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How Charitable are you Supposed to be When Criticizing the Views of an Opponent?

“Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”

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IntuitionPumps

Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking, already gave us how to use your mistakes. Now it offers up the four rules for how to criticize with kindness.

Respect your opponent

Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent? If there are obvious contradictions in the opponent’s case, then you should point them out, forcefully. If there are somewhat hidden contradictions, you should carefully expose them to view – and then dump on them. But the search for hidden contradictions often crosses the line into nitpicking, sea-lawyering and outright parody. The thrill of the chase and the conviction that your opponent has to be harbouring a confusion somewhere encourages uncharitable interpretation, which gives you an easy target to attack.

But such easy targets are typically irrelevant to the real issues at stake and simply waste everybody’s time and patience, even if they give amusement to your supporters. The best antidote I know for this tendency to caricature one’s opponent is a list of rules promulgated many years ago by social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport.

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be a receptive audience for your criticism: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment (you agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said).

Still curious? Pair with Susan Sontag’s method of refuting any argument. Dennett’s book is worth reading and reflecting upon in its entirely.

Dan Gilbert: Why do we make decisions our future selves regret?

Dan Gilbert
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

In the 7-minute TED talk (below), Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert illuminates some recent research on a phenomenon he calls the “end of history illusion,” where we imagine that the person we are today is the person we’ll be until we die. But that’s not the case.

The bottom line is, time is a powerful force. It transforms our preferences. It reshapes our values. It alters our personalities. We seem to appreciate this fact, but only in retrospect. Only when we look backwards do we realize how much change happens in a decade. It’s as if, for most of us, the present is a magic time. It’s a watershed on the timeline. It’s the moment at which we finally become ourselves. Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.

Still Curious? He further develops the concept more in his book Stumbling on Happiness.

The (Really) Invisible Gorilla

invisible gorilla

Inattentional blindness is the phenomenon of not being able to see things that are actually there. This concept was popularized in 2010 book The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.

The best known experiment demonstrating inattentional blindness involves a basketball. Simons and Chabris gave subjects a very simple task: try and keep track of how many times the basketball was passed between players. While the ball was being tossed someone in a gorilla suit walks across the screen, in plain view. What they discovered was unexpected. Few people noticed the gorilla because they were so focused on counting the passes. When we pay close attention to one thing, we fail to notice other things.

A recent article by Wray Herbert covers some new research that this perceptual quirk can have serious, even life-threatening, implications.

Three psychological scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston –Trafton Drew, Melissa Vo and Jeremy Wolfe — wondered if expert observers are also subject to this perceptual blindness. The subjects in the classic study were “naïve” — untrained in any particular domain of expertise and performing a task nobody does in real life. But what about highly trained professionals who make their living doing specialized kinds of observations? The scientists set out to explore this, and in an area of great importance to many people — cancer diagnosis.

Radiologists are physicians with special advanced training in reading various pictures of the body — not just the one-shot X-rays of the past but complex MRI, CT and PET scans as well. In looking for signs of lung cancer, for example, radiologists examine hundreds of ultra-thin CT images of a single patient’s lungs, looking for tiny white nodules that warn of cancer. It’s these expert observers that the Brigham and Women’s scientists chose to study.

They recruited 24 experienced and credentialed radiologists — and a comparable group of naïve volunteers. They tracked their eye movements as they examined five patients’ CT scans, each made up of hundreds of images of lung tissue. Each case had about ten nodules hiding somewhere in the scans, and the radiologists were instructed to click on these nodules with a mouse. On the final case, the scientists inserted a tiny image of a gorilla (an homage to the original work) into the lung. They wanted to see if the radiologists, focused on the telltale nodules, would be blind to the easily detectable and highly anomalous gorilla.

The gorilla was miniscule, but huge compared to the nodules. It was about the size of a box of matches — or 48 times the size of a typical nodule. It faded in and out — becoming more, then less opaque — over a sequence of five images. There was no mistaking the gorilla: If someone pointed it out on the lung scan and asked, What is that? — everyone would answer: That’s a gorilla.

After they were done scrolling through the images as much as they wanted, the scientists asked them: Did that last trial seem any different? Did you notice anything unusual on the final trial? And finally: Did you see a gorilla on the final trial? Twenty of the 24 radiologists failed to see the gorilla, despite scrolling past it more than four times on average. And this was not because it was difficult to see: When shown the image again after the experiment, all of them saw the gorilla. What’s more, the eye-tracking data showed clearly that most of those who did not see the gorilla did in fact look right at it.

