Our Lives in Books; Seven Novels That Remind Us of Why We Read

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Our Lives in Books; Seven Novels That Remind Us of Why We Read


Byline: Carol Herman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Edward Mendelson's "The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say about the Stages of Life," begins with the author charting a roadmap: "This book is about life as it is interpreted by books."

It is clear right from the start that Mr. Mendelson, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, is as interested in the human drama as he is in guiding close readings of seven stars of the English canon: Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" (1818); Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" (1847); Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" (1847); George Eliot's "Middlemarch" (1871-72) and Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" (1925), "To the Lighthouse" (1927) and "Between the Acts" (1941).

As much as he wants to write about the English novel in the 19th and 20th century, he wants to show how some of the best-loved fiction shed light on the "great experiences or stages that occur, or can occur, in more or less everyone's life."

The book's narrative follows a chronology that simultaneously corresponds to the years in which the books were published and the stages of life as identified by Mr. Mendelson: "Frankenstein" is paired with birth, "Jane Eyre" with "the process of growth into childhood," "Middlemarch" with marriage, and the three novels by Virginia Woolf with personal love, parenthood and "the stage when life surrenders to the next generation" respectively.

At first, I was skeptical about how long a formula this arbitrary would hold my attention. Moreover, I balked at Mr. Mendelson's explanation for choosing only female writers. Mr. Mendelson writes that because a woman writer "had a greater motivation to defend the values of personal life against the generalizing effect of stereotypes, and to defend those values by paying close attention to them in her writing," she was "more likely than [a man] to write about emotional depths."

Also, I found myself thinking of a list of books that could just as easily have suited his purposes. Having recently (and belatedly) completed reading "Anna Karenina" on the long-ago advice of a beloved Russian teacher, I wanted to say, Why no Tolstoy. Every phase of life is passionately rendered in his book about the doomed Anna. Or, I thought, if you are thinking strictly in terms of English novels, Mr. Mendelson, Why no "Mayor of Casterbridge?"

Soon it hardly mattered. This is a masterful book, one that is filled with surprises and delights. Through the steady accumulation of insights about the seven great books he has chosen and their approach to the bounties and vexations of life, the reader comes to learn why we read books at all, and why we read them to feel deeply and know more.

"Frankenstein is the story of childbirth as it would be if it had been invented by someone who wanted power more than love. …

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