On Listening to Fat 19th-Century Novels

Posted inCreative Voices

When I’m driving, walking, weaving, or flying, I like to listen to audiobooks. They range from largely forgettable mysteries to justly praised classics, including works by Willa Cather (see this post) and Edith Wharton. Lately I’ve listened to William Gibson’s “jackpot” books, The Peripheral and Agency, both of which I recommend. (I was inspired to check them out by the Amazon series, which is faithful yet completely different.) But the real revelation has been listening to two massive 19th-century novels: Moby Dick (I’d read an abridged version in high school) and Middlemarch (I read it in college and liked it but had largely forgotten it). One of the sad facts of higher education, which I became acutely aware of when I taught, is that it is very difficult to assign fat books. And these are very good fat books.

Moby Dick is incredibly weird and was a complete failure when published. It is a portrait of a lost world, of men from many lands and cultures in a dangerous pursuit, with great risks and potentially good rewards. It is famously epic, with philosophical and theological themes and magnificent, if flowery, language. Nicholas Meyer, an exceedingly well read and literary writer, mined it for The Wrath of Khan. (1)

But it’s also full of reportorial detail about the practice of whaling. That’s one thing that makes it both weird and a fascinating letter from the past. And, what is easier to realize in an audiobook, it is funny. Melville casts a sympathetic yet satirical eye on the whalers’ world. William Hootkins, who died too young, did a magnificent job with the narration.

Moby Dick isn’t for everyone, even everyone who reads fat old novels. But Middlemarch is one of those books every well-educated person should read. It, too, has its funny moments, which audio narration brings out. Like Melville, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) is clear-eyed about the customs and follies of the people she writes about, even as she portrays them with sympathy. It, too, transports us to another time, some 40 years before it was written, when small town England was being transformed by “reform,” power looms, and railroads and custom and religious ideals were powerful forces. It’s remembered primarily for its psychological portraits but there’s plenty of history and economics in it as well. I read Middlemarch in my Victorian Novels class in college and liked it, but I’d forgotten most of the detail (probably because I was always rushing to finish those fat books). (2)

Listening to both books makes me want to read them the old-fashioned way, with a pencil in hand. But that will have to wait. Right now I’m reading another fat book, a nonfiction epic of our day, which I will eventually review.

(1) Steve and I once had the pleasure of having dinner with Nick Meyer at the home of a mutual friend.

(2) I had an econometrics class at 9 a.m. on the same days as my Victorian novels seminar. Having usually stayed up until 4 to finish the reading assignment, I kept dozing off in econometrics, which was taught by one of my favorite professors, while sitting front row/center in hopes that would make it easier to stay awake.

Virginia Postrel is a writer with a particular interest in the intersection of commerce, culture, and technology. Author of “The Future and Its Enemies,” “The Substance of Style,” “The Power of Glamour,” and, most recently, “The Fabric of Civilization.” This essay was originally published on Virginia’s newsletter on Substack.

Header courtesy author: Midjourney rendition of “Thick Victorian novels with speakers built in”