Learning How to Learn: My Conversation With Barbara Oakley

In this interview, Barbara Oakley, 8-time author and creator of Learning to Learn, an online course with over a million enrolled students, shares the science and strategies to learn more quickly, overcome procrastination and get better at practically anything.

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Just when I start to think I’m using my time well and getting a lot done in my life, I meet someone like Barbara Oakley.

Barbara is a true polymath. She was a captain in the U.S. Army, a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers, a radio operator in the South Pole, an engineer, university professor, researcher and the author of 8 books.

Oh, and she is also the creator and instructor of Learning to Learn, the most popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) ever(!), with over one million enrolled students.

In this fascinating interview, we cover many aspects of learning, including how to make it stick so we remember more and forget less, how to be more efficient so we learn more quickly, and how to remove that barriers that get in the way of effective learning.

Specifically, Barbara covers:

  • How she changed her brain from hating math and science to loving it so much she now teaches engineering to college students
  • What neuroscience can tell us about how to learn more effectively
  • The two modes of your brain and how that impacts what and how you learn
  • Why backing off can sometimes be the best thing you can do when learning something new
  • How to “chunk” your learning so new knowledge is woven into prior knowledge making it easily accessible
  • The best ways to develop new patterns of learning in our brains
  • How to practice a skill so you can blast through plateaus and improve more quickly
  • Her favorite tactic for dealing with procrastination so you can spend more time learning
  • The activities she recommends that rapidly increase neural connections like fertilizer on the brain
  • Whether memorization has a place in learning anymore, or simply a barrier to true understanding
  • The truth about “learning types” and how identifying as a visual or auditory learner might be setting yourself up for failure.

…and a whole lot more.

If you want to be the most efficient learner you can be, and have more fun doing it, you won’t want to miss this discussion.

Listen

Transcript
An edited copy of this transcript is available to members of our learning community or for purchase separately ($7).

If you liked this, check out all the episodes of the knowledge project.

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The three types of specialist 

The success of any revolution requires, as Kurt Vonnegut writes in Bluebeard, three types of specialists.

Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.

The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.

The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius — a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. “A genius working alone,” he says, “is invariably ignored as a lunatic.”

The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. “A person like this working alone,” says Slazinger, “can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be.”

The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. “He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting,” says Slazinger. “Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey.”

Slazinger, high as a kite, says that every successful revolution, including Abstract Expressionism, the one I took part in, had that cast of characters at the top — Pollock being the genius in our case, Lenin being the one in Russia’s, Christ being the one in Christianity’s.

He says that if you can’t get a cast like that together, you can forget changing anything in a great big way.

(via Kottke.org)

“Literature makes life much more worth living.”

Stephen Greenblatt, the current general editor of The Norton Anthology, and M. H. Abrams, the founding general editor, discuss the challenges facing the humanities curriculum and address the enduring question, Why study literature?

The Norton Anthology plays a crucial role in a humanities curriculum that is said to be under great pressure. Have you noticed the effects of this pressure?

Greenblatt: Of course we have noticed. The issue is not so much the anthology, but rather the fate of the whole enterprise of studying what Matthew Arnold called the best which has been thought and said in the world. For generations that enterprise occupied a key place in college and university education everywhere, but there are signs that it is in trouble. Humanities departments are fretting about a decline in majors, and those students who do major in literature, art, philosophy and history often clamor only for contemporary topics.

Has the Norton Anthology then lost its relevance?

Greenblatt: Not at all. The Norton Anthology was based on the idea that it actually matters to plunge into a comic masterpiece written in the 1300s or to weep at a tragedy performed in the 1700s. What would it mean for a culture to give up on its past? It is vitally important to remind people that the humanities carry the experience, the life-forms of those who came before us, into the present and into the future. Through reading literature we can make ghosts speak to us, and we can speak back to them. Besides — as many studies have shown — cultural knowledge turns out to be good for your career.

You have noted a turn away from the past among students and their teachers. Are there signs of a counter-trend back toward the basics?

