Why is Jane Austen So Great?

BlogHer Review
I’ve been a writer my entire life, (a paid writer) and for the last 5 years I have even been an English major (before that I was just a journalism major), yet I have never understood the appeal of literature -- studying the classics and figuring out the “right” meaning did not appeal to me, which is why it took me so long to become an English (emphasis in composition) major.

But I love a good book. I love studying writers to see what it is they did that made me love their books. I just don’t want someone to tell me how to think or to convince me that there is one book I have to read. As a student, however, it seemed I was constantly being told in my literature classes what I should think about a certain book. The yellow roses in The Great Gatsby meant something specific, and if I didn’t get that, I didn’t get the book. Frankly, I could care less about the meaning of the yellow roses, or I’d like to think that, but since it is 20 years later, and I remember that the yellow roses meant something I didn’t understand, perhaps they have grown to mean something to me after all.

What exactly am I missing? I have to ask (it’s the journalist in me), and I feel as if I really am because so many people I love and respect (friends, teachers, and writers) see something of value in writers like Jane Austen. They love Jane Austin and can go on and on about how dreamy Colin Firth is in Pride and Prejudice. In A Jane Austen Education author William Deresiewicz starts his memoir on a page I can easily jump on -- a skeptic. “The thing that takes my breath away when I think back on it all is that I never wanted to read her in the first place,” begins Deresiewicz. But he does read, and he is enraptured. Which makes me ask, what caught him?

For a skeptic like me, Deresiewicz was just the writer to help explain to me the appeal and wonder of Jane Austen. He didn’t try to convince me that the colors meant something special. Instead, he took the approach I always found most sensible when trying to relate to literature, he explained what the book meant to him. He also did this wonderful weaving of his life, Jane Austen’s stories and Jane’s life to make his own points about what the various books mean. He didn’t take the company line that I had so often found myself against when studying literature. That is, he wasn’t saying, “Austen means this, and if you don’t get that, you are wrong.”

Instead, he talks about exploring her books. He discusses reading them and then rereading them. He talks about how his ideas about the books and himself changes. His thoughts the first time he read a book ended up very different from how he later understood the same book. He discusses how his experiences inform how he interprets the book, and how the book helps inform how he interprets his life.

I wasn’t finding that my ideas were wrong, and he even recognized the problem I had so often come across when studying literature -- that knowing something specific somehow opened a secret code. He talked about the strange idea that often in literature, students are taught to interpret a book a certain way rather than taught to really understand a book. It is what I always hated about literature and would describe as being told, “Ah yes, you know Factoid A, so you are therefore Educated.” But knowing a factoid doesn’t mean you know a book.

Deresiewicz didn’t know this right away. “Knowledge, culture, ego,” he wrote. “Mine was a household growing up where it was understood there were certain things one ‘ought to know’ where ‘having heard of’ Brahms or Giotto was considered a virtue in itself -- even if one didn’t know any more about them than that one was a composer, the other a painter -- and where one encounter was considered equivalent to ‘knowing’ (or as my father would have put it, ‘being acquainted with’) a work of art.” He had found himself checking off a list of what he “ought to know,” but he ended up learning “real men weren’t afraid to admit that they still had things to learn.”

For me, Deresiewicz gave me a chance to fall in love with Jane Austen without having to struggle through Jane Austen herself because as he readily admits, “people have been reacting to Jane Austen exactly as I had for as long as they’d been reading her. The first reviews warned that readers might find her stories ‘trifling’…. Ok, I hadn’t thought of her books as trifling, but I did find myself struggling to find the appeal as I read. I would soon become so intent on looking for her appeal that I failed to just enjoy the story. “Why do people like her?” I’d soon find myself wondering. “When is something going to happen?”

Even better, Deresiewicz reminded me of why I love to read not just Austen but blogs and Facebook and Twitter updates – because as Deresiewicz learned when reading Emma, we need to pay attention to the everyday things.

Along with a copy of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship and the Things that Really Matter, I received a copy of Jane Austen: The Complete Novels with an introduction by Karen Joy Fowler. I plan to read them without trying to dissect them – at least not the first time through.

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