Yesterday I mentioned Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Joshua Ferris’ The Unnamed as examples of novels which are the kind of book I want to read. Not entertainment, and definitely not escapism. In fact, these two are the opposite, coming as close to life as it gets. Are they great books? I’m very alive while reading them, and that feels great! If the hairs stand up on the back your neck, said Les Murray, that’s poetry. That’s a sort of definition.
People often ask me about what we mean by ‘great books’ at The Reader. ‘Great’ is a relative and malleable word. Great as they may be, no books can easily be pressed on people who don’t want to read them (hence the sad state of our national literary education). So is it a canon? If so, it’s a very elastic one, decided week by week by whoever has the leadership of each group.
Our work is about passing on our love of literature, and trying to demonstrate that pwerful literature about real life is compelling and opens new areas of self (and good fun, too, a lot of the time – there’s plenty of laughing in Shared Reading). It’s not so easy to create such meaning with books that are mainly there for entertainment or escapism – no offence to them, but most murders, romances, spies, thrillers, shopping or porn stories have a different purpose. They might be ‘well written’ but it is not about ‘well written’ in the end. It’s not about technique, or ‘achingly beautiful prose’ (a phrase which makes me put down a book immediately), it’s about opening up the actual experience of human beings. If that’s happening, it might be a good book for a Shared Reading group.
We use the word ‘great’ to raise a flag for trying hard stuff. A walk in the local park is good, and beyond that, hillwalking is terrific but a trip to Everest is a completely different thing. Yet a walk in the park will be a hard task for someone who hasn’t been out in years. And walking in the Dales might be a doddle to someone who does it every weekend. Is Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 a great book? Is War and Peace ? Is E.H. Young’s Miss Mole? What about Hamlet? Are they the same kind of ‘great’ ? No! They are all good in different ways.
I grew up with adults who were looking away. Alcohol put up reality crash barriers and felt good. Pub not sorrow. Pub a laugh! Pub not bills, not money worries. Pub borrow a few bob! Pub not dull by yourselfness. Pub jokes and laughing. Sing songs! Pub paarrty ! Or drink at home! Off licence, miniature whisky if broke. Cans of lager. Smoke dope, smoke, smoke, smoke.
This led to death, as all life does, but what I saw was that pub joy ran out while life itself ran on to the bitter end. I wanted to learn how to live differently. So the underlying flavour of my reading got serious. I’ve written about my book-turning-point, Doris Lessing’s Shikasta, elsewhere. After that came the novels of George Eliot, through my third-year university reading with Brian Nellist.
Daniel Deronda clarified things for me. I was in my mid-twenties and at a stage where decisions about the kind of person I wanted to be, the kind of life I wanted to live were more or less consciously pressing on me. I saw my self and my own existential problems in Gwendolen Harleth and in Daniel Deronda. They are very different people, but there I was in both of them…it’s a book about choices and purpose in life.
When I first read the book my mother was in her late forties and it was clear her life was coming to an end. It was a long frightening time, that approach to death. Daniel Deronda shone light on lots of things I hadn’t known how to look at, think about. The predicament of Gwendolen Harleth, forced to learn by the uncontrollable consequences of her own behaviour, terrified me into thinking seriously about the way in which I made choices.
I grew to love George Eliot and read everything she’d written, including, while I was writing my Ph.D. the nine volumes of her Complete Letters. This was (and still is) like having a parent who teaches you stuff. George Eliot helped me to grow up.
She can be hard to read – she has a rhythm that is long-sentenced and she uses complex syntax to work out complex things about human experience. Some people find the tone ponderous. I don’t. For me it is like spending time with a very clever person who knows a lot more than me. I have to keep saying, ‘Say that again!’ and I don’t understand it all, but I love being with her because I learn things.
Here’s Gwendolen (still a very young woman) at the end of the book, realising the man she loves has a bigger purpose in life than looking after her. You can’t read this stuff fast. Read it like a poem, slow and aloud.
That was the sort of crisis which was at this moment beginning in Gwendolen’s small life: she was for the first time feeling the pressure of a vast mysterious movement, for the first time being dislodged from her supremacy in her own world, and getting a sense that her horizon was but a dipping onward of an existence with which her own was revolving. All the troubles of her wifehood and widowhood had still left her with the implicit impression which had accompanied her from childhood, that whatever surrounded her was somehow specially for her, and it was because of this that no personal jealousy had been roused in her relation to Deronda: she could not spontaneously think of him as rightfully belonging to others more than to her. But here had come a shock which went deeper than personal jealousy—something spiritual and vaguely tremendous that thrust her away, and yet quelled all her anger into self-humiliation.
I wouldnt start (as I did) in the deep end with Daniel Deronda. I’d start with Silas Marner. If you read it at school and hated it (so many people did!) please give it another go. Perhaps I’ll have a look at it tomorrow.