Middlemarch

There are certain books that strike a unique and often permanent chord with their readers. In Wilkie Collins’ absorbing mystery, “The Moonstone,” there is a butler named Betteredge who finds every bit of wisdom life requires of him in “Robinson Crusoe.” He says …

“You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday, she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again.” – from “The Moonstone”

Robinson Crusoe is a lovely book, but it has never moved and served me as it did Mr. Betteredge. I have, however, been known to turn to “Huckleberry Finn” from time to time for commonsensically delivered life lessons, particularly on issues of integrity, where the peerless Huck has more to teach us than any character in all of literature. In a moment of extreme duress, he manufactures this logic …

“I says to myself, I reckon a body that ups and tells the truth when he is in a tight place is taking considerable many resks, though I ain’t had no experience, and can’t say for certain; but it looks so to me, anyway; and yet here’s a case where I’m blest if it don’t look to me like the truth is better and actuly SAFER than a lie. I must lay it by in my mind, and think it over some time or other, it’s so kind of strange and unregular. I never see nothing like it.” – from “Huckleberry Finn”

Who could possibly argue with that? Having grown up not far from the Mississippi, Mark Twain’s style and substance are more directly relevant to my taste and experience.

My father, who passed away at age 94 in August of 2008, could have been a Mark Twain character. He was a delightfully humorous man, a storyteller par excellence who lived a quiet and peaceful life in rural Missouri, just a few short miles from the river that was the beating heart of Twain’s writing. Last Christmas I visited his grave in company with my oldest son and lamented the probability that in a generation or so, his marker would be just one stone of many in a country cemetery, and the beauty of his wisdom would no longer even be a memory. My son very appropriately cited the last sentence of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” It is this …

“for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” – from “Middlemarch”

This placed things in the proper perspective and inspired me to tackle this monstrous book that had so overwhelmed me when I was 18 years old. So … “Middlemarch” became my travel book for a vacation to the Dominican Republic. It is a book that requires the reader’s focus and full attention. Given the appropriate level of quiet and solitude, it is no longer a ponderously written 800 page Victorian novel … it is a “page turner” that captures the range of human frailty and delivers many a valuable lesson to the receptive reader. Although Charles Dickens was an equally perceptive observer of humanity, as a writer he was never George Eliot’s equal. George Eliot – Mary Ann Evans Cross – was without peer, certainly the greatest English writer of her generation.

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