The Muddle Ground

I was having a conversation with somebody very bookish last week. I don’t mean that in a bad way–not that I’ve ever seen “bookish” as being particularly negative–but in the sense that she knows an awful lot about books. About books, about the people who write them and about the people who read them.

She told me that she’d recently heard of a teacher telling a class of secondary-school students that if they were having trouble with a book, they should read the first page, the last page and the middle page – and that this would give them a framework for the story. The middle page, in particular, would be the one that told them what the story was about.

At this point, we had to pause our conversation so my eyebrows could be retrieved from the ceiling. But once the stepladder was safely back in its cupboard, it occurred to me that this is a marvellous theory. Think of the time it’ll save reviewers, for starters. In fact, think of the time it’ll save all of us! We’ll never have to read a book from end to end again!

Now. You know me. I’m an old cynic. So I thought it might be fun to try a little experiment. It’s Monday, after all, and we may as well have a bit of fun. It’s not terribly scientific, but since when have I ever let that stop me?

Below you’ll find the approximate middle of several books I’ve picked from my shelves at random. None of them are obscure limited editions or anything like that. These are all mass-market editions of well-known books. True, they’re books I own, so they’re going to reflect my taste to a degree, but in the Great Venn Diagram of the Internet, that means they may well reflect yours too.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to identify each book and to consider how true the “middle of the middle” theory is in each case.

Just to make things a little trickier, I’ve changed character (and place) names where appropriate. Your main characters are now Bill, Bob, Betty and Bernadette, who will be ably assisted by their friends from all over the alphabet. They live in Billingsgate, just so we’re clear, although they’ve been to Belgium and… um, other places beginning with other letters. So don’t think I’m losing my mind when these names keep popping up.

These are all “straight-narrative” books–just in case you’re wondering. No complicated formats, no epistolary novels, no time-travel gimmicks. Just the beginning-middle-end straight-shot books.

So. With no further ado….


Bill had died in prison, when what the infirmary had told him was just a malingering, feeling-lousy kind of day turned out to be a ruptured appendix. Now, here in the Billingsgate library, Bob found himself thinking about a garage in Belgium with box after box of rare, strange and beautiful books in it rotting away, all of them browning and wilting and being eaten by mold and insects in the darkness, waiting for someone who would never come to set them free.

Native American Beliefs and Traditions were on a single shelf in one castle-like turret. Bob pulled down some books and sat in the window seat. In several minutes he had learned that thunderbirds were mythical gigantic birds who lived on mountaintops, who brought the lightning and who flapped their wings to make the thunder. There were some tribes, he read, who believed that the thunderbirds had made the world. Another half hour’s reading did not turn up anything more, and he could find no mention of eagle stones anywhere in the books’ indexes.


The difficulty is Betty, as always. After dinner she goes to their bedroom, from where she could conceivably hear me as I sneak along the hall, although I take care to be very quiet. Or she stays in the sitting room, knitting away at her endless Angel scarves, turning out more and more yards of intricate and useless wool people: her form of procreation, it must be. The sitting-room door is usually left ajar when she’s in there, and I don’t dare to go past it. When I’ve had the signal but can’t make it, down the stairs or along the hall past the sitting room, Bob understands. He knows my situation, none better. He knows all the rules.


The silence and the loneliness were dreadful. In fact, I think he might have given up the whole plan and gone back and owned up and made friends with the others, if he hadn’t happened to say to himself, “When I’m King of Belgium the first thing I shall do will be to make some decent roads.” And of course that set him off thinking about being a King and all the other things he would do and this cheered him up a good deal.


He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast getting goaded to death with knives and spears.

I observed several splashes of blood about the bark of the tree, and his hand and forehead were both stained; probably the scene I witnessed was a repetition of others acted during the night. It hardly moved my compassion–it appalled me; still I felt reluctant to quit him so. But the moment he recollected himself enough to notice me watching, he thundered a command for me to go, and I obeyed. He was quite beyond my skill to quiet or console!


Bob looked at Bill. “When I think back to that day–”

“You were there?” interrupted Bill. “You went on the mission?”

“Of course,” replied Bob. “Me, your father, Brian Babesson and seventeen other Belgian men. We flew in on the 18th of March 1993, and we reached the factory in the late morning of the following day.”

“What happened?”

“They were waiting for us. More than seventy vampires, all well fed and rested, wide awake and waiting when we went through the door. I noticed that the black paint covering the windows was still wet, and I told your father, who ordered everyone to retreat. But it was too late. They came down from the rafters. We never stood a chance.”


(because I know you’ll get it straight away, but I think we should have it regardless…)

“I know it sounds stupid, Bob, but we think it might have caught something off Bill.”

“Daftness, you mean?”

“That’s ridiculous, boy!’ said Brian. “Idiocy is not a communicable disease.”

Baxter puffed his pipe.

“I used to think that too,” he said. “Now, I’m not so sure. Anyway, you can catch wisdom, can’t you?”

“No, you can’t,” snapped Brian. “It’s not like ‘flu. Wisdom is… well, instilled.”

There you go. Have it it, boys and girls. I’m going to go and make Bob, Bill and all their friends a cup of tea. I think they’ve earned it.



  1. [gasp] I have most of these!

    1. American Gods (Gaiman is one of my absolute favourites!) – fairly indicative, but not entirely.
    2. Handmaid’s Tale – not at all, I don’t think.
    3. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – absolutely.
    4. Mmmmm, I know it’s a Brontë, but I can’t think which one – can’t answer because I can’t remember which book. 😦
    5. I don’t know this one, but I’d like to know what it is. It seems like something I’d enjoy.

    Bonus: Hogfather! – quite representative of Pratchett’s work as a whole.

    1. That’s impressive: straight off the bat, you’ve got almost all of them!

      Number 4 was indeed a Bronte: it was “Wuthering Heights”, while the only one that got away was number 5: “Department 19” by Will Hill (which I highly recommend, by the way).

      I think the Gaiman does surprisingly well out of this experiment – at least you’re left with the vaguest sort of idea what the book might be about – as does “Wuthering Heights” (this section is Heathcliff’s rather dramatic approach to grieving…).

      “Department 19” is interesting as an example, because the middle-of-the-middle is actually a pretty crucial section–and, with hindsight, may not *tell* you what the book is about, but it certainly feels like the heart of it.

      While I’m not sure about the others (I’d never have got the C.S. Lewis in my own test: not with the names changed – I’d probably have thought it was “The Once & Future King”!) it’s definitely an idea I’m going to keep hold of, and trying out every once in a while.

      1. Well, it’s a bit coincidental that I even knew any of them. I re-read the Gaiman at least once a year. I recently had a long discussion with a friend regarding Austen vs the Brontës and she made mention of part of the excerpt you posted. I was also trying to convince her to give Atwood a shot, possibly during the same conversation. My oldest son is 12 and we often engage in semi-ridiculous conversations, one of which recently concerned the things we’d do if WE were king. I’d looked up that quote to read to him and we giggled over it. It also shows what a complete twit Edmund is. Terry Pratchett is fairly easy to recognize (in my opinion) because of his distinctive style. It also helped that I was trying to convince my husband to watch the miniseries on Netflix the other night!

        I will have to look into Department 19. I am always looking for new things to read. 🙂

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