“Middlemarch,” by George Eliot

Everyone has a list of unread books that weighs on her conscience each
passing year that it remains unchanged. At the top of mine was “Middlemarch,” by George Eliot, a classic that I managed to put off again and
again, even as an English major with an enduring love for Victorian-era
chitchat. The other weekend, I pulled a new edition from a shelf at
Greenlight Bookstore, in Fort Greene, and opened it to a blurb by
Virginia Woolf: “Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its
imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up
people.” Below it, a quote from Hermione Lee, the author of the excellent
biography of Virginia Woolf: “The most profound, wise and absorbing of
English novels . . . and, above all, truthful and forgiving about human
behaviour.” All right, all right! I’ll give it a shot. Many others
(including Rebecca Mead, who wrote the foreword to that same edition)
have said it before, and more eloquently, but, man, is “Middlemarch” good.
I mean, miss-your-stop-on-the-train and sneak-a-read-at-work good.

The story follows the fortunes of several interconnected families in the
fictional town of Middlemarch, in the mid-eighteen-hundreds (Eliot first published
the work in 1871). There’s something about well-appointed English
drawing rooms and breathless visits to the countryside that feels like
safe and sandy relief after an onslaught of depressing news. That’s not
to say that Eliot’s subjects are small. Just the opposite: she presents her
characters with such incisive clarity that they rise up like essential
case studies of the human condition. And she loves her characters! Even
with all their lumpy, unflattering faults, Eliot gives everyone their
say. There’s dry Mr. Casaubon, laboring over his interminable “Key to
All Mythologies” (a nightmare for any writer). There’s pretty Rosamond,
self-absorbed but supremely strong-willed; and hapless Fred, who
embodies the phrase “failure to launch.” Eliot’s is a working empathy,
generous without being naïve, like all “grown-up people” should possess.
I mentioned reading the book to a friend, already a convert, who
remarked that she often classifies people in her social life by their
similarities to the characters of Middlemarch—a Fred here, a Dorothea
there, a real Mary Garth three doors down. It’s not a bad way to see the
world.—Anna Russell


“Deep Work,” by Cal Newport

Cal Newport is a professor of computer science at Georgetown who studies
the theory of distributed algorithms. On the side, he’s a self-help
guru—and his 2016 book, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World,” has brought a new level of order to my mental life.
Newport divides work into two categories, shallow and deep. Shallow
work—answering e-mails, say—is something you can pick up and put down;
deep work—writing an article, solving a math problem—requires sustained,
uninterrupted, and intense periods of concentration. Newport proposes
that the metric by which you should judge your effectiveness at work
isn’t “Getting Things Done”–style productivity, but depth. In part,
“Deep Work” is a how-to book: Newport offers many strategies for “going
deep.” (They mostly involve tracking how much deep work you accomplish,
and planning your weeks and days with a realistic sense of how much time
deep work really requires.) But the book is also a sustained and
insightful critique, written by a technologist, of the tools and habits
of connected life. Those tools prioritize shallow work over deep—and
that presents an opportunity, Newport writes, for those who can swim out
to the deep end. I’ve read lots of books about productivity and lots of
books about distraction. For me, “Deep Work” is among the best, on both
counts.—Joshua Rothman


“Into Words: The Selected Writings of Carroll Dunham,” by Carroll Dunham

Last week, when Christie’s stunt sale of a rehabbed painting by Leonardo da Vinci turned thinking about art into being gobsmacked by money, I staved off
depression by reading the writing of Carroll Dunham. Dunham is best
known for his superlatively smart, weird, and no-holds-barred paintings.
He is one of my favorite artists, and I’m not alone. When the Whitney
Museum opened its new building, in 2015, Dunham’s stunning “Large
Bather”—a rainbow-bright Frankenstein monster made of spare parts from
Cézanne, Courbet, and Japanese shunga erotica—had pride of place in the
final gallery of the inaugural show. A light projection by Paul Chan was
installed nearby, a fact that’s worth noting because Chan’s spirited
press, Badlands Unlimited, is the publisher of Dunham’s first book of
essays.

As an author, Dunham is a late bloomer. Now sixty-eight, he didn’t begin
writing in earnest until his early fifties, primarily in Artforum magazine, where he distilled years of hard thinking into
thicket-clearing prose on subjects ranging from Robert Rauschenberg’s
game-changing “Combines” to the late paintings of Pierre-Auguste
Renoir. Along the way, he nailed the art of the killer first sentence.
“Pablo Picasso can be exhausting to think about.” “Kara Walker’s work
seems to have always brought out the worst in her.” “Painting in New
York during the second half of the 1970s was a mess.” Some of his best
insights in the book arise when he turns his eye on his own work. Take
this crystalline explanation of the interdependence of art for art’s
sake and real life, from the essay “Dead, Yellow. Mule. Garbage, Ratio,
Giant.,” written in 2007: “Painting responds to painting: the world
doesn’t help very much but leakage occurs between dimensions.”—Andrea K. Scott


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