Sunday, June 29, 2008

Why They Matter

Edward Mendelson, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, has written a book about life as it is interpreted by novels, entitled, “The Things That Matter-What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life“. I was intrigued by this book because I have read six of the seven novels and consider two of them (Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre) among my favorite books. The book is divided into seven chapters one for each novel. Each chapter discusses a different stage of life. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818) addresses childbirth and its moral and emotional meanings. Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”(1847) discusses the moral and emotional meanings of childhood. The chapter on Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”(1847) talks about the process of growth into adulthood. George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” (1871-2) is about marriage and the choices we make. Three chapters are given to Virginia Woolf’s novels. “Mrs. Dalloway” (1925) is about personal love. “To The Lighthouse” is about parenthood and “Between The Acts“(1941) is about the stage when life surrenders to the next generation. The book is also arranged chronologically so that the chapters correspond to the experiences that occur in a normal life span and also to the historical sequence in which the seven novels were written ie. from 1818 until 1941.

The book is written in the style of a novel and it is a very engaging read. However, it is also a difficult read in the sense that it approaches each novel from an analytical standpoint. Mr. Mendelson is a renowned author and critic and this book is very academic and erudite. He treats each author with great respect and feels that these five authors have much to tell us about life. He expects us read each novel carefully and consider the wisdom generously given by each of these authors because they can help us to understand “the things that matter”.

This book would be a wonderful asset when reading each of these novels individually. I’m sure it will be used in many classrooms to teach these great novels. And, any discussion about each of these novels would be greatly enhanced by reading Mr. Mendelson’s chapter on that novel. This book reminds us why we love to read and why great novels matter and last!

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