Greenblatt: When I teach a course with my colleague Louis Menand that starts with Homer and goes up to Joyce, the pressure on enrollment is huge, because it turns out many students — without the compulsion of their teachers — feel that they really shouldn’t (should?) go through their undergraduate years without reading the great imaginative works of the past.

Abrams: One of the joys of teaching with the anthology is to watch the excitement grow as students, who may think the past dull and irrelevant, find how fresh and new and powerful are the kinds of writings that are hundreds of years old.


For a prospective undergraduate reading this Q. and A., how would you answer the question, Why study literature?

Abrams: Ha — Why live? Life without literature is a life reduced to penury. It expands you in every way. It illuminates what you’re doing. It shows you possibilities you haven’t thought of. It enables you to live the lives of other people than yourself. It broadens you, it makes you more human. It makes life enjoyable. There’s no end to the response you can make to that question, but Stephen has a few things to add.

Greenblatt: Literature is the most astonishing technological means that humans have created, and now practiced for thousands of years, to capture experience. For me the thrill of literature involves entering into the life worlds of others. I’m from a particular, constricted place in time, and I suddenly am part of a huge world — other times, other places, other inner lives that I otherwise would have no access to.

Abrams: Yes. Literature makes life much more worth living.

Still curious? The ninth edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature weighs in at six volumes (package 1 and 2) The single-volume eighth edition weighs in at a hefty 3024 pages.

Maya Angelou on Haters, Life, Reading, and Love

Maya Angelou

I’ve been slowly working my way through some of Maya Angelou’s material. Notably, Conversations with Maya Angelou, Letters to my Daughter, and What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self. Through that I’ve pulled out these 25 quotes that resonated with me. They offer timeless wisdom and advice on everything from what to do with haters to the importance of reading and love.

If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

Continue to be bold, courageous. Try to choose the wisest thing and once you’ve chosen the wisest thing go out and try to achieve it. Be it.

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s) he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

Those of us who submitted or surrendered our ideas and dreams and identities to the ‘leaders’ must take back our rights, our identities, our responsibilities.

For a person who grew up in the ’30s and ’40s in the segregated South, with so many doors closed without explanation to me, libraries and books said, ‘Here I am, read me.’ Over time I have learned I am at my best around books.

I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes- it is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, ‘Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,’ that’s all. So you say to people who you think you may have injured, ‘I’m sorry,’ and then you say to yourself, ‘I’m sorry.’ If we all hold on to the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you. When a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that’s rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don’t have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.

You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.

All men are prepared to accomplish the incredible if their ideals are threatened.

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

A cynical young person is almost the saddest sight to see, because it means that he or she has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.

I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being— what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.

If a human being dreams a great dream, dares to love somebody; if a human being dares to be Martin King, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Mother Theresa, or Malcolm X; if a human being dares to be bigger than the condition into which she or he was born—it means so can you. And so you can try to stretch, stretch, stretch yourself so you can internalize, ‘Homo sum, humani nil a me alienum puto. I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.’ That’s one thing I’m learning.

When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.

I would say you might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever. In fact, it might even be necessary to confront defeat. It might be necessary, to get over it, all the way through it, and go on. I would teach her to laugh a lot. Laugh a lot at the — and the silliest things and be very, very serious. I’d teach her to love life, I can bet you that.

We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.

Remember, people will judge you by your actions not your intentions. You may have a heart of gold but so does a hard-boiled egg.

It is sad but true that sometimes we need the tragedy to help us to see how human we are and how we are more alike than we are different.

My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring still.

Life is pure adventure, and the sooner we realize that, the quicker we will be able to treat life as art.

Although nature has proven season in and season out that if the thing that is planted bears at all, it will yield more of itself, there are those who seem certain that if they plant tomato seeds, at harvesttime they can reap onions. – Too many times for comfort I have expected to reap good when I know I have sown evil. My lame excuse is that I have not always known that actions can only reproduce themselves, or rather, I have not always allowed myself to be aware of that knowledge. Now, after years of observation and enough courage to admit what I have observed, I try to plant peace if I do not want discord; to plant loyalty and honesty if I want to avoid betrayal and lies. – Of course, there is no absolute assurance that those things I plant will always fall upon arable land and will take root and grow, nor can I know if another cultivator did not leave contrary seeds before I arrived. I do know, however, that if I leave little to chance, if I am careful about the kinds of seeds I plant, about their potency and nature, I can, within reason, trust my expectations.

