Middlemarch by George Eliot

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I need only one word whenever I am asked, “What’s your all-time favorite book?”

Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial life. 1872. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1994. Print.

Genre: fiction (19th century British)

Summary: An idealistic young woman and a noble-minded doctor enter disastrous marriages. The consequences of their choices ripple through the wider community. Both doctor and woman might find redemption and rediscover hope if they can find each other amidst rigid class structures and isolating social barriers.

Critique: True, all print editions of Middlemarch are roughly the size and weight of a brick.[1]

Doubly true, you are unlikely to heed even my most urgent pleas and gushing recommendations to read any brick-like book.[2]

I urge you nonetheless because Middlemarch is precisely the brick we all need to come crashing through our windows.

Writers can gawk at Eliot’s tenacity. To construct the masterwork, she wove together two going-nowhere projects that chewed up countless months of her writing time. At first, there was the tale of an ambitious doctor, Tertius Lydgate, foisting modern medical treatments on a backwards British village. When that rough draft petered out, Eliot switched to a new story about the ingenuous Dorothea Brook, whose marriage to a fusty scholar twice her age does not result in the spiritual and intellectual self-refinement she desires. Once again, the rough draft stymied. While most writers might have abandoned the second project and gone on to a third, Eliot saw a connection between the two protagonists. She identified parallels in the stories and combined them.

I suppose she hit two stones with the same bird.

All readers—whether they are writers or not—can marvel at how Eliot’s narrator[3] repeatedly expands the focus out from the two heroes to the supporting cast of characters as the repercussions resulting from the unfortunate marriages rumble across the community. The more we learn about other characters and how their lives are impacted by Dorothea and Lydgate, the more we discover our untold potential for compassion.

Of course I could readily empathize with Dorothea—the pitiable young dynamo who marries an abusive nerd-turd, Mr. Casaubon. I was that young dynamo at one point in my life. I was in that very relationship. But then, the narrative shifts and presents Casaubon’s inner working. Suddenly, I discover how, at other times in my life, I have also been a nerd-turd—jealous, suspicious, and trying to mask my paralyzing self-defeating fear with pedantry. The more I read, the more I realize how many “others” I am and have been. When I read Middlemarch—which happens annually at this point—I feel my fundamental connection to all beings.

When I read Middlemarch, I feel my own infinity.

This brick-like book smashes my perception of the world made of strangers. Through the eyes of the Middlemarch narrator, we are all familiars.

[1] I am borrowing, and promise to give back, the brick comparison from Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014), a memoir told through the guise of a literary examination of the novel plus a biography of George Eliot.

[2] Naxos AudioBooks produced an exceptional, unabridged recording of the novel. Juliet Stevenson’s reading is powerful. Her finesse with diverse character voices is also stunning!

[3] Jonathan D. Culler notes in his 2004 essay “Omniscience” that Eliot’s narrator is not actually omniscient, but heterodiagetic. That is to say, a person who is not directly involved in the plot or the world of the novel (AKA the diagesis), but who has elected to sift and present germane information for the reader’s consideration. Indeed, the Middlemarch narrator refers to itself as a historian making a case study of the town and its folk. (Culler’s larger point about the impossibility of god-like omniscience in any story is well worth reading.)

 

Note: As always, I do not earn commissions or other compensation for any of the books/audiobooks I recommend.

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The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy

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Eyes do not see; they touch. Vision evolved from skin gathering light in minute detail. The brain does not think; it smells. It evolved from a large olfactory nerve in skull. It helped us sew memories and scents together.This book will change how (and who) you are in the world.

Meloy, Ellen. The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (nature essays)

Summary: A collection of essays explore color’s spiritual, emotional, and biological importance to humans; how our humanity has been shaped and how our impact on the planet shifts as our connection to colors diminishes.

Critique: Touch. Contact. Connection. Having a tactile experience with the physical, natural world is at the heart of each essay in this collection. Meloy demonstrates through her own adventuring how to be fully alive and awake and seduced and ecstasied in the great outdoors.

To bring readers into her experience, she converts our ability to perceive colors–especially one as slippery as turquoise–into a haptic experience. More than that, she stretches into synesthesia when she reminds us the eyes can touch and the brain can smell. It can even smell colors. Turquoise, in its hybrid not-quite-blue-not-quite-green existence is really just the scent of the wind (or so said ancient Middle Eastern cultures). Native cultures across the Americas transcribed the color into sound, one that guided souls to the afterlife.

Magical and sensual though that is, Meloy laments the modern world’s loss of color. Or, it’s increasing colorblindness to the natural world which has been dammed, funneled, paved, monetized, and commodified. Either every scrap of this planet is put to our direct use and benefit, or those scraps which will not submit to our utilitarian desires will be removed. However, this very practical and clever war-rationing approach to nature strikes Meloy as too narrow.

On a recent trip to Moab, I marvel at a stone’s skin.

Instead of using the world, why not enjoy it? Marvel at it? It is a place we can revel in. Get lost. Drown. We can be bedeviled. Seduced. Overwhelmed. Ignored. All these things, and more, the world can do to us if we only let it. But why allow it to take such liberties with our bodies and souls?

