The Value in the Big Read

It took 7 months, but I’ve just finished George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

When my daughter was born, 9 months ago, I was often left wide awake, in the middle of the night, having just completed a feed. This is where the Kindle Paperwhite came into its own; I could read (for free), great works of literature, without turning on the bedside lamp and waking my partner.

I went with Middlemarch for myriad reasons:

  1. It was long (I anticipated a lot of sleepless nights)
  2. It was free
  3. I’d often heard it cited as one of the greatest novels ever written
  4. It was a ‘classic’; as I’ve said before, I try and avoid pop fiction where possible, instead preferring to put myself on a level playing field with the cultural elite.
  5. It was written by a woman. I want to read more books by women.

If you’d asked me, at any point, over the past 7 months, how I was enjoying Middlemarch, I would have replied with an unenthusiastic, “It’s alright, yeah. Not bad.”

I mean, I wouldn’t say it thrilled me, or blew my mind. In fact, if I’m honest, the only thing that kept me going, was, among the multitudinous plots contained within the novel,  a plot concerning unrequited love which is not resolved until the penultimate chapter of the novel. I love a love story, me. 

However, as I wrote ‘Middlemarch’ on the ‘Reading Wall’ in my classroom the other day, I surprised myself by scrawling, alongside it, 4 stars. That’s out of 5. That’s an enjoyment rating of 80%. That’s a “You should definitely read this book” rating. 

All for a book that is largely about legal disputes and discussions about border estates and medical practice. 4 stars. 

The 4 star rating isn’t all down to the love story. It’s down to something else.

Daniel Kahnemann makes a distinction between two types of happiness, which I will call (because I can’t be arsed to Google Kahnemann’s nomenclature) ‘Experience Happiness’ and ‘Post-experience Happiness’. The first type is the happiness we are privy to as we experience an event. For example, the thrill that one might experience as one completes a sky-dive. Post-Experience happiness, on the other hand, is the happiness one experiences after the fact. For example, you might absolutely hate sky-diving, and the actual experience may have been a horrendous mess of defecation and despair, and yet, the fact that you completed it, without dying, and the fact that you can brag about how brave you were (lying), brings you happiness.

Kahnemann says thinking of happiness this way should influence the way we prioritise our spending. He says that it could change the way we book holidays: I, for example, would never enjoy a skiing holiday. It would not bring me ‘Experience Happiness’. And yet, as my more senior colleagues rattle off the names of French ski resorts the way pubescents rattle off expletives, I realise that in years time, when I’m parking in the space closest to the school building, and teaching 6 lessons a week instead of 600, I could well revel in the ‘Post-Experience Happiness’ of that holiday. My memory of that skiing holiday has enabled me to bore people to death with tales of black runs and reflective glasses which has facilitated my dizzying chair-lift ride to the top of the educational piste.

Reading is just the same. Middlemarch-or, more specifically, the act of reading Middlemarch, whilst tedious to read at times, has actually given me ‘Post-experience Happiness.’

 I can now:

  • Enjoy the satisfaction one gets from being faced with a monumental task and getting through it.
  • Brag about having read it to colleagues I know haven’t.
  • Make witty references to it at dinner parties in order to make my superiors feel inferior to me.

So, the next time you’re sloggig your way through a lengthy tome that you’re really not enjoying,  think: 

Will finishing this book benefit me in a way that will make me feel happy long after it’s been consigned to the dusty depths of the charity shop’s book bucket? If the answer is yes, plough on my friend! Plough on!