The problem I have with haters is that they see my glory, but they don’t know my story…

I am grateful to have been loved and to be loved now and to be able to love, because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold—that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind. Love says, ‘I love you. I love you if you’re in China. I love you if you’re across town. I love you if you’re in Harlem. I love you. I would like to be near you. I’d like to have your arms around me. I’d like to hear your voice in my ear. But that’s not possible now, so I love you. Go.

To get a better sense of Angelou’s genius, you don’t have to read her Collected Poems. You can start with one of these three: Conversations with Maya Angelou, Letters to my Daughter, or What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self.

Seneca on The One Thing Nature Loans us That we Cannot Repay

“Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.”

— Seneca

Near the end of his life, the Roman philosopher Seneca weaved beautiful and timeless insights into letters to his friends.

This letter from Seneca to Lucilius, found in the wonderful collection Seneca, Volume IV, Epistles 1-65, is on the subject of saving time but also offers a timeless reminder on how we squander it as well.

Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius—set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words,—that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach. The most disgraceful kind of loss, however, is that due to carelessness. Furthermore, if you will pay close heed to the problem, you will find that the largest portion of our life passes while we are doing ill, a goodly share while we are doing nothing, and the whole while we are doing that which is not to the purpose. What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands.

Therefore, Lucilius, do as you write me that you are doing: hold every hour in your grasp. Lay hold of to-day’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon to-morrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by. Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity,—time! And yet time is the one loan which even a grateful recipient cannot repay.

You may desire to know how I, who preach to you so freely, am practising. I confess frankly: my expense account balances, as you would expect from one who is free-handed but careful. I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can at least tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man. My situation, however, is the same as that of many who are reduced to slender means through no fault of their own: every one forgives them, but no one comes to their rescue.

What is the state of things, then? It is this: I do not regard a man as poor, if the little which remains is enough for him. I advise you, however, to keep what is really yours; and you cannot begin too early. For, as our ancestors believed, it is too late to spare when you reach the dregs of the cask.a Of that which remains at the bottom, the amount is slight, and the quality is vile. Farewell.

The Epistles make a gentle introduction to Seneca and stoic philosophy. For more recommendations, see the stoic reading list.

Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story

“Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” — William Archer

Joan Didion famously remarked that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She was right. Business has become a story too. If you want more resources you need to tell a story. If you want to get promoted you need a story. It seems nothing can get done these days without powerpoint. Nancy Duarte has made an art of telling stories through presentations. Companies want their products to become part of our personal narrative.

Most of us know what goes into a good story. We just have to remember it from childhood.

There are dangers to storytelling as Tyler Cowen has pointed out. We deal with complexity by constructing simple narratives. If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” many of us fail.

Adding to our growing body of knowledge on storytelling, filmmaker Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, WALL-E) shares what he knows about storytelling — starting at the end and working back to the beginning.

Storytelling … (is) knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings. We all love stories. We’re born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future, and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.

The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, which is “Make me care” — please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care. We all know what it’s like to not care. You’ve gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching channel after channel, and then suddenly you actually stop on one. It’s already halfway over, but something’s caught you and you’re drawn in and you care. That’s not by chance, that’s by design.

[…]

A well told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot and propels you forward through the story to the end.

Storytelling without dialogue. It’s the purest form of cinematic storytelling. It’s the most inclusive approach you can take. It confirmed something I really had a hunch on, is that the audience actually wants to work for their meal. They just don’t want to know that they’re doing that. That’s your job as a storyteller, is to hide the fact that you’re making them work for their meal. We’re born problem solvers. We’re compelled to deduce and to deduct, because that’s what we do in real life. It’s this well-organized absence of information that draws us in. There’s a reason that we’re all attracted to an infant or a puppy. It’s not just that they’re damn cute; it’s because they can’t completely express what they’re thinking and what their intentions are. And it’s like a magnet. We can’t stop ourselves from wanting to complete the sentence and fill it in.

And further in the video Stanton explains the spine that drives action and how that fits into the narrative.

