Ed. Note: If it weren’t already obvious, I’m sort of throwing my original book order out the window. Most of this has to do with making sure that I’m prepared for the Interintellect discussion series, but part of it is also not wanting to stay in Ancient Greece for 10 months at a time. (I think my move has precedence, in that St. John’s College reading lists have variety each semester.)
One of the most rewarding parts of reading the Great Books has been to recognize the source of so many pop-culture references or tropes or other cultural touchpoints that show up in other works. Most fiction novels are written in the shadow of Don Quixote, The Simpsons covered the events of the Iliad and Odyssey, and Inferno is the cornerstone of most of our concepts of Hell. Reading the originals is delightful precisely because a lot of us are already somewhat familiar with the ideas the books contain; now, we just get to interface with the source material.
I came to George Elliot’s Middlemarch in much the same way. Steven Johnson (an author I admire, who wrote Where Good Ideas Come From) has a great 2018 book on decision-making, Farsighted. In it, he cites Middlemarch as an example of good decision-making as seen in literature. Middlemarch is highly rated, and so I picked it up last week and am slowly but surely making my way through its 800-and-something pages.
Reading Middlemarch reminds me a lot of why good fiction is so great. The best fiction serves as a mirror — for us and for society in general. When I talk about “seeing myself in the characters” of great fiction, it’s not just that I can empathize with them or that I feel for what they’re going for, but more that I can remember times in my life when I went through a similar situation or faced a similar choice.
If we say that there are broad categories or questions as we go through life (what makes a good life? What do we owe our family, or ourselves? How should we decide who to marry?) and we say that good fiction is reflective of life, then what we end up with is good fiction being a sort of program where you can run the simulation as many times as you like. If someone is deciding whether to leave their familiar station and go travel the world or take an outlandish job or marry someone their parents disapprove of, they’ll find ample literature where characters took different decisions. There are, in fiction, few “roads not taken” in the Frostian sense.
(As a side note, this is why self-help and “business” as a nonfiction category is both new and –to me– overrated. Everything I learned about life and business, I learned from novels.)
Reading good fiction, then, is a conversation not between you and the author, but you and the characters. Imagine someone peeling back some dirt and watching an ant colony pattering about: this is essentially how I feel reading good fiction: I’m observing the characters making their predetermined moves and decisions, and then watching the outcomes. We can see the effects of those decisions. We can judge the characters. To the extent that we can predict the outcomes of those decisions, we can come to a judgement as to who’s making the “right” move, or who’ll come to regret their choices.
I haven’t yet figured out if there’s a framework for transposing those sorts of literary decisions to one’s own life: I suspect there isn’t one, in the sense of “mental models” that are in vogue right now. Most life decisions aren’t clear-cut and aren’t 100% upside (I enjoyed this morning’s Ask Polly column on the downsides of commitment), and at some stage you have to commit to a course of action and see where it goes. Novels may help you interrogate characters in a similar situation, but ultimately we are the ones who have to make the decision.
I’m about a quarter of the way through Middlemarch, and I can start to see the contours of the major plot disagreements that’ll fill the last 500-and-something pages. I’m excited both to see how they play out, and to spend more time with these characters in a purely soap opera/dramatic sense. Humans are fundamentally story-telling creatures, and I’m so grateful for good books.