Novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein offers her list of five best novels of ideas—Saul Bellow’s Herzog, Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner, Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch:
George Eliot turned her hand to writing “Middlemarch” only months after completing her translation of Spinoza’s “Ethica,” and the novel is imprinted with many of Spinoza’s ideas, as well as by Eliot’s robust wrangling with them. The main plotline follows the passionate knowledge-seeker Dorothea Brooke, who blunders her way toward moral clarity, on the way making an unfortunate marriage to a dry pedant, Edward Casaubon. “We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves,” Eliot writes. “Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity.” A great ethicist as well as a supreme novelist, Eliot unobtrusively operates the intricate machinery of reflections about self-interest and morality, determinism and freedom, that move her interlacing stories along.