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The Things That Matter, Edward Mendelson

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"This book is about life as it is interpreted by books."

So begins the introduction of Edward Mendelson's The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life. As a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, Mendelson has read and discussed many novels. What interests me more than his being well-read, though, is his approach to reading novels.

Novels, of course, present a world full of life and characters of their own and should be read to understand that world and those characters. Mendelson takes a view like my own, however: that novels are not meant to be read in vacuo. “A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naïve way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.”

When I began to read novels in earnest I was a bit late to the game; most of my unassigned reading while I was growing up was taken from the topics of the sciences and computers. Before I had entered my twenties I had achieved unusual proficiency in those areas, even for a specialist, but I was embarrassed by my ignorance of literature. Of course I had read the usual works covered in the public school system but no one had managed to impress upon me the value of novels. Consequently, it would be more correct to say that I skimmed the usual novels and I could regurgitate various facts about The Scarlet Letter, Lord of the Flies, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but they didn't mean much to me at the time. So instead I read The C Programming Language, TCP/IP Illustrated, and UNIX Programmers Reference. Even much of the history that I managed to read was for a rather specific topic, as was the case with The Codebreakers.

Rather than attempt to go through life hiding my ignorance of literature and constantly fearing its exposure, I decided to solve the real problem by actually reading novels and attempting to understand them. I started with some that I remembered enjoying in high school, such as Alas, Babylon. I then returned to The Scarlet Letter and branched out to things that I should have read but had managed to avoid and in the process discovered the likes of Jane Austen. Though my love of books was always present, it was in returning to the novel that my love of reading grew.

In The Things That Matter, Mendelson takes us on a tour of the stages of life, discussing each in turn as it is considered in one of the seven novels featured.

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë (1847)
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (1847)
Middlemarch, George Eliot (1871-72)
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (1927)
The Future
Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf (1941)

In Mendelson's capable hands, each of these novels is able to take on particular meaning. Not only are the events of the author and the historical context considered, as might be true in any literary criticism, but each is tied back to the stage of life that is the focus and what it means. In discussing meaning, Mendelson does not arrogantly push a pet theory on the reader. “Theories belong to science,” he writes, “which relies on repeatable results that can be tested by experiment or refuted by fact...” Reading a novel is a personal experience and writing about novels is from an individual perspective.

Readers are invited explicitly to join in the dialogue, judging what is written for themselves, and considering meaning for themselves. Disagreement with the writer is the reader's prerogative. I love how Mendelson treats the situation. “I hope our disagreements, when they occur, can provide the comforts of both heat and light.”

I enjoyed The Things That Matter thoroughly, as I'm sure will any reader who thinks of novels as worthy of reflection and consideration beyond what they mean to the author.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2008-06-29 05:12 PM
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