How A Jane Austen Education Taught Me To Read

BlogHer Review

You probably don’t want me in your book club. I won’t want to read the books you do (and vice versa), and when it comes time to discuss our thoughts over cheese and wine, I will only be able to restrain myself for a few moments before I pull out my notes and ask the group if anyone else noticed the author’s conspicuous use of the word, say, “little” in the text, and was I alone in pondering what we should make of that choice? When met with silence I’ll flip through the color-coded sticky tabs I applied to the pages of my book, and then -- the horror! -- I might read a paragraph out loud, and with a lot of obnoxious “emphasis mine”s. If this makes you not want to read the rest of this review, please allow me a chance to redeem myself because this is a review of William Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education, and what’s funny is that I read it for a book club, and I think it might actually change the way I behave in book clubs from here on out because it has changed the way I read.

In A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter the author uses Austen’s six published novels to tell the story of his professional and emotional coming-of-age (or is it vice versa?). In showing us how Austen taught him about everyday matters, growing up, learning to learn, being good, true friends, and falling in love (those are the subjects of the chapters, each exemplified by an Austen novel), he’s also leading us, his readers, through those lessons ourselves, as Austen led him -- although with more subtlety -- through them as a young man.

The third sentence of the first chapter ends with “…[Jane Austen] would teach me everything I know about everything that matters,” and when I read it I couldn’t help think of a book by the name Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten (which I haven’t actually read). The (accidental?) connection, though, is a fitting beginning for a book in which Deresiewicz walks us through his experiences as a student (of literature and of life), and the facet that makes the student perspective most valuable is that he’s writing about it now from the perspective of a teacher. (He taught at Yale until 2008. Ooh la la.) That said, this book, which could market as literary criticism, reads much more like advice (in a good way) a lot of the time, and so the friendly, personal student/teacher dynamic with which he frames his relationship to Austen is mirrored in the relationship he builds with his own readers. And as Deresiewicz relates Austen’s novels to his own life, he also of course brings Austen’s world to bear on ours; her fiction speaks to our reality, her characters to ourselves.

How does Deresiewicz draw us in? Well, for starters, in describing himself as a college student he describes 70 percent of the boys I knew in college -- flush with the cocktail of surly superiority that manifested itself in spouting Freud and Kerouac regardless of the relevancy of either. As the author confesses to starting out as one of those boys but then learns, through Austen, the importance of things like Caring About Others and Knowing When To Shut Up, he endears himself at the same time he gives us hope that at least some of those boys I knew fifteen years ago eventually came to their senses (and sensibilities) and maybe even read some Austen of their own.

Secondly, I couldn’t help be charmed by a book that, right from the start, asserts that fans of Jane Austen are members of “a secret club, with its own code words and special signs and degrees of initiation” (p. 19). This is not a book to woo the naysayers but an invitation for all the confirmed inductees to gather ’round and nod our heads at what we already know -- that Jane Austen is tops -- and however transparent this flattery is, I’m not one to turn away from it. I did take issue with a few things Deresewicz said (evidence: ALL CAPS marginalia in which I rail against his claim that “Austen had shown [him] what it meant to act like a woman” (29), as if we live in a binary society so easily divided into people who act One Way or The Other), but I nevertheless loved most of what he wrote, and how he wrote it, and why. That’s my holy trinity of a good book, right there.

Here’s my biggest take-away from the A Jane Austen Education:

For a novel to work, Deresiewicz says, you should not just think about it but feel about it. I did a lot of thinking (a lot of note-taking, a lot of underlining and dog-earing) about this book, but I also (surprise!) cried at the end, both because of where the author ended up at last and because of where I found myself, which was not caring that the text had structured itself too neatly and had wrapped itself up so completely (and, yes, even tritely) in a manner that I should have seen coming a mile away. Why was I able to let go of the things that usually frustrate me about contemporary writing? Because I was responding to it not just intellectually but emotionally, which is something that Deresiewicz both discovers for himself in reading Austen as well as encourages us to discover via both Austen and, presumably, the book in our hands. He show us how to read with feeling, and how to live with feeling.

Is this an academic book? For sure. As I made notes and underlined salient passages as if I were back in college myself (go Utes!), Deresiewicz also figuratively reads aloud paragraphs from the novel and also cites historical research and also asks us what we make of the use of the word, say, “little” in Emma. But he also tells us about his failed romances, the complicated relationship with his achievement-minded father, his early mistakes as a teacher, and his multiple disillusionments over what it meant to be a success, a friend, a hero, a human. In giving us a personal story in an academic way (Jane herself would be proud), Deresiewicz (can I call him Billy? I feel like we're friends now) shows us that we can both think and feel at the same time. He shows us that we can both critically approve of and endorse a book as well as love it.

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