Warning: Goodreads rant – skip to second paragraph. I’m not sure what jumped up everyone’s butts on Goodreads (I shouldn’t really be surprised), but this book doesn’t deserve as much vitriol as it has received on the site. So many people trashed it without even finishing the book, many obviously had read the synopsis (Amazon Affiliate link) and yet were shocked at what they read.
The book definitely deserves a lot of the criticism, but it doesn’t deserve the pure vitriol that Goodread’s reviewers thew at it. Sure, I wanted to smack Deresiewicz for being an insufferable grad student, but it’s very clear in the synopsis that the book was going to be full of naval gazing. He made a couple of questionable sexist and classist comments and he may have reduced a lot of Austen’s genius down to basics, but it would definitely work for people who are not familiar with Austen. Seriously, if you can’t find the good in a book, why bother finishing and trashing it? Just move on to the next book.
I appreciated the book was divided by the six novels and he wrote a lesson about each of them, but overall the book was about growing up. Apparently, it was the book I needed to read now and I could seriously identify with Deresiewicz. Maybe the problem with all the reviewers is that they’re so used to either 100% academic/nonfiction works or 100% fiction works about Austen’s life and novels, and this is a nonfiction work about someone else’s life and Austen’s influence. I didn’t feel that the author tried to be something he wasn’t and he just wrote about what he learned from each of the novels and added in facts about Austen’s life and times.
I think it would be an interesting comparison to read the chapters in this book immediately after I read each book and compare if I picked up on what he picked up on. Something that he did great was make Austen approachable for many readers, including explaining at a very basic level why it was that I enjoyed Fanny Price of Mansfield Park as much as I did and definitely made me excited I’ll be re-reading all of Austen, especially Emma – my least favorite, this year.
The only thing I really wonder is if Deresiewicz wanted to write this when he did or if it was someone’s idea to cash in on the Austen mania of the late 90s and 2000s. Either way I appreciated a male perspective on Austen’s novels and can’t wait to read and compare it to Amy Smith’s All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane.
Recommendation: If you go in with an open mind and understand that there is naval gazing and a certain amount of elitism in it you’ll be fine reading it. If you’ve never read Austen, it’s a decent enough overview of her works in addition to how they could potentially affect you.
Opening Line: “I was twenty-six, and about as dumb, in all human things, as any twenty-six-year-old has a right to be, when I met the woman who would change my life.”
Closing Line: “Reader, I married her.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)
Additional Quotes from A Jane Austen Education
“Austen wasn’t silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter—and much wiser—than I could ever have imagined.” (loc. 180)
“Her genius began with the recognition that such lives as hers were very eventful indeed—that every life is eventful, if only you know how to look at it. She did not think that her existence was quiet or trivial or boring; she thought it was delightful and enthralling, and she wanted us to see that our own are, too. She understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels.” (loc. 355)
“Austen taught me a new kind of moral seriousness—taught me what moral seriousness really means. It means taking responsibility for the little world, not the big one. It means taking responsibility for yourself.” (loc. 439)
“Austen glorified the everyday on its own terms—without the glamour of Joyce, and modernism, and epic archetypes, and the whole repertoire of epic conventions. What she offered us, if we’re willing to see it, is just the everyday, without amplification. Just the novel, without excuses. Just the personal, just the private, just the little, without apologies.” (loc. 474)
“For her, growing up has nothing to do with knowledge or skills, because it has everything to do with character and conduct. And you don’t strengthen your character or improve your conduct by memorizing the names of Roman emperors (or American presidents) or learning how to do needlework (or calculus). You don’t do so, she believed, by developing self-confidence and self-esteem, either. If anything, self-confidence and self-esteem are the great enemies, because they make you forget that you’re still just a bundle of impulse and ignorance. For Austen, growing up means making mistakes.” (loc 650)
“Being right, Austen taught me, might get you a pat on the head, but being wrong could bring you something more valuable. It could help you find out who you are.” (loc. 726)
“For it is never enough to know that you have done wrong: you also have to feel it.” (loc. 755)
“Austen understood that growing up hurts—that it has to hurt, because otherwise it won’t happen.” (loc. 781)
“A romantic is someone who thinks that if their heart is in the right place, it doesn’t matter where their brain is.” (loc. 838)
“Austen challenged all of us. The job of a teacher, I now understood, is neither to affirm your students’ notions nor to fill them with your own. The job is to free them from both.” (loc. 1255)
“Austen is saying that we need to learn to love things, that it doesn’t just happen by itself. That’s not an obvious idea…but the most remarkable thing is, we can learn.” (loc. 1305-7)
“You didn’t have to be certain, I now saw, to be strong, and you didn’t have to dominate people to earn their respect. Real men weren’t afraid to admit that they still had things to learn—not even from a woman.” (loc. 1358)
“Prim, proper, priggish, prudish, puritanical, Fanny simply couldn’t deal with the threat of adult sexuality. And to top it off, she didn’t even like to read novels. Too racy for her, no doubt, and certainly too frivolous.” (loc. 1494)
“Indeed, more than Catherine or Emma or Elizabeth Bennet, she was a heroine in the oldest sense—not just a protagonist but a role model, someone we were being asked, however improbably, to emulate. Her very insignificance, I now saw, was designed to provoke us into trying to figure out what her creator found so admirable about her.” (loc. 1863)
“Usefulness—seeing what people need and helping them get it—is support and compassion. Loving your friends and family is great, but what does it mean if you aren’t actually willing to do anything for them when they really need you, put yourself out in any way? Love, I saw, is a verb, not just a noun—an effort, not just another precious feeling.” (loc. 1901)
“To listen to a person’s stories, he understood, is to learn their feelings and experiences and values and habits of mind, and to learn them all at once and all together. Austen was not a novelist for nothing: she knew that our stories are what make us human, and that listening to someone else’s stories—entering into their feelings, validating their experiences—is the highest way of acknowledging their humanity, the sweetest form of usefulness.” (loc. 1936)
“People’s stories are the most personal thing they have, and paying attention to those stories is just about the most important thing you can do for them.” (loc. 1967)
“Friends, Austen taught me, are the family you choose. But while the notion has become a commonplace of late, Austen, I realized, saw a step further. We make our friends our family, but we also make our family—or some of them—our friends.” (loc. 2206)
“She made us adore her heroines and admire her heroes, made us long to see them get together, devised ingenious ways to keep them apart and finally unite them, teased us with a whole array of traps and feints and surprises, but search as I might, I could never find a single one of those clichés in which I’d put such faith.” (loc. 2597)
“True love takes you by surprise, Austen was telling us, and if it’s really worth something, it continues to take you by surprise. The last thing that lovers should do, despite what Marianne and I imagined, is agree about everything and share all of each other’s tastes. True love, for Austen, means a never-ending clash of opinions and perspectives. If your lover’s already just like you, then neither one of you has anywhere to go. Their character matters not only because you’re going to have to live with it, but because it’s going to shape the person you become.” (loc. 2827)