A Jane Austen Education: Educating the Educated (Spoilers!)

BlogHer Review

What struck me at the beginning of A Jane Austen Education was: "How can a pompous literary student allow himself to be taught anything?" With razor-sharp self awareness and cynicism, William Deresiewicz's first tears himself apart for the reader's enjoyment, then puts himself back together again under the subtle ingenious words of Ms. Austen.

Like many of us in our formative, post-college years, Deresiewicz is an unpleasant, self-absorbed, pompous and egotistical kid spending more hours on his image than on the person he actually is. Though initially put off by Ms. Austen's work when it is thrust on him while earning his PhD, Deresiewicz finds, book by book, the deeper and specific meaning Jane Austen has for his life.

SPOILERS!

Broken out into chapters based on her 6 novels, he matches each book to a basic principle: Emma -- pay attention to the everyday things, Pride and Prejudice -- you aren't born perfect, Northanger Abbey -- Stay awake; don't take things for granted, Mansfield Park -- Being entertained is not the same as being happy, Persuasion -- Be honest with your friends, and finally Sense and Sensibility -- Love is about growing up, not staying young.

The juiciest parts of the book for me were when Deresiewicz delved into studying this statement about himself:

"...I was not the easiest person to get along with. In fact, I wonder that my friends put up with me at all. Like so many guys, I thought that a good conversation meant holding forth about all the supposedly important things I knew: books, history, politics, whatever. But I wasn't just aggressively certain of myself -- though of course I never let anyone finish a sentence and delivered my opinions as if they'd come direct from Sinai. I was also oblivious to the feelings of the people around me, a bulldozer stuck in overdrive, because it had never occurred to me to imagine how things might look from someone else's point of view."

While some parts of the books are tedious (if Emma could be tiresome to read, what with all of its random details and descriptions of everyday life, Education could make one yawn trying to get through his excessive analysis of everything Austen), the majority of the book is a quick read and a quick study. Almost as if he was writing a CliffsNotes primer for the rest of us too dimwitted to struggle through Austen ourselves, his distillations are made interesting and relevant by explaining how he applied her teachings to his own everyday, regular, normal life.

While reading Northanger Abbey, the author finds himself teaching freshman English classes while trying to emulate his favorite professor. In his usual biting style, he realizes he's once again missed the point:

"What made my professor such a great teacher was not that he was brilliant, or that he had read everything -- though he was, and he had -- but that he forced us to think for ourselves, just as Henry did to Catherine, and provoked us to reconsider our assumptions, just as he did to her: all the conventions about what you were supposed to say about a work of literature, all our mental categories for understanding novels and characters and language."

At times I found myself wanting more time to reconsider my own Austen assumptions, but if you are looking for a deep swim through Austen's characters and concepts, juxtaposed against modern struggles, Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education is just what this doctor(ate) ordered.

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