William Deresiewicz was 26 when he reluctantly picked up Jane Austen's "Emma" and began a journey during which he learned "everything [he] know[s] about everything that matters," he writes in his book "A Jane Austen Education" (now out in paperback). From learning the value of education from "Northanger Abbey" to discovering what growing up really means in "Pride and Prejudice," here are six lessons Deresiewicz gleaned from the socially satirical Jane Austen.
When Deresiewicz was assigned to read "Emma" for a literature class in school, he did so, he writes, with an eye-roll. "Everything was so unbearably banal," he wrote. He quickly grew tired of the long passages in which the protagonist Emma's father or a character named Miss Bates would go on for what seemed like forever about the grandchildren or receiving a letter. Then he reached the part in the book where Emma, who finds Miss Bates intolerably boring, insults her in front of multiple people, and Deresiewicz suddenly realized that Austen was showing readers the unkind thoughts they'd been having about this character. "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," he wrote. Deresiewicz also quickly realized why Austen had her characters discuss mundane matters for pages. "Those small, 'trivial,' everyday things, the things that happen hour by hour to the people in our lives," he wrote. "That, she was telling us, is what the fabric of our years really consists of. That is what life is really about." Deresiewicz says he also recognized Emma's self-importance in himself and realized that his intellectual airs were harming him more than helping him.
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