Near the beginning of Middlemarch, the dried-up quasi-intellectual Edward Casaubon and the preposterously glib Mr. Brooke (“human reason may carry you a little too far –over the hedge, in fact. It carried me a good way at one time; but I saw it would not do. I pulled up; I pulled up in time.”) are talking about the life of the mind. Or, at least, Brooke is chattering away about it, while Casaubon continually denies any familiarity with living authors or debates.
Then, Brooke realizes he has a bona fide author at his house, and, the following exchange occurs:
“Yes,” said Mr. Brooke, with an easy smile, “but I have documents. I began a while ago to collect documents. They want arranging, but when a question has struck me, I have written to someone hand got an answer. I have documents at my back. But now, how do you arrange your documents?”
“In pigeon holes partly,” said Mr. Casaubon, with rather a startled air of effort.
“Ah, pigeon-holes will not do. I have tried pigeon-holes, but everything gets mixed in pigeon-holes: I never know whether a paper is in A or Z.”
But of course it’s not the system, it’s the man that’s mixed.
Any time I teach Middlemarch, I can’t help but think that reading other writers is a kind of fall from grace.