The Things That Matter by Edward Mendelsohn
My dear friend M had read Edward Mendelsohn’s The Things That Matter some years ago and got me a copy for a birthday, saying she thought I would appreciate the discussion of classic literary texts from a professor’s point-of-view. I’m a bit of an English nerd (you know, being a lifelong reader, English major in college, and PhD in English), so books about books hold a certain appeal for me. Mendelsohn is a professor of Comparative Literature, so I was further curious to see how his analysis for a trade publication would differ from the normal tomes I read for work—academic publications that are often denser and less accessible to the general reading public. It was an engaging read, though Mendelsohn and I might have a vigorous debate about more than a few of the books.
Mendelsohn writes about seven classic British novels—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts. His reasoning for choosing the seven novels that he did—personal taste—is not proficiently explained beyond, “These are the books that moved me,” which is fair enough for the book that he wrote. He analyzes each in order of the major themes around which he organizes them: birth, childhood, adulthood, marriage, love, parenthood, and the future/death. He conducts a close reading of each text and analyzes each in terms of the major theme, proving that life and literature are inextricably linked.
I liked reading this book, since I had read all of the novels he had chosen. I disagreed with some of his choices and felt that they were a bit staid, shall I say? I thought the chapter on Wuthering Heights was a particularly willful misreading of the abuses that Heathcliff and Cathy inflicted upon each other and on others. But the Mrs. Dalloway insights are interesting and reference Homer’s The Odyssey in a way I had never considered before. If you like classic literature and books-about-books, this might be something you’ll enjoy.