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A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter Paperback – April 24, 2012
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An eloquent memoir of a young man's life transformed by literature.
In A Jane Austen Education, Austen scholar William Deresiewicz turns to the author's novels to reveal the remarkable life lessons hidden within. With humor and candor, Deresiewicz employs his own experiences to demonstrate the enduring power of Austen's teachings. Progressing from his days as an immature student to a happily married man, Deresiewicz's A Jane Austen Education is the story of one man's discovery of the world outside himself.
A self-styled intellectual rebel dedicated to writers such as James Joyce and Joseph Conrad, Deresiewicz never thought Austen's novels would have anything to offer him. But when he was assigned to read Emma as a graduate student at Columbia, something extraordinary happened. Austen's devotion to the everyday, and her belief in the value of ordinary lives, ignited something in Deresiewicz. He began viewing the world through Austen's eyes and treating those around him as generously as Austen treated her characters. Along the way, Deresiewicz was amazed to discover that the people in his life developed the depth and richness of literary characters-that his own life had suddenly acquired all the fascination of a novel. His real education had finally begun.
Weaving his own story-and Austen's-around the ones her novels tell, Deresiewicz shows how her books are both about education and themselves an education. Her heroines learn about friendship and feeling, staying young and being good, and, of course, love. As they grow up, they learn lessons that are imparted to Austen's reader, who learns and grows by their sides.
A Jane Austen Education is a testament to the transformative power of literature, a celebration of Austen's mastery, and a joy to read. Whether for a newcomer to Austen or a lifelong devotee, Deresiewicz brings fresh insights to the novelist and her beloved works. Ultimately, Austen's world becomes indelibly entwined with our own, showing the relevance of her message and the triumph of her vision.
Q: Can you describe your initial resistance, as a young graduate student, to reading Jane Austen?
A: Like a lot of men, I thought Austen was chick lit: soap-opera romance, fluffy and boring. When a friend of mine heard I was writing this book, he said “I expect a lot of sex and dating advice.” It was an understandable assumption, and my friend’s, no doubt, was based on all those movies—the ones with the beautiful gowns, and the beautiful homes, and the beautiful actresses. The ones with all the swoony music and the lush, romantic lighting, the ones that leave out everything that Austen had to say to us except the love—and then, don’t even get the love part right.
Q: What most surprised you about yourself once you discovered Austen's novels and started examining your own life?
A: If you had told me, when I was eighteen or twenty or twenty-five, that the most important writer I would ever come across would be Jane Austen, I would have said you were crazy. Why should half a dozen novels about provincial young English ladies, published in the 1810s, make any difference whatsoever to a Jewish kid in New York in the 1990s? But I learned that books aren’t written by groups, and they don’t belong to groups. They’re written by individuals, speaking to individuals, and they belong to anyone who loves them.
What was Austen saying to me? Well, first of all, what an idiot I had been about so many things--about pretty much everything to do with relationships. And that I had so much to learn from seeing things from a woman's point of view. But most of all, finally, I think, that I didn't have to be afraid to learn things about myself--didn't have to be afraid, in other words, to be wrong. Aside from all the specific lessons, I think the largest message was simply that I no longer had to be so armored, so defended, so defensive. And that's made it easier to admit mistakes and be vulnerable and keep on growing.
Q: Is that when you came up with the book’s subtitle, How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter?
A: Well, a while ago, I was interviewing for a job as an English professor. At the very end, the head of the hiring committee posed a question that she must have been dying to ask me the whole time. Glancing down at my resume—I had written my doctoral dissertation on The Novel of Community from Austen to Modernism, published a book entitled Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, and was planning a study called Friendship: A Cultural History from Jane Austen to Jennifer Aniston—she asked, "So what’s with you and Jane Austen?"
I wanted to give her a good answer. But how do you explain your deepest attachments? I tried to muster an intellectually sophisticated response, something about the purity of Austen’s prose or the brilliance of her satire, but it didn’t feel right, and besides, I’d already given enough answers like that. Finally, I just blurted something that I’d already been telling myself for a long time. "Well," I said, "sometimes I feel like everything I know about life I learned by reading Jane Austen."
Q: What drew you to write this hybrid of memoir and literary criticism?
A: I've been writing about literature for a general audience for a long time, as a book critic. Actually, the fact that I was more interested in doing that than in pursuing scholarly work is the reason I decided to leave academia. The memoir part is new for me, though, and it's been an interesting challenge: a technical challenge to blend the two and a personal challenge to be so candid in such a public way. The second part is a little frightening. As for why I decided to write the book this way, well, the idea was to convey the lessons I learned by reading Jane Austen, and I realized pretty quickly that the best way to do that would be to actually talk about how I learned them, not just explain them in some kind of abstract and impersonal way.
Q: What do you think her books have to say to contemporary men and women in want of a relationship?
A: Ha! Great question. The first thing I think she would say is, don't settle. Then, marry for the right reasons: for love, not for money or appearances or expectations. But most importantly--and this is what I talk about in the love chapter, the last chapter--don't fall for all the romantic clichés about Romeo and Juliet and love at first sight. For Austen, love came from the mind as well as the heart. She didn't believe you could fall in love with someone until you knew them, and then what you fell in love with was their character more than anything else--whether they were a good person and also an interesting one. So I guess that means, date someone for a while before you commit, and don't get so carried away by your feelings that you forget to give a good hard look at who they are. As for sex, it's not so clear she would have disapproved of sleeping together before marriage. I think she maybe even would've liked it, as a chance to learn something very important before it's too late.
