Welcome everyone to our newsletter for January. Welcome, especially, to readers in Coventry, the Midlands city whose essence is in the air right now thanks to the Middlemarch theme of the new Happy Reader. George Eliot went to school in Coventry, published her first articles (including the brilliantly titled ‘Hints on Snubbing’) in the Coventry Herald and Observer, then took the city as inspiration for the fictional town where Middlemarch is set. But I digress: new issue imminent! Look out this Tuesday for an announcement about the cover star, and on Friday 28 January for the object itself.
Middlemarch is a long book. It is one of the classic long books, and when newspapers wish to illustrate the concept of ‘long book’, they will print a picture in which Middlemarch is sandwiched between Crime and Punishment, War and Peace and Infinite Jest. It is also a book that people fall in love with and become obsessed by; a book that readers say has a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the sense it permanently transforms them, and for the better; a book that people get into the habit of revisiting for solace, the way others frequent Pink Floyd albums or The Wire box sets. When a Middlemarch fan sees a person reading the novel opposite them on the train, they get excited; this is one of my people.
Each of this issue’s contributors is a member of this global, informal Middlemarch fan club. For example, Rebecca Mead, author of the bestselling My Life in Middlemarch, whose fixation began with not being able to stop thinking about a fake George Eliot quote on a fridge magnet that said, ‘It is never too late to be what you might have been.’ Or Rob Palk, a Midlands-based writer who reads the book every ten years or so, finding it to be a usefully frank touchstone as to his latest successes and failures, more accurate (yet somehow, also, forgiving) than any mere mirror. Or Jordana Brewster, the actress known for her role as Mia Toretto in the Fast & Furious movie franchise, here sharing real-time thoughts during a three-part reread with literary critic Deborah Friedell, in which she underlines such timeless Eliotisms as: ‘Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world, and leave only a margin by which we see the blot?’
As for Coventry, its other achievements include 2-tone, the punk-ska hybrid genre, born in the city in the 1970s, and a new year’s delicacy (surely there should be more of these?) called a Godcake, which is essentially a mince pie in an isosceles triangle. Coventry is the UK’s City of Culture, a title it holds until 2025, and it is also currently seeing out the last few days of the Coventry Biennial. Cheers, Coventry!
Another novel that people don’t so much read as get initiated into is James Joyce’s Ulysses. This year, its hundredth anniversary, is to be an especially feverish time for acolytes. Although set in Dublin, the book has a strong connection to Paris, where Joyce first found a publisher in the form of Sylvia Beach, founder of the bookshop Shakespeare and Company. To this day the shop hosts a ritual reading from Ulysses on 16 June, a.k.a. Bloomsday. Not everyone can be in Paris each June, but for the centenary year it won’t matter so much. Shakespeare and Company have recorded a new, complete reading of the novel in which duties are shared between a star-studded cast of contributors. The readers include Margaret Atwood, Ben Okri, Deborah Levy and Eddie Izzard. It’s possible that I also make a cameo. This will be released episodically, in podcast form, beginning on 2 February 2022, the actual anniversary, and concluding on Bloomsday itself. Listen to Ulysses. Read Middlemarch. It’s time.
Maya Angelou is the first Black woman to be featured on a US quarter. As far as I can tell, and feel free to correct me, she is the first author of any kind, barring, perhaps, Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography is still in print. I would argue this doesn’t count in the same way. He was a Founding Father. That’s what got him on the $100 note; not his prose.
Olivia Laing’s interview with Neil Tennant, singer from the Pet Shop Boys, is available to read at the website of our cherished comrade Fantastic Man. Laing quizzes the former Smash Hits writer about his reading habits: how did the work of Evelyn Waugh, T. S. Eliot and Robert Louis Stevenson inform the most literary lyrics in popular music? The interview, from Fantastic Man’s current, literary-themed print edition, is here.
Season two of the podcast On the Road with Penguin Classics is launching next week. Each episode sees author and editor Henry Eliot travel to a different literary location to explore a classic book in the company of a remarkable reader. This season’s books include Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish, and — it’s time! — Ulysses by James Joyce. Available on all good podcasting platforms.
Next month’s newsletter is to feature Len Deighton’s 1962 espionage classic The IPCRESS File. If you enjoy receiving these emails, then please do share the subscription link with a friend. Get in touch, if you like, on [email protected] See you in February.
Happy new year,
Editor-in-chief, The Happy Reader