Learning from Jane Austen: a “real-life” reading

Yesterday evening I went to the Yale Bookstore to listen to a reading by William Deresiewicz, author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. I had been looking forward to this for a few weeks. Before it began, I was thinking about how great it was to attend a “real-life” reading and how strange it was to be thinking this. I walked around the campus and returned to the library; I saw the author walking down the street with someone. I went to the bookstore and looked around for a while, then found a seat and sat.

An audience had assembled; one of the staff went to get a few more chairs. Deresiewicz talked about his book and read passages from it as he went along. The book begins when he’s 26 and a grad student, and goes up to the time when he’s 32 and (he said to us, drawing a laugh) “a grad student.” But that’s an important aspect of the book. It isn’t about his move upward in the world, into some prestigious position. He’s in the same place, in one sense, but in another sense he travels a great distance.

Initially uninterested in Jane Austen, even scornful of her work (which seems to him, like other works of the period, stilted and trivial), Deresiewicz finds himself reading her after all, because he has to for a seminar. And then, to his surprise, Austen shows him things he hasn’t wanted to see, or things he has only started to see. He realizes, when reading Emma and Pride and Prejudice, that he is supposed to be scornful of the characters and their banalities at first. That is precisely what Austen intends. When she shows Emma’s cruelty and Elizabeth Bennet’s error, the reader is confronted with his or her own error. In the case of Emma, the author learns that the trivial things are in fact what matters:

By talking over their little daily affairs—and not just talking them over, but talking them over and over, again and again (the same story in brief, then in full, the same stories in one house, then anotther)—the characters in Emma were doing nothing less than attaching themselves to life. They were weaving the web of community, one strand of conversation at a time. They were creating the world, in the process of talking about it.

In his book, Deresiewicz continues reading Austen, and one lesson after another comes to him from her work—slowly, through attentive reading and rereading. He tells about this as he tells about the novels, about Austen, about her contemporaries, and about his own life again. Each of these lessons, each of these careful readings, changes how he sees and lives his life—and this is, indeed, real life.

I was skeptical when I began reading his book. I had some mild scorn for the idea that you learn “life lessons” from literature—after all, literature is full of contradictions, and to take a “message” from it is to misread it. But that’s only partly true. We thirst for lessons when we read. We want to be made aware of our mistakes. We want characters we can recognize. This is nothing pat or flat—it changes form over time. My initial skepticism allowed me to enter the book more fully, the author himself was skeptical before reading Austen’s work. Just as the author’s skepticism breaks down over the course of the book, so did mine.

At the end of the reading, Deresiewicz opened the floor for questions. The exchange was lively, and the event concluded with several rounds of applause. But rather than describe the event any more, I will touch on one of the most interesting parts of the book, which pertains to education. He describes his professor and mentor, who taught the seminar in which Deresiewicz first read Austen.

He had a young person’s ability to see the world with fresh eyes. His white hair shot up off his forehead like a jolt of discovery, and when he came across a new idea, all the lines in his face would stand at attention. He always wanted to hear what you had to say, no matter how much you stumbled while trying to say it, because he never missed an opportunity to learn something new.

This professor asks questions that seem “absurdly simple” at first—until you try to answer them. For instance, he asks what it means to “identify” with a literary character. This is by no means obvious. Deresiewicz writes, “No, the best I could come up with is that it seemed to be a kind of in-between state—you’re somehow them and not them at the same time—that can’t exactly be put into words.” Yes, and it is perhaps this “in-between state” (something like Plato’s intermediary state between ignorance and wisdom) that keeps us learning from what we read.

When Deresiewicz begins teaching, he wants to have a similar effect on his students. But things don’t work out that way. His students “would fold their arms and sit back in their chairs and stare at me with those skeptical-teenager looks on their faces.” What is going wrong? He can’t figure it out, but it starts to come clear as he reads Northanger Abbey and thinks about what it means to teach and learn. I won’t give it away, because if I simply quoted it here, it would come across wrong. He learns that teaching and education are not what he thought they were, but what they are is not easily conveyed in a few words.

When I left the reading, it was pouring. I had an umbrella, but it was the sort of downpour that would soak you no matter what. I realized I had learned a lesson or two—not about life, at least not obviously, but about what constitutes a good reading, which this was. I might not have been paying attention to the structure and rhythm of it if I didn’t have a presentation of my own next week—and possibly readings ahead, when my book comes out in November.

What makes a good reading or speech? We go to readings not to learn what a book is about (we have read it or plan to read it, after all), not necessarily to hear the author’s particular intonation (though that can be enjoyable), but to hear the author in real life. But this real life depends, also, on a degree of removal; the author must have spent some time alone, reading and writing, in order to have something to say. So the real life is not just human interaction, but also solitude (about which Deresiewicz has written wonderfully). When an author seizes on this very real life—conveying something of substance to the people who are actually there—then it is the kind of reading that stays with you, that makes you enjoy the downpour as you trudge home.


  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    What no post-modern deconstruction? Actually enjoying the book and author’s point of view.

    How very primitive of you Diana. 🙂

  2. Ha ha! Indeed.

    In fact, one of the questions I asked Deresiewicz yesterday had something to do with that. I won’t repeat the question here, because I’d distort it and the answer.

    But there is something great about enjoying and learning from a book, without getting all fancy over it.

    Yes, there’s a place for fanciness of certain kinds, but it should not be forced.