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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.
“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
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.Read more ›
We realize that he is preaching to the choir here, but thought it important to point out that he started out in a much different place as a twenty-six year old graduate student who thought Austen was all girly romance and banal social drivel. He may have been as arrogant as Mr. Darcy, as clueless as Emma Woodhouse and opinionated as Lady Catherine de Bourgh when it came to acknowledging Austen's understated writing skills and message to her readers, but during the process of reading EMMA, one of Austen's most scrutinized and acclaimed novels, he had an intellectual epiphany. This will certainly grab the attention of half the population. A man admitting that he likes Jane Austen is unusual. Writing a whole book about the process of conversion, understanding what Austen wants to teach us and applying it to his own life, is a revelation! Dear reader. I must curb myself from gushing for fear of losing my credibility.
How William Deresiewicz came to evolve into an enlightened Y-chromosome is one heck of a great story. We are encouraged that other Janeites will think so too. We also hope that his tour through each of the six major novels will convert a few naysayers. Even though he was an associate professor of English at Yale University, he does not talk down to us from an ivory tower. Part literary criticism, part personal memoir and a lot of Austen doctrine, his prose is open, engaging and very humorous.Read more ›
A good book gives you a few hours or days of pleasure through its beautiful language or exciting story. A great book can change your life with the depth of its humanity and wisdom. I think A Jane Austen Education is a great book.
Half memoir, half literary study and half ethical treatise, A Jane Austen Education tells the story of how scholar and book critic William Deresiewicz went from angry, snobbish, cynical graduate student to healthy, happy grown-up largely through reading - and listening to - the six perfect novels of Jane Austen. As Deresiewicz tells the story, he started out his post-adolescence estranged from his father, unable to form a healthy relationship and very unsure of his place in the world. He has just begun a graduate program in English literature at Columbia University, and is only interested in "Modernist" literature that will fit in with his carefully cultivated angst and sense of superiority to all things sentimental and schlocky. So he is furious when he learns that he has to read - of all things - Jane Austen's Ultimate Celebration of the Trivial: Emma.
He reads the book...and his transformation begins. Convinced that only literature that was About Big Things matters, Deresiewicz finds himself being drawn into one of the greatest celebrations of Little Things ever written - and he starts to see the importance of the mundane.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This is a "growing up tale" told by a man who was inspired to self-reflection by reading Jane Austen novels. It is an interesting take on how his life unfolded.Published 1 month ago by Lela A Llorens
This book shoed up in my 'recommendations'. The title drew me in. I read the blub and some sample paragraphs in the preview function, bought the book and am so glad I did. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Ari
A literature scholar and Austen fan myself, I thought this book offered invaluable insights Austen's major works and her life. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Becky Czlapinski
I love Jane Austin and know the novels well but I was happily surprised by how much he added to my understanding. Read morePublished 4 months ago by Judith R. Hert
The book ended being just exactly what the title suggests and the reader appreciates what the author learned from a favorite author.Published 5 months ago by Judith B. Harnsberger
Of course I have read all of Jane Austen's books. Maybe P&P about 10 times so it was great to read about someone else's appreciation of her writing. Read morePublished 6 months ago by C. Davis
I have been reading Jane Austen all my life. It's interesting how one's perceptions evolve through the years. Read morePublished 8 months ago by Elaine Daniels
Oooo. Such a great book. Well structured and I agree with every word.Published 9 months ago by Citapepita