It’s two months now since I decided to stop buying new books until my To Be Read collection got down to a manageable level. So far I’ve succumbed just the once. I even managed to walk into a book shop last weekend and out again without giving way, despite the many enticing offers on the table. I did pick up three books from the sales table in the local library and was on my way to the counter when the inner voice told me that actually none of them were that interesting. Back they went.
So the bookshelves are slowly getting slimmed down. What’s putting on weight is the list I keep of books to read in the future because of course, I might have stopped buying for a while, but authors haven’t given up writing and publishers haven’t sent their presses for a holiday just so I can catch up. It would help for sure if I didn’t read book reviews in the weekend newspaper arts sections or the newsfeeds from book blogs I follow or the publishers’ e-newsletters to which I subscribe. But then I’d feel I was really missing out wouldn’t I?
Off the scores of books I’ve added to my wish list in the last couple of weeks, the one I’m looking forward to most is The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot by Rebecca Mead.
Mead, a writer for the New Yorker, has read Middlemarch multiple times at different points in her life, each reading casting new light on the book that Virginia Woolf considered ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’. Reading it as an eighteen year old, Mead saw mostly the romance theme, empathising with the heroine Dorothea Brookes, and despising her husband Casaubon. Reading the novel later as an adult, she felt a greater sense of kinship and empathy for this “sad, proud, desiccated man'”. The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot mixes close readings of the text with Mead’s responses from her different readings with biographical insight about Eliot herself drawn from letters, diaries and notebooks.
Middlemarch is one of my three favourite novels of all time. It wasn’t always that way – in fact the first time I read it was as part of an undergraduate course and I just couldn’t wait to get to the end. Luckily a friend persuaded me a few years later to give it another go. The light bulb went on and has never gone off since that time. Just like Mead, the more times I read it, the more nuances and interpretations I discovered and the more clearly I saw how Eliot’s humanist and scientific ideologies were woven into the novel. If ever I was stuck on a desert island and had only one novel available, this would be the one.
I’m not sure how long I can hold out before adding Mead’s book to my shelves.
You open a book for the first time and read the first few sentences. You might be confronted with a ‘brick through the wall’ type of opening much favoured by writers of crime and adventure stories – the kind that plunges you straight into the action with barely a pause to work out what’s happening.
Other times you’ll be faced with one of those measured openings, the type that might not contain any great revelation or insight but intrigues you enough to want to read on. And as you do, the power of the language takes hold and you become suffused with the consciousness that you’re leaving the world you inhabit and being taken over the threshold into a newly imagined world.
That’s the feeling I get with the book I’m using to answer this month’s Classics Club question: What is your favourite opening sentence from a classic novel (and why)?
For me, just choosing one sentence from all the classics on my bookshelves, felt like an almost impossible task. That’s why it’s taken me almost a month to decide and even now, it’s a close run thing between two novels that are tremendous, though vastly different.
Runner up is George Eliot’s Middlemarch; the book that is my number one favourite and the novel that, were I ever to be stranded on some desert island with only one book available, I know could sustain repeated readings. Although it has an extensive Preface, the story proper begins with this sentence:
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
It’s a classical opening; simple and lucid yet there is a ironic hint about the character concealed beneath its stylishness. Reading further into the novel is to discover how Eliot continues to gently mock her heroine’s desire to vouchsafe everything that doesn’t fit her ardent desire to do good in the world. This is to be a story of misguided ambition and thwarted dreams.
But the novel I chose in the end is Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, the first of his Raj Quartet series set in an India in the dying days of British colonial rule. It opens:
Imagine then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of, standing where a lane ended and cultivation began: a different landscape but in the alluvial plain between the mountains of the north and the plateau of the south.
This is a sentence that grabs my attention because it’s so mysterious: Why is the girl running? Who is Miss Crane? What’s the significance of the Bibighar Gardens? And so elliptical – there’s a hint of a connection between the two women. Some experience they both had but there is no clue as to what this might be. It’s a paragraph that’s so replete with atmosphere, of darkness and of space.
What emerges on reading further is that the girl is white and running away from the Bibighar Gardens where she has been raped by four Indian men. She, like Miss Crane, had dared to cross the line between two cultures and paid the price; an event that has political repercussions in a country where relations between the ruling class and the native inhabitants is about to reach a turning point.
It’s a book that poses serious questions about racism and cultural divisions, about colonialism and self determination. A powerful novel that more than lives up to the promise of that opening line.
It’s a mega book blogging week in New York this week apparently – hundreds of bloggers, authors and publishers, are in the Big Apple for the second Armchair BEA event. Since I can’t join them in person I’ll participate from the comfort of my own armchair. The organisers have asked us to introduce ourselves with a self-interview so here goes…..
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I’m Karen and I live in Wales, UK. Much of my life is connected with words in one way or another. I was a journalist for many years, reporting on everything from murder to political scandal with a bit of sport thrown in even though I never really managed to understand the rules of cricket. Today, I work as a communications manager for a multinational company; helping managers to convey their vision to employees. In my leisure time I am in the finishing stages of gaining a second degree in English literature. I started blogging about reading because I kept forgetting what I had read or wanted to read. So this was one way of helping my memory. But I was also conscious that there were gaps in my reading, particularly some of the classics and those deemed as the best of their kind (prize winners like the Booker or the Pulitzer etc)
What are you currently reading, or what is your favorite book you have read so far in 2012?
I usually have more than one book on the go at any time. Right now I am reading Treasure Island (in preparation for my course on children’s literature) and A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor. She’s not an author I’ve come across before but there seem to be many bloggers highly recommending her so thought I would give her a go. As for my favourite book of 2012, so far it has to be the one I’ve just finished – The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell.
What literary location would you most like to visit? Why?
Until a year ago my answer would have been Wordsworth’s cottage near Grasmere Lake in the Lake District. But I achieved that ambition while on holiday nearby – and it was superb. The curators have been careful to keep the ambiance intact so you see the chair Wordsworth sat in to write and the terraced garden he and his sister created with its quiet nooks. A tiny place but full of atmosphere.
If you could eat dinner with any author or character, who would it be and why?
Now that’s a tough one – Jane Austen because hopefully her keen observation on human nature means her comments on fellow guests would keep me entertained ? Or maybe George Eliot so she could explain how she wove so many different ideas and concepts together in Middlemarch? I’ll be greedy and go for them both…
Have your reading tastes changed since you started blogging? How?
It’s a bit early on in my blogging adventure to notice any radical changes. But I’ve already been introduced to authors that I have not read previously so I expect that will continue. Maybe I might even get to like fantasy literature (hmm, that could be a stretch)