09/24/2012 12:42 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2012

The Word Collector: George Eliot's 'Middlemarch'

I keep a little journal with me while I read so that I can copy down passages that I love. The process of writing down these quotes is tactile and intimate. As I copy, the words feel like objects that I can hold in my hand, ruminate over, stare at, smell and touch.

In this blog, which I call "The Word Collector," I plan to highlight passages that I've found in my travels through books. I hope readers will post quotes of their own, or comment on those they see here. I'm curious, too, about your reactions to the books you read. What kinds of words and sentences strike you most deeply? What do you look for when you read? What books are precious to you? Which do you always recommend?

My first contribution to this series comes from George Eliot's Middlemarch:

"Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress."

Nearly 150 years after it was published, it's easy to pick up a novel like Middlemarch with a feeling of "Oh, dear, how am I going to get through this?" The book is almost a thousand pages long. But, like Dickens and Tolstoy, Eliot was really writing several interconnected stories in one, creating a whole world for us. This "Miss Brooke" is central to the story, but so is ambitious, short-sighted Dr. Tertius Lydgate, impulsive Will Ladislaw, the small-minded Reverend Casaubon, and lovely, willful Rosamund Vincy (sometimes you'll want to wring her pretty neck.) It's as gripping as The Sopranos, but less bloody and more profound.

Eliot somehow set up the whole of the novel with that simple and surprising first line about Miss Brooke and her ugly outfits. Maybe that's why I love it so much.