>Having successfully evaded Middlemarch in college (I thought it was too hard), I am now reading it (via audiobook, with the Modern Library edition at hand) completely enraptured. It reminds me of another reason why children’s book professionals need to read books for grownups:
Buyers of the Middlemarch newspapers found themselves in an anomalous position: during the agitation on the Catholic question many had given up the Pioneer–which had a motto from Charles James Fox and was in the van of progress–because it had taken Peel’s side about the Papists, and had thus blotted its Liberalism with a toleration of Jesuitry and Baal; but they were ill-satisfied with the Trumpet, which–since its blasts against Rome, and in the general flaccidity of the public mind (nobody knowing who would support whom)–had become feeble in its blowing.
That’s not only a long sentence, with a confluence of colon, semicolon and em-dash that even the Horn Book wouldn’t let you get away with, it–I’m guessing–entails some aspects of English history about which I know nothing and care less. But I’m a confident enough reader to make peace with my ignorance and keep going, even while I remain defeated by Eliot’s epigraphs: “Qui veut délasser hors de propos, lasse–Pascal.”
Young readers are put in this position all the time, meeting words, sentence structures, and extra-textual references for the first time. It’s salutary for those of us concerned with their reading to put ourselves in their shoes, a circumstance more likely to occur for us in reading books for adults. Hard books, the definition of which being completely self-determined. When we hit a patch of French in a novel, we–at least those of us not educated to the standard Eliot expected of her readers–can look it up or shine it on, but either way we’re challenged by a text that doesn’t give itself up easily. That choice comes more easily to the veteran reader than to the neophyte who’s still underlining each word with a finger. Learning how to skip is just as important to reading as learning how to persevere.
But reading difficult books is not just a reminder of how hard it is to learn to read. The sentences in Middemarch are often enormous but also enormously dense–Eliot uses an awful lot of words but few seem extraneous. You really have to pay attention, especially with the audiobook–let your mind stray for a few seconds and you’re lost. But the reward of such required concentration is absorption, a rare and welcome state in a clamoring world.