Name a book you found impossible to complete. That’s a question posed by my mate, Barney. I give him two for one: The Brothers Karamazov and Middlemarch. Both are simply too voluminous, I inform him, adding that I also happened to undertake reading those books at a too-distracted age: 16.
This was when I was setting my sights on being a cricketer, a concert pianist or a forensic scientist, not necessarily in that order. My mother disabused me of the last two mentioned by simply uttering three different words: “Don’t be silly” and “How’s your chemistry?” respectively.
My dad, however, gave silent encouragement to cricket by turning up at the local grounds to watch. He was on hand, as a matter of fact, when during one important game two overs of my slow left-arm spin got hit to all parts of the ground — all this in a day when six-hitting was severely frowned upon, particularly by the bowler and the captain who’d handed you the ball.
That virtually put paid to cricketing dreams for me and sent me looking for consolation between the covers of books. Lots of books. But not the two mentioned above. Anyhow, when Barney hears that one of my “impossible to finish” books was Middlemarch, he sits up straight in his chair.
“Middlemarch? Count me in, too,” he says, “but not for the same reason.” Now, Barney being Barney, he’d like for me to ask what his real reason is for not finishing Middlemarch.
Somehow, traipsing through the pages of Middlemarch you discover you’ve entered the halls of The Shouting Stage. And you never ever pick up the book again
And because I know it, I refrain from doing so. Just to needle him. Barney is easily needled; one only has to watch him and Mrs Barney in conversation to know who comes out stung more regularly and who maintains an air of unruffled cool.
“We’ve both reached what’s commonly referred to as The Shouting Stage in our marriage,” he informed me once, by way of dispensing “too much information”. Statements like that are classic at shooting down a conversation because, I mean, how does one respond? What does one say when one doesn’t wish to get involved? Nothing, precisely. So there ended the conversation.
On this occasion, however, our discussion has come to a premature cessation because Barney is waiting for me to inquire why he has never finished Middlemarch. In the end he says, “Do you remember I told you once that her and I are at the Shouting Stage?” (Mrs Barney is frequently ‘her’ in conversation.)
I think to myself, “Oh no, not again. This is where discussions come to die.” But Barney continues, “There was a wonderful phase before that, you know. Years of it. We were so blissfully happy, so … lost in each other, it’s hard to believe. This is the Selfless Stage,” he informs me, “You forget about yourself, your ego. You think only of the other. You read the same books. You share the same books.”
And then, one day, you find secreted in the pages of the voluminous Middlemarch, a handwritten note on blue-lined paper. On the note are the words: “To tell you about my thoughts is to locate myself in a category. To tell you about my feelings is to tell you about me.”
The note is not in your handwriting, or in hers. And you think, with a heavy heart, she’s got a secret admirer. And though it’s all a mistake, the note is actually her girlfriend’s written to the girlfriend’s beau, from whom the book has been borrowed, nothing will ever be the same again. Somehow, traipsing through the pages of Middlemarch you discover you’ve entered the halls of The Shouting Stage. And you never ever pick up the book again.
—Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.