "grasped and held" by books in a more fleeting way -- I think anyone who identifies as "a reader" would recognize what Mead is describing here, how a book, in the time before you finish it, can add dimension to your life even when you're doing other things. It takes me longer to get through a novel these days, with little children and very little time to read for pleasure. (Not counting reading with the kids, of course, which can be very pleasurable -- but they're still too little for anything that can't be finished in a sitting.) Thank goodness I have my commute a few times a week, because I realized at some point that I missed the sense of urgency and excitement that having a novel-in-progress brought to my life. A couple years ago I got a small pile of books for my birthday, as I often do. But I knew that I might not read them -- and that they would join the books I'd gotten the previous year, collecting dust on the shelf. So I made a resolution. Reading makes me happy, and not-reading makes me unhappy. So I would make a point of using at least some of my limited reading time to read books, and especially fiction -- instead of just the usual work-related stuff, and magazine articles, and Tweets and blog posts. I can easily fill up a train ride with that stuff, and sometimes I need to, but carving out just a little time to get lost in a novel has been a great mood-enhancer.

My choices have been varied, some favorite authors and some I've always wanted to read; some I've "found myself" in and some I've happily gotten lost in. Muriel Spark, Carson McCullers, Marilynne Robinson, Somerset Maugham, Alice McDermott, Valerie Sayers, Flannery O'Connor, probably others I'm forgetting. I have more lined up as soon as I'm finished with Middlemarch, which of course I'm reading again. (And there's a chance that may lead me to reread more George Eliot, but that wouldn't be so terrible.) One exception I happily made to my reading-fiction plan was The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure, which I mentioned in a blog post a couple months back, and with which I followed up my weeks of reading the Little House books. McClure writes about her fascination with the fiction and reality of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and like Mead's book, hers is an insightful and entertaining look at how a particular work of fiction can grasp and hold and shape a reader.

So, readers, now that your summer is well underway: what are you "working on"? What books are giving your life extra energy and excitement? And: is there a particular book or author that has a Middlemarch effect on you -- something you found yourself in; something you keep returning to?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an associate editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Since reading about Mead's book--it's on my list though I won't have time for it before fall--I've thought a lot about why some of us will go without food for an entire day (or even call in sick once in a blue moon) in order to lie in bed to finish a book. There certainly is an element of escapism in it for me. But it also seems that reading fiction is as close as we can get to actually being someone else, and seeing the world from someone else's point of view. 

I have friends who very pointedly tell me they don't "bother" with fiction anymore (such Casaubons!), as if I should grow up and start reading theology and political theory. However, the Guardian reports that people who read fiction have greater empathy for others:

And as for trying to read when you have children, having your children see you read--and even telling, after age 4 or 5, to go away because you're reading--fosters an interest in books as much as reading to them.


There are some books I do read over and over every few years because there's something in them that continues to affect me somehow ... The Inkheart trilogy (Funke), Rebecca (du Maurier), The Lost World (Crichton), Seabiscuit (Hillenbrand), The Relic (Preston & Child), Passage (Willis).

Molly, I noted that Lynne Cheney mentioned Middlemarch in her New York Times Book Review interview in which -- like Hillary Clinton, whom you noted  a couple of weeks ago -- she resisted naming one author or one title and insisted on a range in all her answers. Cheney didn't mention Rebecca Mead, though.

I usually re-read a Dickens each summer, but last year I did War and Peace again instead, and I was astonished at how much better (and more readable) it became in 50 years. At my age I have time for, and find I enjoy more, long works of fiction. And I no longer have to wait for summer for them.

Tom, that's interesting re "War and Peace." I didn't think I was old enough to read "The Golden Bowl" until I was 55, despite being a Henry James fan. I listened to it on audio, and absolutely loved it. I guess "Portrait of a Lady" is one of those books I return to. I also read two Jane Austen novels every year, so I complete the canon every three years. Also have to say that "The Once and Future King" and "Jane Eyre" are books I've been re-reading since I was 10 or 12. Ditto "In This House of Brede."

Well, I read Middlemarch for the first time this year and loved it.  Because of an earlier Commonweal thread, I picked up Absalom, Absalom and read it for the second time after thirty five years.  The stream of consciousness and ornate language didn't bother me.  Some people think Faulkner is just showing off (Paul Goodman said that Faulkner & Joyce were just showing how smart they were).  Well, they were smart!  And I think their use of the language is dazzling.  My only problem with Absalom, Absalom is that I think Faulkner loses control of the story at the end where he attempts to make some sense of all the dysfunction, cruelty and sin that have been conveyed by multiple narrators and interpreters. 

I'm also reading The Inferno for the third time (in the bowels of Canto XXX).  I recently finished The Unbroken Heart by John Speaight that was published in 1939.  I strongly recommend this wonderful Catholic novel (if you can find it). Speaight played Beckett in the first production of T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.  I also just read John O'Hara's Butterfield 8.  Some think O'Hara is a minor writer or even a hack.  I think he is very gifted and those of you who are New Yorkers will enjoy his depiction of NYC during the time of the Depression and Prohibition.  If this somewhat salacious novel is not to your liking, try Appointment in Samarra which is O'Hara's best.  One interesting aspect of Samarra is that accurately predicted the demise of the Protestant establishment in America.  


I am presently reading "Written In My Heart's Own Blood", the 8th book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.  It would fall under the category of guilty pleasure summer reading. I have been hooked ever since the first one, which is titled "Outlander". 

Just finished a bit more serious work, which is non-fiction; "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo. It takes place in a Annawadi, a squatters' shantytown near the Mumbai airport. It is at once heartbreaking, horrifying, hopeful, and inspiring. One of the biggest puzzles of this book is the author.  She is present as the story takes place; one might call her embedded.  But she doesn't know the language, and works with an interpreter.  From the picture on the jacket, she is fair skinned and blonde, and would stick out like a sore thumb in this location.  But apparently she has won the trust and tolerance of the local people, she and her interpeter become like mice in the corner, taking everything in; yet not part of the story themselves.

Among the books I have read many times over are "Wuthering Heights", and anything by Elizabeth Goudge.




The Hare with the Amber Eyes which is about the Ephrussi family and its rise on the Ringstrasse in Vienna and in Paris in the late 19th century and its economic destruction in the Hitler peiod. The title comes form the device of the story which is to follow the acquisition and posssion within the family of a miniature Japanese sculpture, a netsuke, a hare with amber eyes.  It is written with irony, equanimity, and perception of art, a bit of family nostalgia.  After that a second, for me, companion piece has been German Churches and the Holocaust, a book of articles edited by R.P. Ericksen and S. Heschel.

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