Because it cracks us out of our slumbering shells. It enables us to live in a constant euphoric state of quivering, goose-prickled tingles.

Even better, enjoying the world enables us to be what we truly are, rather than what we think we are. And what we are, according to brilliant biologist E. O. Wilson, is a species of biophiliacs. Forget sapiens! Biophiliacs are insatiable lovers when it comes to nature.

“Our sense of wonder grows exponentially,” Wilson writes, “the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery and the more we seek knowledge to create new mystery.”

Or, as Meloy phrases it, “Lives without access to sensation are lives that edge out the earth’s raw, pervasive sweetness, that deeply biophilic connection to all life.”

But these essays come from an almost gentler, more idyllic time: the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back when we were taking our first baby-steps into sustainability and renewable energies. Today, we cannot be sure the EPA will survive the current White House administration. We cannot be sure our public lands will remain in our hands or wind up so privatized that in order to enter them (let alone enjoy them), we will first have to download and accept a standard EULA.

Now more than ever is the time to read this book and feel the world in a whole new way. Now is our best chance to confront the essential questions: are we locusts or lovers to this natural world? And, given the savage, ravenous course love takes, is there any difference between those roles?

The Abundance by Annie Dillard

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Growing up, did you have that slick and sneaky friend who lured you through the slit chain-link fences or the windows left unlocked, into restricted zones, behind the STAY OUT signs, into the smoky dim rooms packed with music so loud it turned your senses sideways? Annie Dillard is that friend.

Dillard, Annie. The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. New York: Ecco, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (essay collection)

Summary: The collection mixes and mingles Dillard’s classics, such as “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” with newer narrative sojourns. Every essay delivers on abundance. Profuse ideas. Overflowing sensory experiences. So much world and so much life to experience and notice and not always fully understand.

Critique: Reading Dillard is a lot like trailing that trickster friend. The bad boy or girl who—with nothing more than a casual c’mon shoulder flick—convinced you to abandon your good sense and go on a reckless adventure. Back then, you would have kept this friend around to piss off your parents. These days, you likely need someone like Dillard to free you from reality’s constraints. Her prose white rabbits you down a dark tunnel where space and air run out. Suddenly, you’re twisted into impossible positions and too disoriented to find your way out. Here, and only here, can you begin to reconstruct your life, reconfiguring your self’s shape to suit the alternate universes floating around you at all times.

For example, in the opening essay, “Total Eclipse,” Dillard escorts the reader up a hillside to watch the sun disappear from the sky. The next thing you know, she’s oiled you into a sideways experience of the eclipse. The sky doesn’t go dark, it saturates. The surface colors of all things go platinum or bronze plate about to peel. Then Dillard peels time. She scrapes off the present moment because the world is now a patina’d photograph, evidence of a civilization long gone. The whole framework of the essay shifts and the reader is no longer in a familiar contemporary setting—the typical and common reality—but some prehistoric time warp.

To be fair, Dillard warned the readers about the tilt when she explained, “seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him….” One event may precede the other, but it doesn’t prepare you for the second.

Some critics like to tout how Dillard is a nut. She’s crazy and thus her prose go crazy (see the “Forward” to The Abundance…er, don’t actually. It is academic treacle and will give your brain a tummy ache.) I agree that Dillard’s perspective is skewed. All her dials her cranked to “bizarre.” But, I also think Dillard gives voice to the mad-hatter moments we all encounter but then keep pocketed, far far away from our social media status updates. She is willing to admit that reality bears side doors—all of them unlocked.

“The Weasel” illustrates this common, momentary madness. Dillard and a weasel startle each other in the woods. Both freeze. They examine each other, assessing the threat level. In that instance of scrutiny, their brains merge…or more accurately, trade places. But then a blink severs them. The weasel darts into a burrow. Anyone who has had an encounter with a wild animal (not in a zoo, but actually out in the wild) knows this exchange, but only Dillard is willing to admit it happens. She even wishes she’d had the instincts to lock her jaws around the weasel’s throat because one can learn from the wild animals “something of the purity of living in the physical senses.” And from the encounter, she formulates a glorious maxim for how to be truly alive:

The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse.

She goes on, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part.”

Oh boy, if that isn’t fine advice for anyone running down a dream!

Dillard returns to this notion of the fearless, dauntless lifestyle in “A Writer in the World.” She coaches all writers to “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

Why?

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”

True to her word, Dillard delivers. Like any good, slick, trickster friend, she gives countless opportunities to shirk the norm. The Abundance is replete with fresh ways to see and experience the world. Every essay is an invitation from Dillard to slip past the caution tape and delight the senses. Not only that, but to develop entirely new senses streamlined for stalking, sneaking, and fully soul’ing your existence to life’s varied realities.

Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel

At last—the recipe for limitless, lifelong learning (and remembering) is here! Ingredients include: bean bags, buckets, Mark Twain, England’s monarchs, and some elbow grease.

Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2014. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Researchers Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel compile recent findings from neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Writer Peter Brown translates the science into laymen terms as the experts combine the results to reexamine what learning is how best to facilitate it.

Critique: Despite roaming through complex fields like neurology and psychology, this book never feels dense or esoteric. In arranging the content for each chapter, the co-authors also cleverly employ the optimal learning methods they discover. As a result, information snowballs. The reader re-encounters and continually retains more and more of the book’s core concepts. Done poorly, this technique can become a broken record. Here, it always arrives fresh as Farmer’s Market produce.

The authors’ primary goal is to upend the “golden rules” about how we think we learn. Conventionally, we believe that learning anything “the hard way” is a waste of time and effort. The student and teacher are better off when the learning is fast and easy. We also believe that practice makes perfect. Repeat something over and over AND OVER until you have it down. However, like nearly all the revelations arising from fMRI (real-time observations of living brains) evidence, the takeaways on learning are counterintuitive and quite opposite from the quick-and-easy conventions.

The Make It Stick authors reveal that when it comes to learning, easy in equals easy out. For example, whenever someone tells you a phone number, you might repeat the number over and over until you can plug it into your phone or jot it on a piece of paper. If asked to recite the number again later that day, odds are good you would succeed in the memory task. But, if asked to recall the number days or weeks later, odds are you will have forgotten the number entirely.

Why?

Image by Bryce Miller. (CC BY 2.0)

Because the brain stores quick and easy info in short term memory. Think of short term memory like a chalkboard. It’s as easy to mark on as it is to wipe clean. Long term memory is more like a safety deposit box. It will cost you to put anything in it, but once there, it will endure.

The cost required to store anything in long term memory is effort. Learning actually needs to be effortful if it’s going to last, expand, and enrich.

How can we make learning meaningfully effortful? The authors recommend “interleaving” or mixing the tasks and skills to be practiced. Their example comes from a study of youngsters challenged to master the art of chucking a bean bag into a bucket two feet away. One group of kiddos practices exactly that: lobbing bags at a bucket set two feet away. Over and over in the usual “practice makes perfect” style—or what learning specialists call “massed” practice. The other group interleaves their learning. Their buckets sit three feet and four feet away and they can shoot at either or both targets as mixed or as methodically as they wish.

“Tossing the Bean Bag” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On an immediate skills test, the first group nailed the two-foot bucket more often than the second group. However, within a few weeks without additional practice, the first group missed the target while the second group nailed it. The interleaved practice was more difficult and did not produce desired results immediately, but it built a wider range of skills thanks to mixed targets. Over time, the brain massaged all that learning into the physical finesse needed to land the shot, regardless of the bucket’s distance.

Another vital point which contradicts convention concerns forgetting. We assume forgetting stems from a flaw in our ability to remember, or that the way we acquired the information was somehow flawed (otherwise, we would remember it). On the contrary, forgetting is what the brain does naturally and needs to do in order to acquire information for the long term.

How can we encourage beneficial forgetting? Build open spaces or gaps into the learning process. Following a lesson, allow for a gap in time and attention on the topic. Allow the brain to erase some or most of what you acquired. Then quiz yourself. The effort you put into reconstructing the lesson strengthens the wiring in and across your brain. To recall what you learned (and partially forgot), you must tap various regions of the brain—those governing sound, smell, touch, taste, and so on. Your prior learning and experience will also feed the reconstruction process, which in turn, bolsters the wiring (synaptic connections) around the new information. More connections equal deeper storage and longer retention.

So, how do Mark Twain and England’s monarchs factor into durable learning? You’ll see (and likely never forget) when you read the book.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

Imagine Harry Potter as told by Professor McGonagall, Petunia Dursley, Hedwig, and Neville Longbottom’s grandmother…

Barnhill, Kelly. The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Young Readers, 2016. Print.

Summary: A doddering witch rescues the sacrificial babies abandoned in the woods. Normally, she feeds them starlight before adopting them out to new families. But on one occasion, she feeds a child moonlight, thereby creating a new witch and consequently kicking off an avalanche of other troubles.

Critique: Even though this is a middle grade text (and the 2017 Newbery winner to boot), the narrative primarily shares the parental perspective. That is to say, rather than tell yet another story of a young child coming of age with magic powers, this story examines what it is to be a step-mother…er eh, a step-witch to an adopted and accidentally enmagicked child. Also, what it is to be the godparent…uh er, god-swamp monster to that child. And what it is to be the mother who went mad when her child was taken for sacrifice. And finally, what it is to be the boy who sees the mother go mad and then grow up to have his own sacrificial child.

I guess imagine Harry Potter as told by Professor McGonagall, Petunia Dursley, Hedwig, and Neville Longbottom’s grandmother with Harry getting his own say somewhere in the last quarter of the story.

Ultimately, any budding Terry Pratchett fans will appreciate Barnhill’s wink-and-nod magic rules and fantasy world building. Nascent Patrick Rothfuss or Lev Grossman fans will find the convenient inconsistencies and glaring contradictions frustrating.

Most consistent throughout is that inspiring and unyielding sense of familial love.