Q: What do you hope your book will bring to people who aren't already Austen fans?
A: Well, first of all, if they aren't already Austen fans because they have the kinds of preconceptions I did, I hope it helps persuade them to give her a chance. I've imagined the book, in part, as a kind of introduction to her novels. It's not exhaustive or anything--and I think that people who are already Austen fans will find new ways to think about her novels--but it does lay out the basic situations in each book and some of the most important ideas she was getting at. No spoilers, just enough to whet people's appetites. And finally, of course, I want people to see that she isn't just for women. I would love it if the book helped introduce more guys to her work.
Q: What is your favorite Austen novel?
A: I knew people would ask me this. The weaseling answer is that I love them all, though it's also true. Certainly whenever I'm reading one, that's my favorite. But if I had to pick just one, desert-island style, it would have to be Emma. Not just because it was my first and will always have a special place in my heart, but because I really do think it's the best, the one where she put it all together: the brilliant sparkle of Pride and Prejudice, the emotional depth of Persuasion, the fun, the humor, the superhuman cleverness. There really is nothing else like it.
“Sharp, endearingly self-effacing . . . a profound truth lies embedded in Deresiewicz’s witty account.” — THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
“Like Austen, Deresiewicz is lucid, principled and knows how to think as well as how to feel, without ever sacrificing one to the other…. a delightful and enlightening book. — SLATE.COM
“An entertaining and original version of literary criticism—as autobiography.” — THE SEATTLE TIMES
“With A Jane Austen Education, Deresiewicz writes with discerning wit and quiet perception about the lessons in friendship, empathy, honesty, happiness, and love he learns from each of Austen's immortal novels.” — CHICAGO TRIBUNE
“[Deresiewicz] is charming on the page. He talks about literary characters as if they were real people, and about Austen as if she lived at the end of the block…he does so in a style that comes across as fresh and conversational, like a genuinely witty bibliophile you’d like to talk with at a party. " — LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
“[Deresiewicz] writes with wit, charm and candor, and the result is simply delightful." — ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Top customer reviews
Well, I am actually glad for the mild initial skepticism, because it put me in the author's shoes. I could see myself in the author as he describes himself at the outset--sarcastic, rebellious, and (in his view) too intelligent for everything around him. And so, as I read the book, I was able to enter its lessons, one by one.
Each thing Deresiewicz learned from Austen's work came not from a first reading, not from a quick reaction, but from a slow sinking into the work. As he takes the reader into each novel, as he leaves behind his own misconceptions of it, something remarkable starts to happen. The whole book is about close listening and the slow process of growing up. And it is about coming to love the work of an author--not adoring it immediately, not getting it right away, but discovering, over time, what it is really about. In the first chapter. Deresiewicz writes, on pages 12-13:
"I returned to the novel in a completely different frame of mind. Mr. Woodhouse's banalities, Miss Bates's monologues, all that gossip and small talk--Austen put them in as a sign that she respected her characters, not because she wanted us to look down on them. She was willing to listen to what they had to say, and she wanted me to listen, too. As long as I had treated such passages as filler and hurried through them, they had seemed impossibly dull. But once I started to slow down enough to take them on their own terms, I found that they possessed their own gravity, their own dignity, their own sweetness."
Likewise, the way he tells his story, it possesses its own gravity, dignity, and sweetness (and candor and roughness and wit). He doesn't mince words, about his family, his acquaintances, or himself. But the stories are not gratuitous or indulgent; again and again they lift into an understanding and come back to Austen and her work.
The book's lessons can be found in any life. The way the author tells them, it seems to me that I am learning them now, whether in fact I learned them long ago, am in the midst of learning them, or haven't learned them yet. By the end, I was actually beaming. I won't say more.
Besides explaning the phenomenon of Jane Austen in fresh, new ways, the book also lets the reader, as the author bares his soul, live with Deresiewicz a short period in the first several decades of his life. He had been stuck in the immaturity from which many 21st century young people suffer, and from which many older folks never do manage to make their exit.
For a real graduate school course and its real and gifted professor, the author begins--against all previous instincts--to read Jane Austen. He notices that Austen broke all the conventional author rules. Her hidden way of teaching what she wanted her readers to learn by means of her characters and her subtle commentary on them was what brought Deresiewicz finally to know himself and understand why his relations with real people in his life weren't working very well.
To learn from this book, the reader needs a prior acquaintance with at least a few of the Jane Austen novels. The reader is taken back and forth between the author's excellent analysis of Austen's work to the life of Deresiewicz himself and how, as he reads Jane Austen, he begins to change his attitudes toward people, toward matrimony, and a host of other things that plague people in any century. Deresiewicz comes to see that he can stay in his safe, bungled, depressed life or grow by listening and more objectively studying the everyday folks around him, even as Austen did. He begins to do this once he has absorbed certain key values that the reading of Austen novels has taught him.
Anyone who loves Jane Austen in her printed works (and not just in the movies and stories that are spin-offs from them) should profit from this unusual book. It began reminding me somewhat of Tuesdays with Morrie and that author's professor, but it is definitely a unique life journey aided by the tutelege of a classic author from the late 1700's/early 1800s in England.
Jane Austen changed Deresiewicz; in turn, Deresiewicz is changing me.
Most recent customer reviews
Hot Toasty Rag, May 13, 2017
For Jane Austen fans, this book is a must-read.Read more