I took a seminar in this year with an acting teacher named Judith Weston. And I learned a key insight to character. She believed that all well-drawn characters have a spine. And the idea is that the character has an inner motor, a dominant, unconscious goal that they’re striving for, an itch that they can’t scratch. She gave a wonderful example of Michael Corleone, Al Pacino’s character in “The Godfather,” and that probably his spine was to please his father. And it’s something that always drove all his choices. Even after his father died, he was still trying to scratch that itch. I took to this like a duck to water. Wall-E’s was to find the beauty. Marlin’s, the father in “Finding Nemo,” was to prevent harm. And Woody’s was to do what was best for his child. And these spines don’t always drive you to make the best choices. Sometimes you can make some horrible choices with them.

More than just stories, Stanton highlights some fundamental psychology:

So how do you make a selfish character likable? We realized, you can make him kind, generous, funny, considerate, as long as one condition is met for him, is that he stays the top toy. And that’s what it really is, is that we all live life conditionally. We’re all willing to play by the rules and follow things along, as long as certain conditions are met. After that, all bets are off.

When done right, storytelling comes from a place of good intentions.

Use what you know. Draw from it. It doesn’t always mean plot or fact. It means capturing a truth from your experiencing it, expressing values you personally feel deep down in your core.

My Life In Middlemarch

middlemarch

Rebecca Mead has written a book like no other I’ve come across. My Life In Middlemarch is an irresistibly creative story about how her favorite book, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, changed her and perhaps more importantly, changed as she read and re-read it over the years.

Commenting on how books were a part of her identity, Mead writes:

Books gave us a way to shape ourselves—to form our thoughts and to signal to each other who we were and who we wanted to be. … Though I would not have been able to say so at the time, I sought to identify myself with the kind of intelligence I found in Middlemarch—with its range, its wit, its seriousness, its erudition, its deep feeling.

On her fascination with Middlemarch, looking back she writes:

I admired the little I knew of George Eliot’s life: her daunting, self-willed transformation from provincial girlhood to metropolitan preeminence, a good story to hear if one is an anxiously ambitious girl from a backwater town. I was intrigued by her adoption of a masculine pseudonym, by which she continued to be known throughout her life as a novelist, even after her identity was revealed early in her fiction-writing career. I knew that some important critics considered Middlemarch to be the greatest novel in the English language, and I wanted to be among those who understood why. I loved Middlemarch, and I loved being the kind of person who loved it. It gratified my aspirations to maturity and learnedness. To have read it, and to have appreciated it, seemed a step on the road to being one of the grown-ups for who it was written.

Commenting on the value of re-reading, Mead says:

Middlemarch was one book I have never stopped reading, despite all the distractions of a busy working life. I went back to it as a student … I read it again in my twenties … In my thirties, trying to establish myself as a serious writer, I was struck with new, poignant force by the story of Lydgate—the ambitious would-be reformer who becomes, instead, a society doctor known for a treatise on gout, “a disease which has a good deal of wealth on its side,” in Eliot’s pointed observation. The novel opened up to me further every time I went back to it and by my early forties it had come to have yet another resonance. In a far from singular crisis, I had recently become consumed by a sense of doors closing behind me, alternative lives unlived: work I might have done, places I might have moved to, men I might have married, children I might have borne. In this light, a book that had once seemed to be all about the hopes and desires of youth now seemed to cover a melancholy dissection of the resignations that attend middle age, the paths untrodden and the choices unmade.

Being a journalist for years had shaped Mead. Armed with a better sense of nuance and questions to ask, she once again took up the cause to look at something “familiar from an unfamiliar angle,” wondering what she would find.

Cloaked in this quasi-objective spirit of inquiry was another set of questions, these ones more personal, and pressing, and secret. What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life? Why did the novel still feel so urgent, after all these years? and what could it give me now, as I paused here in the middle of things and surveyed where I had come from, and then thought about where I was, and wondered where I might go next?

The book is full of interesting stories. Like the one on how Charles Dickens suspected that George Eliot was, in fact, a man. When Eliot’s first work of fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, was published, Dickens wrote to the publisher, noting, “If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman since the world began.” A short time after Adam Bede, her first book, was published her identity was revealed. Dickens commented, “‘Adam Bede’ has taken its place among the actual experiences and endurances of my life.”

Commenting on the value of reading, Mead writes:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree. This kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. It might lead us back to the library in midlife, looking for something that eluded us before.

My Life In Middlemarch is part memoir, part mini-biography of the great Victorian writer George Eliot, who was born Mary Ann Evans, and part homage to great literature.