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A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship,… (2011)

by William Deresiewicz

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6204733,304 (3.8)1 / 45
Austen scholar 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.

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 Tattered but still lovely: A Jane Austen Education2 unread / 2hearthlit, March 2015

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Showing 1-5 of 46 (next | show all)
This had quite a bit more literary criticism than I was expecting, but Deresiewicz's perspective on Austen's insights and wisdom was just as interesting as how he brought her ideals into his life. I'm not sure if I would've enjoyed this quite as much if I'd read it by myself, but because I read it slowly, discussing each chapter with a few of my friends---who were only slightly familiar with Austen's books---I had the opportunity to really consider the ideas and life lessons Deresiewicz introduces. ( )
  slimikin | Mar 27, 2022 |
I wanted to like this book because I really enjoy Jane Austen's books and would love to read other people's take on her novels. But this book didn't work for me. He wanted to convey the life lessons he learned from Jane Austen's novels, so he spent a lot of time writing about his life trajectory, his relationship with his father, people he dated, his work.....And his life just doesn't capture my attention all that much; I was not invested in rooting for him to overcome his troubles. He lived a pretty privileged life, which was largely due to his father's successful career, but he finds a lot of faults in his father and doesn't appreciate him. As someone who grew up in East Asian culture, I have very little patience for this. As someone with conservative values, I also have very little patience for the ups and downs of his love life.

In terms of his analysis of the novels, he usually picks a theme, identifies main turning points in the novel that espouses this theme, and examines Austen's own life and how her letters or behaviors demonstrated this theme. I would have liked the book a lot better if the explication of the theme was a lot shorter -- I feel I'm reading the same thing over and over. And I would have preferred the description of Austen's life and letters was a lot shorter, because her books are more interesting than her life. We can only know very little of Austen's private life, since her sister burned most of her letters. Poring over the same little details we have over and over, and trying to piece minute information together to make a case for how Austen's life reflected humility, or growth, or learning, or wisdom in romantic choices.....the arguments that were made just seemed like a stretch to me.

Then there's the content of the analysis itself, which I often don't agree with. I don't see Marianne as Jane Austen's favorite character in Sense and Sensibility. I think Austen presented her as ridiculous and annoying. She spent a lot of time showing how Elinor talked to other people, to demonstrate the importance of respect, civility and virtues. I don't see the Tilneys as much better teachers to Catherine as compared to the Thorpes. The Thorpes conceal their faults with lies, and the Tilneys conceal their faults with silence and humor. Catherine had to learn to navigate both types of mismatch between words and conduct. The discussion about Catherine learning how to love a hyacinth, I thought is a wonderful parallel to how Henry learned to love Catherine (as touched on at the end of the book,) and I was sad this was never brought up. ( )
  CathyChou | Mar 11, 2022 |
This book starts out with one of the oddest openers for a book about Jane Austen — “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. That she’d been dead for a couple of hundred years made not the slightest difference whatsoever” (1). The words themselves are not terribly surprising, but the fact that a man wrote them is. And indeed, in the following pages, Deresiewicz himself confesses to an initial bias against Austen, eschewing her as a writer of “silly romantic fairy tales,” and grudgingly reading “Emma” for a class while pursuing a graduate degree in English. He finds the story and its characters dull and boring, then discovers to his surprise that the narrator, the title character, agrees with his assessment of her situation. Examining some of his own preconceived ideas of Austen’s works, he compares it to numerous historical and modern critiques of her writing. Deresiewicz continues chronologically through his graduate student years, aligning the stories of his life with episodes and lessons from Austen’s works, each of the major six novels.

It is rather unusual to see a man writing about his love of Austen’s works, but that is no reason to shun this particular work. Both a memoir and an exploration of fiction, I found this to be pleasant and easy to read; certainly lighter than the previously reviewed memoir involving Laura Ingalls Wilder’s works. Deresiewicz does try a little too hard to connect real life to fiction in some chapters, drawing out some conclusions which are merely conjectures. Still, worth a read, if nothing more than for the aforementioned oddity of a man delving so deeply and personally into Austenian fiction. ( )
  resoundingjoy | Jan 1, 2021 |
William Deresiewicz is shocked to learn that the descriptions by Jane Austen are of him and the people around him. From each of the books he learned something. I wonder if the order in the book is the order he learned them.

Chapter 1: emma: everyday matters
Stop and smell the roses - everyday life matters.

Chapter 2: pride and prejudice: growing up
When we are totally humiliated is when we learn how wrong we were - it is when we change.

Chapter 3: northanger abbey: learning to learn
(The professor asked questioned that) "seemed absurdly simple - silly, really, almost stupid, too basic and obvious to ask a class of resident, let alone a graduate seminar."
" But when we tried to answer them, we discovered that they were not simple in the least. They were profound because they were about all the things we had come to take for granted - " (Page 79)
"Feelings are also the primary way we know about novels -- which, after all, are training grounds for responding to the world," (Page 99)
"...in graduate school...you end up ...with a very elaborate theory that bears no relationship to what's actually going on in front of you. (Page 102-103)

Chapter 4: Mansfield park: being good
Speaking of the people the author knew, he said: Many rich kids "were chronically aimless, and some were downright miserable, psychologically crushed by the fact that nothing was ever going to be expected of them." (Page 147)
"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." (Page 163)

Chapter 5: persuasion: true friends
"True friendship, like true love, was pretty rare in Austen's view." (Page 192)

Chapter 6: sense and sensibility: falling in love
Love at first sight makes great fiction, but is not enough to make an enduring relationship.

Chapter 7: the end of the story
The end of this story. ( )
  bread2u | Jul 1, 2020 |
I may try it again at a t later date but I kept nodding off so I decided to move on to something else.
  TheaIsaacs | Apr 21, 2020 |
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To Jill,

and to the memory of Karl Kroeber
First words
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.
And that was when I finally understood what Austen had been up to all along. Emma's cruelty, which I was so quick to criticize, was nothing, I saw, but the mirror image of my own. The boredom and contempt that the book aroused were not signs of Austen's ineptitude; they were the exact responses she wanted me to have. She had incited them, in order to expose them. By creating a heroine who felt exactly as I did, and who behaved precisely as I would have in her situation, she was showing me my own ugly face. I couldn't deplore Emma's disdain for Miss Bates, or her boredom with the whole commonplace Highbury world, without simultaneously condemning my own.
Austen, I realized, had not been writing about everyday things because she couldn't think of anything else to talk about. She had been writing about them because she wanted to show how important they really are. All that trivia hadn't been marking time until she got to the point. It was the point. Austen wasn't silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter—and much wiser—than I could ever have imagined.
Those small, "trivial," everyday things, the things that happen hour by hour to the people in our lives: what your nephew said, what your friend heard, what your neighbor did. That, she was telling us, is what the fabric of our years really consists of. That is what life is really about.
To pay attention to "minute particulars" is to notice your life as it passes, before it passes.
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.
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Austen scholar 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.

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CONTENTS: Emma: everyday matters -- Pride and prejudice: growing up -- Northanger Abbey: learning to learn -- Mansfield Park: being good -- Persuasion: true friends -- Sense and sensibility: falling in love -- The end of the story.

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.  [Book description retrieved from Amazon 11/13/11]
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