Deresiewicz on Austen: A 'medley of trusts, hopes, and fears'

BlogHer Review

I’ve never read a Jane Austen novel, never had any desire to do so. Until now.

What has changed is that I recently read A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter by William Deresiewicz. Deresiewicz’s words on Austen’s words resonated deeply with me. His engaging style and insight prompted me to consider the parts of my life Austen caused him to consider in his, the parts of life that make up the chapters in his book: everyday matters, growing up, learning to learn, being good, true friends, falling in love.

Deresiewicz’s conversational writing style kept me reading on a topic I initially had little interest in, albeit a topic I’ve always felt I should have interest in, in order to be a well-rounded reader.

Contrary to what I feared it might be, Deresiewicz’s book isn’t a dry, highbrow dissertation on the literary merits of Austen and her novels. It’s more of a guide to — as the subtitle states — the things that really matter rather than a guide to an author who really matters. Using Austen’s characters and themes and his impressive knowledge of such as a starting point, Deresiewicz digs deep and mines the nuggets that made a difference when applied to his life, offering up his analysis for his readers to do the same in their lives.

And the nuggets are many. If I were one to mark up books, my copy of A Jane Austen Education would be marked a plenty. Fortunately, I have nifty little metal book page markers called “Page Points” instead, markers that now weigh down my copy and direct me to the points that resonated most deeply, points that matter.

A few examples:

“Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means. It means taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself.”

“Austen understood that growing up hurts—that it has to hurt because otherwise it won’t happen.”

“Adults are boring, Austen seemed to feel—or at least, they all too often let themselves become so.”

“We can never reach the end of what’s inside us, never know the limit of our own potential.”

“Being a valuable person—a ‘something’ rather than a ‘nothing’—means having consideration for the people around you.”

“We make our friends our family, but we also make our family—or some of them—our friends.”

Love isn’t going to magically transform you, make you into a better or even a different person—another myth that I’d bought into—it can only work with what you already are.”

Because of Deresiewicz’s book, I now look forward to reading Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and the others featured in Deresiewicz’s book, plus one more -- A Jane Austen Education. Again. I plan to read it a second time, and upon the re-read, will surely nod my head in agreement thanks to newfound knowledge and insight into the stories of both Deresiewicz and Austen.

As Deresiewicz writes of learning from Austen, “listening to someone else’s stories—entering into their feelings, validating their experiences—is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness.” Considering how their stories affect readers, I’m delighted to give Deresiewicz and Austen the deserved acknowledgement.