Learning how to read a book: Silas Marner by George Eliot

Dear Reader:

I’ve been seeing George Eliot’s Middlemarch on lots of lists of best books ever and must read book lists, sometimes at the very top.  So, I decided that I wanted to read it.  I had a public domain version on my kindle, but one of the things that you miss with this is a preface and, especially, a modern preface.

I learned that Oxford Press and Penguin Books make some classics available on a kindle (or other ereader) for very cheap – the Penguin Middlemarch is just US $0.99 and Oxford Press World Classics one was just US $1.99 (but it seems to have gone up to $7.16 now).  One of the things that worries me about always getting the Project Gutenberg or other free version of public domain books is that it may create a disincentive for presses like Oxford and Penguin to continue to make low cost paper versions available.  So, especially since their versions were so inexpensive and because I felt that the prefaces alone would be valuable to me, I chose to buy both (and I made a new rule, copies of a book I already own don’t count toward my limit of acquiring 20 new books this year!).

While I was reading one of the prefaces (the Oxford one with a preface by Felicia Bonaparte – hmmmm, interesting name, having just learned that Monica Dickens is indeed related – a writer and granddaughter of, I wonder…), I read that she recommended that people new to George Eliot (which includes me, fairly new at least) should start with Silas Marner, next read Mill on the Floss, and then read Middlemarch.  I like a project and regular readers of this blog know that I find reading a number of books by the same author (along with biographies and other related books) enriches the experience, so I chose to follow her advice.

But the thing was, I’d read Silas Marner, in high school English class, I think.  And while I loved lots of the books I read there, I remembered Silas Marner as somewhat dreary.  And I’d seen the film (a made for tv version with Ben Kingsley) Silas Marner.  So, I felt I already knew the story and wasn’t exactly excited about the book.

But, I put it on my list anyway, at #139.  And I started to read it.  At the same time, I was reading the first few chapters of #140) Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind about how and what to read to gain the essence of a classical education (which I got a good chunk of at my first university which specialized in exposing students to “the Great Books” but I specialized in boys and late nights at the time, and so managed to avoid absorbing much of this classical education save for a taste for it).

Bauer lays out a very structured approach to reading with lots of rules: 1) make a character list, 2) write down the author, year, and title at the top of your notes about the book, 3) write down the title of each chapter and summarize it in 1-2 sentences, 4) do lots of notes in the margins and dog ear your copy, 5) read very intentionally, think about what the author is trying to tell you, ask questions of the text and so on.  So, I started doing this with Silas Marner.

And I really liked the experience of trying to follow these rules.  Too often, I get focused on sucking up a book to quickly read the plot and add another book to my “read” list.  I frequently don’t remember what I read or much about the content (hence this blog, one of my goals is to help myself read more intentionally and create a record of what I’ve read and what I thought about it).

I made a character list.  And I noted the name and gist of each chapter.  And I spent more time “interrogating” the text, thinking about Eliot’s choices and points.  This really enriched my reading of the book.  And I found myself savoring each chapter more fully and very much enjoying the book.  It really shifted my approach.

As a scientist and researcher (my day job), one of the things I miss is being a student and getting to write research papers which allowed me to spend lots of time in the library absorbing a literature, taking lots of notes, and synthesizing what I learned.  Following Buaer’s approach put me more in “researcher” mode and I liked it.  Now I wouldn’t necessarily take this approach for a light mystery, but for all these wonderful classics that I’m eager to work my way through and really engage, it works beautifully.

If you have not read Silas Marner, it is the story of Silas, a single man who was thrown out of a religious group, unfairly accused of stealing money from it.  His best friend set him up.  He lost his identify, his fiance, his friend, and his “family.”  As a result, he moved to a new community where he lived in a remote cabin, made his living weaving, became a near-hermit, and refocused his efforts on saving money.

And he LOVED his money: every night he would pull it out and count it, mooning over it like it was a woman.  When his money is stolen, he is again devastated.  But early on, in the course of bringing the community’s attention to the theft and getting their help with investigating it, he begins to build satisfying connections to people.  And soon after, Eppie, the two year old daughter of a drug addict who dies in the snow outside his home, wanders into his house and he adopts her.  Eppie and Silas fall deeply in love and she becomes the center of his life.  His life also comes to include far more people and he is much happier (hmmm, shades of Gretchen Rubin from my last post!).

I very much enjoyed this book.  It’s point was clear: Eliot is saying that it is human connection that makes our lives rich.  That, despite the evil that some people can do, we must trust others in order to create the relationships that make life worth living.  Silas has been devastated twice, but he makes great effort to rebuild his life in order to create a good life for Eppie and he is repaid richly.  Of course, Eliot is a consummate story teller and she peoples the community with a cast of characters with flaws, talents, and goodness that make it seem like a real town.  Her deft plot draws you along wanting to see where the story will lead, even if you basically know where things are going.  Eliot’s sensibilities are very modern (although you can follow the link below to a short piece discussing whether she was a bigot).

George Eliot (source: LA Times, Zionism, anti-Semitism, Richard Wagner and … George Eliot? by Culture Monster.)

And this is one of the things I’ve noticed as I read more and more 19th Century classics – whether it is Zola or Turgenev or Eliot or Trollope or Dickens – is this was the era when the ability to tell a good story was essential to authorial success.  Perhaps this seems obvious, but I think we live in a time where the literary establishment favors more experimental approaches (like those translated and published by Open Letters Press) that don’t necessarily involve much of a plot and don’t keep you hanging on the edge of your seat turning pages.  That’s fine, but I’m not sure it is necessary.  How did the inability to tell a compelling story become required for serious literature?

Ah well, to each his own, but I’m glad to go on and read more Eliot and more of those other fantastic writers….

Happy Reading, Ruby!

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