Countless books have been described, in regrettable cliché, as “impossible to put down.” Avid readers may wish to consider instead some of the great ones that they must put down, many times, during weeks or months of devoted reading.
These are the ambitious, daunting works of fiction targeted by “Mission Impossible,” an Evanston Library book discussion and support group. The group’s goal each year is to climb, together, an Everest or Matterhorn of literature. This year’s Alp is George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.”
A reader will not climb the Matterhorn alone, or fast, and likewise “Middlemarch” (at about 800 pages) is to be summited in teams, slowly.
“Reading a book over six to nine months allows us to read ten pages a day,” said participant Kevin Coughlin, “and still have time for other books.” He is an M.I. veteran, having tackled the program’s four previous works: Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Flannery O’Connor’s stories, and Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.”
The M.I. program began in 2010 with the famously unsummitable “Ulysses” and a bold motto: “The Few. The Proud. The Persistent.” More than 100 intrepid Evanston readers cracked open their Joyces that year. About half finished.
“Mission Impossible attracted me as an opportunity to redo my college ‘Ulysses’ experience,” noted participant Gretchen Livingston, “but it then drew in my husband with ‘War and Peace,’ which we read together.”
The sherpa guides for the assault on “Middlemarch” are the small-group M.I. discussion leaders: EPL staffers Lesley Williams, Heather Norborg, Nancy Engel and Russell Johnson and volunteer Neil Lukatch, each of whom brings experience and wit to the task.
Mr. Lukatch lauds the novel’s “analytical, wise English realism,” which seeks “to understand and reconcile.”
Mr. Johnson deadpanned that he has never lost a Mission Impossible climber on his previous four ascents.
“I’ve had a few who needed to turn back around page 500 due to dizziness, but after some beach-reads at base camp, they were always ready for the next climb,” he said.
But in fact the climb can be accomplished without supplemental oxygen or special equipment – and mostly in an armchair. One need leave that armchair only bi-monthly, for small group discussions at one of four sites: the Main Library, the North Branch, the Celtic Knot, and Bookends & Beginnings bookstore.
In “Middlemarch,” readers will tackle a work considered by Virginia Woolf to be “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Critic Rebecca Mead, writing in The New Yorker, noted that “it is a book about how to be a grown-up – how to bear one’s share of failure and loss, as well as to enjoy hard-won happiness.”
And there is no great shame in not finishing. The novel’s heroine, Dorothea, hints at the author’s philosophy when she declares, “Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.” Likewise, Mission Impossible is about perseverance more than attainment.
Registration for M.I. begins on Sept. 10. Readers can sign up at EPL.org or
call EPL’s Reader’s Services department, 847-448-8620. The kick-off lecture, by Northwestern Professor Jules Law, is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Sept. 10.
No registration is required.