William Deresiewicz was sure that he despised Jane Austen – until she became the woman who changed his life.
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?”