When I was a reporter covering education it seemed we were constantly monitoring curriculum debates. And none were more intense than the battles over reading lists for English class.
Is there really any good reason, for instance, why today’s teenagers should be required to immerse themselves in the classics? Won’t a 19th-century love story send kids scurrying for the exits? Aren’t the references arcane, the social settings antique? Why not speak to kids where they are by offering them the urban, the hip, the contemporary?
And when it comes to boys, the arguments seem particularly pitched. Sure, writers like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë could have some appeal to teenage girls. But what young male in the year 2011 is going to find anything he can relate to in an English country parsonage?
I wish I had known William Deresiewicz in those days. His new book A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter is the perfect antidote to such arguments. Jane Austen changed his life, Deresiewicz tells us, even though he was a prototypical urban hipster who thought a wanted nothing to do with her.
Deresiewicz was a second-year Columbia University graduate student – by his own description an angry young rebel who passed his days “in a cloud of angry sarcasm, making silent speeches” as he “stalked down Broadway” in a "John Lennon coat."
Eager to study modernist writers like Joyce, Conrad, Faulkner, and Nabokov, and reveling in whatever seemed “complex, difficult, sophisticated,” Deresiewicz knew one thing for sure: He had less than zero interest in 19th-century British literature. “What could be duller,” he asked himself, “than a bunch of long, heavy novels, by women novelists, in stilted language, on trivial subjects?”
And no author, he felt certain, could be worse than Austen. “Just thinking about her made me sleepy.”
Then he was assigned “Emma.”
What Deresiewicz discovered as he delved into the novel was an author of “revolutionary artistic choice,” a writer who exercised “a courageous defiance of convention and expectation” and who employed a language “that rolled along as easily as breathing.”
In short, he was hooked. He writes: “I met the woman who would change my life.”
Deresiewicz’s breezy but solid 250-plus page book takes us through all six of Austen’s novels and explains – interwoven with tales from his personal life – the insights and character lessons he gained from each.
Reading Austen, he tells us, taught him moral responsibility, a less self-centered view of the universe, the value of actual learning, and that he knew nothing about real love.
In his day-to-day life, these insights led him to finish a dead-end relationship, move away from his father, choose better friends, adopt a cat, and – finally – discover that love is more than just romance.
A couple of sections of “A Jane Austen Education” take a bit longer than necessary to make their points. Overall, however, this is a quick but nourishing read. It’s got everything that a good classroom teacher might hope for – insight, honest self-reflection, hunger for learning, and a genuine love of good literature.
Read this book and then hand it along to your favorite angry young scholar. Next thing you know, he’ll be craving Brontë.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.