The Paris Review

The Most Unread Book Ever Acclaimed

Like the holy books, long novels are more often maligned than read. Critics complain that they’re exasperating or impossible or not worth the time. But in the history of my reading life, I’ve encountered nothing like the caveat lectors surrounding Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. They feel less like user warnings or cautionary tales than being forced to gaze upon the skeletons of those who had previously made the attempt. When it was published in 1965, the critic Peter Prescott gave up after two days, even though his editor offered him four times the normal rate (everyone else had refused). The online reader reviews I found vary between naked revulsion and sheepish endorsement. One Amazon reviewer claims he gave a copy of the twelve-hundred-page novel to each of his friends and promised that if they finished, he would pay for their children’s college education. “I’ve paid for no one’s education!” he writes. Upon Young’s death in 1995, thirty years after the novel was published, the New York Times proclaims it “one of the most widely unread books ever acclaimed.”

I came across Young by way of her essay “The Midwest of Everywhere,” a short piece about a series of bizarre sights she claims to have witnessed firsthand in the American interior: elephants browsing the banks of the Wabash River; an entire town populated by deaf people; a dead whale in a boxcar, stranded in the middle of a cornfield. Young was born in Indiana and spent many decades in the Midwest—at the University of Chicago, where. I have always lived in the Midwest and had often defended it against reductive stereotypes. But the notion that it was an economic and political wilderness had become such an insistent article of national consensus that I’d begun to doubt my own frames of reference. I was not in a particularly ambitious mood that winter, but I kept thinking about the strange consciousness I’d glimpsed in the essay. A couple days later, I found a copy of . 

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