Edward Mendelson,
The Things That Matter:
What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say
about the Stages of Life

(Pantheon, 2006)

It is sometimes difficult, especially during a boring English class, to remember that the classic works of literature are telling great stories. What makes them classics is not necessarily the symbolism and hidden themes (on which there will be a quiz later), but what the authors say about everyday subjects like birth, death, love and family life.

In The Things That Matter, Edward Mendelson relates each of seven classic English novels to a different stage of life. Or, in his own words, "This book is about life as it is interpreted by books." The novels are Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts, with the corresponding stages being birth, childhood, growth, marriage, love, parenthood and the future.

This book could have been deadly dull, almost as dull as those English classes that you slept through in high school and college, but it isn't. Mendelson's writing is easily accessible. He does a good job of summarizing all seven novels under discussion, making it not necessary to have read all of them to follow along (which is good, since I've only read Jane Eyre and Frankenstein).

The Things That Matter may not be something you'd pick up for light reading, but it certainly sheds more light on these seven novels, and might make reading them that much more enjoyable. And if you add some or all of the seven classics to your reading list, so much the better.

review by
Laurie Thayer

21 July 2007

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