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The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the…

de Edward Mendelson

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1765117,669 (3.75)10
An exploration of how seven of the greatest English novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries portray the essential experiences of life. For Mendelson--a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University--these classic novels tell life stories that are valuable to readers who are thinking about the course of their own lives. Looking beyond theories to the individual intentions of the authors and taking into consideration their lives and times, Mendelson examines the sometimes contradictory ways in which the novels portray such major passages of life as love, marriage, and parenthood.--From publisher description.… (mais)
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Exibindo 5 de 5
This is an interesting reading of several classic novels, and as a trade publication, it reads a bit more quickly than an academic monograph. I do think that some of his readings are a bit flawed, and his take on Emily Bronte seems way too generous. But that's me talking shop. If you like classics and talking books, give this a shot. ( )
  DrFuriosa | Dec 4, 2020 |
This book illustrates perfectly, the virtues of small independent used (and new) bookstores! I bought this last November at one of my favorite indie bookstores – The Blue Bicycle in Charleston, SC. On our annual visit to this wonderful city, we always make plans to spend a couple of hours there. Jonathan and Lauren Sanchez are everything booklovers want in a book store. Their knowledge of their stacks is encyclopedic, and when they recommend a book, I know I can rely on them. The next time you are in Charleston, make this a must stop on your tour. They are on King Street a couple blocks down from the Francis Marion Hotel. Every time I pass a large chain store, I ask if they have this title – so far those stores are 0-6. How else could I have come across this book so easily? Now, back to the stacks!

Two things struck me when I picked up the book – the dust jacket has a photo of six of my favorite novels, and a seventh I had never read. Then there was the subtitle: “What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life.” How could I NOT buy this book?

Well, I was not the least bit disappointed. The chapters took me back to my grad school days, when this sort of reading was 90% of my book fare. Here are the seven novels and the topic Mendelson discusses in each chapter: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (birth); Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (childhood); Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (growth); Middlemarch by George Eliot (marriage); Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (love); To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (parenthood); and Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf (the future). Does anyone need any more convincing?

Okay, just a few more words. Completely unfamiliar with Between the Acts, I was at sea in the last chapter, which reminds me to warn anyone interested in this book, that the author assumes at least a passing familiarity with these novels. Of course, no serious reader would not have read most of these books. I plan on hunting down a copy of Between the Acts, and then re-reading that final chapter.

As far as Wuthering Heights is concerned, I have loved this story for a very long time, yet Mendelson has given me an entirely new perspective on this monument of 19th century literature. I won’t spoil by revealing any of Mendelson’s ideas, but if you love these novels as much as I do, this book is a must read.

Most of the Chapter/Essays were incisive and clear, except for To the Lighthouse, but then again, the novel can also be confusing to first-time readers. I have only read Lighthouse once, and perhaps a better grasp of the story might have solved this problem. 4-1/2 stars.

--Jim, 1/30/10 ( )
1 vote rmckeown | Jan 31, 2010 |
  living2read | Jun 30, 2008 |
“This book is about life as it is interpreted by books. Each of the chapters has a double subject: on the one hand, an English novel written in the nineteenth or twentieth century, and on the other, one of the great experiences or stages that occur, or can occur, in more or less everyone’s life.”

These opening lines of Edward Mendelson’s work of literary criticism - The Things That Matter - encapsulate his intent. A study of seven classical novels by Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, Mendelson’s essays present his thesis that novels provide insight into specific stages of life and, these novels, when viewed collectively present a “history of the emotional and moral life of the past two centuries.”

Mendelson has aimed his work at readers of any age, the only prerequisite being knowledge of the seven novels. He writes in a conversational manner, as if lecturing directly to the reader. Theories and supporting arguments are presented within the text, footnotes included only when critical. Woven throughout is information about the prevailing theories and literary themes of the period.

In the section on Wuthering Heights Mendelson explores Brontë’s idea of romantic childhood, tracing its roots to the romanticism of Wordsworth and Freud. His Wuthering Heights is a very different one than the one commonly studied in high school. Heathcliff and Catherine are desperate to recapture the total unity experienced as children, to merge two selves into one. Whereas the commonly held perception is of a novel of thwarted passion and cruelty, Mendelson believes Brontë deliberately led readers to this conclusion and away from her true meaning. “She disguised Wuthering Heights as a story of doomed sexual passion perhaps because she regarded her potential readers with something close to contempt…they could not understand what this book tells them.”

Each of the authors is examined with the same focus, each essay meriting its own review. Mendelson states that he “could easily imagine a similar book to this one made up of entirely different examples.” I’ll keep my fingers crossed that inspiration strikes and Mendelson shares more of his thoughts on life and literature. ( )
2 vote Antheras | Jan 28, 2008 |
Every reader finds himself. The writer's work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself. Marcel Proust

Years and years ago, when I was a two-week veteran of college life and still relatively starry-eyed about spending the next four years in libraries and classrooms, surrounded by an atmosphere of intellectual discovery and debate, I had my first argument with a teacher over a book—ever—and I won.

Oh, I had disagreed with teachers in the past. Like anyone, my public-school education was filled with a mix of people who were more or less dedicated to stuffing learning into the heads of hormonally-distracted teenagers. Often their dedication was at inverse proportion to their exhaustion. But exhausted or not, they carried far too much authority in my mind to ever be publicly challenged. A few scathing remarks from the more jaded and cynical ones was enough to curb any impulse I had to speak up when, for example, one of my more unfortunate English teachers decided to take us through The Scarlet Letter and, in a dreadful misuse of Freudian theory, point out the phallic nature of every tree in the wood. (It was years before I could bring myself to read Hawthorne without an icky feeling crawling up my skin). . .read full review
  southernbooklady | May 29, 2007 |
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An exploration of how seven of the greatest English novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries portray the essential experiences of life. For Mendelson--a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University--these classic novels tell life stories that are valuable to readers who are thinking about the course of their own lives. Looking beyond theories to the individual intentions of the authors and taking into consideration their lives and times, Mendelson examines the sometimes contradictory ways in which the novels portray such major passages of life as love, marriage, and parenthood.--From publisher description.

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