Reading Coates Reading Eliot

by Tedra Osell on December 21, 2011

If you’re not following Ta-Nehisi Coates as he reads Eliot’s <i>Middlemarch</i>, you’re really missing out. It’s one of my favorite novels, so I’m having great fun reading someone who is really smart read something I’m familiar with for the first time. I love reading Coates, and in this case especially so. He’s no callow undergrad and he writes better than anyone I can think of, which means reading him is not merely the familiar pleasure of observing students’ first encounter with a familiar novel. His frame of reference is totally intellectual but not “academic” in the conventional sense: rigorous but really fresh. His go-to for beautiful language is hip hop, which I like just fine but am not particularly familiar with, so I’m getting new insights into Eliot along with a little mini-education in rap music, plus occasional comparisons to his research into the Civil War (which has anyone posted here about that yet? Because damn). Just so much fun.

<a href=””>’Greedy of Clutch'</a>

<a href=””>Shirley Chisolm, Cont.</a>

<a href=””>The Notorious George Eliot</a>

<a href=””>George Eliot’s Spellcraft</a>

<a href=””>George Eliot Conversates</a>

<a href=””>’All the Light I Can Command'</a>

<a href=””>Into the Canon: Middlemarch</a>

<a href=””>Into the Canon</a>

(Those are all the posts I could find. <i>The Atlantic</i> needs an easier way of searching their blogging archives.)



Josh Jasper 12.21.11 at 5:23 am

Overall search functionality at The Atlantic was apparently designed by a semi literate intern using an “intro to web design” book from 1995.


nick s 12.21.11 at 6:13 am

He’s such a generous reader, which is what makes his pieces so enjoyable, not least because he’s able to lock into the generosity of Eliot’s narrator.

(Someone elsewhere mentioned Coates in the context of you-know-who’s death, and I can’t think of a more different writer within the American mediasphere.)


Belle Waring 12.21.11 at 7:06 am

I know, it’s been so great watching such a sensitive reader read it for the first time. I read it when I was bed-bound with illness, it was good for that. I share his feeling that I don’t care as much about any of the characters as the writer, but at the same time she manages to fuck with you pretty hard in some endings for people. It’ll be interesting to see how Coates feels about that. I feel indignant about that Casaubon fucker to this day. Stuck in bed again; I should be reading things but I am at a peak of annoyance with all the physical world and demand movies, with headphones. Not even! TV shows. I demand mediocrity so as not to shame my weakened state with challenges.


Caroline Abbott 12.21.11 at 7:09 am

I successfully avoided any post-high school encounter with Jane Austen until Coates slyly enticed me with his wonderful series of posts.

nick s is right: he is a generous reader, and recognizes other writers’ strengths. When Coates read Ulysses S. Grants memoirs, he remarked upon the historical circumstances of Grant’s decision to publish, the clarity of Grant’s prose, the accuracy with which Grant described historical events, and the Grant’s insights into military and political strategy.

I can hardly wait to discover what Coates will have me read next.


Emma in Sydney 12.21.11 at 7:12 am

I am loving those posts too. It really is great to see someone whose work you really admire discover someone else’s work you really admire. And TNC has also built one of the best communities of commenters on the net, so it’s really a pleasure to hang out there. There are side conversations on Facebook too, but I usually don’t have time to follow them.


SamInMpls 12.21.11 at 7:14 am

I have found that the only way to follow bloggers The Atlantic is to use each RSS feed and use the RSS reader’s functionality to either to tag individual posts or switch back and forth from newest first to oldest first. It is less than ideal but not nearly as bad as digging through the TNR archives only to find that the article in question, while searchable through Google, is only available in .pdf format. Then 404 errors and hilarity ensue.


William Timberman 12.21.11 at 2:59 pm

A splendid writer on a splendid writer. Life is sometimes much better than one has any right to expect.


Katya 12.21.11 at 3:57 pm

I’ve long been of the opinion that Middlemarch is the greatest novel written in English, and it’s always wonderful to see a sensitive and attentive reader discover it for the first time. Eliot had such warm and intelligent sympathy for the human condition.

This line by Coates really stuck with me:

One of the great things about my trip through the Western canon is the way I’ve seen so much of what I considered to be “street knowledge” confirmed as simply “knowledge.” I came up different. My canon was Baldwin, Hurston, Armah, Morrison, James, Soyinka, Rodney, Diop, Baraka, Neal etc. I was told that these writers and scholars reflected my world, and I loved them–still love of them.

But so much of the best of them is just the best of humanity.


Maria 12.21.11 at 4:23 pm

I can’t add much to what everyone else is saying about how wonderful it is to read TNC on Middlemarch, except to say that before he started posting on it, I’d thought I couldn’t possibly love his blog more. Wrong!


Daniel S. Goldberg 12.21.11 at 6:15 pm

Interesting that Belle notes her first reading of Middlemarch occurred when she was ill, as aside from being an obviously amazing work in its own right, Middlemarch is rightfully considered one of the seminal modern English-language texts in literature & medicine scholarship (see, e.g., Caldwell 2004; Logan 1991) and is standard in most basic L&M textbooks and curricula.

Agreed on the general quality of TNC’s posts, and on Middlemarch.


SamChevre 12.21.11 at 8:22 pm

Just popping my head up to say that if you aren’t reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, you should be. Just in the last month–the two Empathy pieces (responding to the “if if were a poor black kid” kerfluffle) are amazing. And this reflection on family histories is incredible.


Tedra Osell 12.21.11 at 8:25 pm

Yes, “generous reader” is a good phrase. I don’t think there’s anyone in public life right now who is as intellectually honest as Coates–able to put aside his preconceptions and enter into other ways of seeing the world.

For some reason it suddenly occurs to me that the late lamented DFW said things suggesting that he wanted to be that kind of person/reader/writer, but couldn’t get his thoughts out of the way. Hm.


Tedra Osell 12.21.11 at 8:30 pm

The post of his I loved most recently was the one about black ownership of the civil war. I can’t wait for his novel to come out.


Sprizouse 12.21.11 at 9:23 pm

This might help with your mini-education into rap.


absurdbeats 12.22.11 at 1:38 am

I’ve been compiling—tho’ have fallen waaaaay behind—all of TNC’s Civil War posts; you can find links to the posts here:

I’ve also pulled out from those posts books and articles he mentions:

I do plan to update this over the next couple of weeks, but this is at least a start.


garymar 12.22.11 at 9:16 am

TNC brings up points that even now I remember from a college reading of the novel. The comparison between men’s and women’s minds — even a man’s ignorance is sounder! Also, the “elegant canary bird” line: Casaubon wanted his wife to be an elegant canary bird that goggles mindlessly and approvingly at his deep thoughts. This last has been a constant joke in our household for at least two decades.


Freddie deBoer 12.22.11 at 2:23 pm

I need to add some of this to a post. Too perfect.


Tedra Osell 12.22.11 at 9:48 pm

absurdbeats and Sprizouse, thank you for the links!


Joe 12.25.11 at 6:33 am

I remember struggling through Eliot’s unabridged Silas Marner in high school English Lit. I had completely forgotten all about it until Wikipedia told me the 2006 film starring Samuel L. Jackson/Christina Ricci, Black Snake Moan, was loosely based on Silas Marner!

Yes, this is the same Black Snake Moan where a barely dressed Ricci is shackled to a radiator by Sam Jackson for most of the running time. I have yet to see this film, but it suddenly shot up in my to-watch list.

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