Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, August 10, 2012

William Deresiewicz, _A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter_

WHEN I ENCOUNTER the name of WIlliam Deresiewicz at the top of a book review, I perk up and expect something lively, incisive, and perspicacious. I don't always agree with his conclusions, but I know he will get to them in a way that will both delight and instruct.

Deresiewicz does not mince words. This is from a review of several recent books on higher education:

You’d think departments would respond to the Somme-like conditions they’re sending out their newly minted PhDs to face by cutting down the size of their graduate programs. If demand drops, supply should drop to meet it. In fact, many departments are doing the opposite, the job market be damned. More important is maintaining the flow of labor to their domestic sweatshops, the pipeline of graduate students who staff discussion sections and teach introductory and service courses like freshman composition and first-year calculus. 

When he feels he needs to, he'll get out the saber. After a well-developed and a well-informed discussion of the most recent novel by of Javier Marias, he lets go with this:

There is one problem, however, and like the novel itself, it is not a small one. For all its intellect and erudition, and despite its occasional flashes of feeling, Your Face Tomorrow is an incredibly boring book. A crushingly, demoralizingly boring book. My overwhelming emotion, as I read it, was one of an immense, hopeless, enraged sadness, at what the author was putting me through. The first two volumes were largely a heavy slog from one oasis of incident or interest to the next, through deserts of Deza's interminable reflection. The final one was a death march to the finish.

So, when I saw this in the book store last year, I thought--Deresiewicz and Austen, can't miss, love 'em both. But...

...as the subtitle suggests, the book is a kind of memoir-through-Austen, covering Deresiewicz's grad school years up to the time he meets the woman he will marry, making the case that studying Austen's novels during those years made him a better person: less selfish, more attentive, more generous in spirit, grounded in better values, more prepared to love and be loved. 

In making this case, he of course has to mind his ethos, and sound like the reasonable, considerate, willing-to-be-amiable person Austen has led him to become. There's the rub. Reasonable, considerate, and willing-to-be-amiable is not exactly Deresiewicz's wheelhouse. For all I know, in "real true life," as my daughters used to say, William Deresiewicz is a sweetheart, a perfect host, a walking ray of sunshine--but in his reviews, he's not. As I read this often wonderful, charming, and insightful book, I kept thinking, "Who are you, and what have you done with William Deresiewicz?"

After all, Austen was far from gentle herself. As a diagnostician of shallowness, hypocrisy, vanity, selfishness, oafishness, you name it, she can hardly be surpassed. But it's as if Deresiewicz decided he had to be on his best behavior throughout, except when talking about what a jerk he was in his pre-Austen days. Then he's like a born-again going on and on about how depraved he was before he found the Lord. You don't quite buy it.

Mildly disappointing, then, I guess. Worthwhile, though. And likably old-fashioned. Deresiewicz isn't much interested in unmasking ideologies, or pointing out slavery in the background of Mansfield Park, or paralleling Marianne Dashwood and masturbating girls, or anything remotely academically fashionable. The book's premise is that Austen is smarter than we are, and we can learn a lot from her. He's putting the Author back on the pedestal authors were tumbled from at the dawn of theory. I don't expect many academic critics will be following his example, but for what it's worth, I too think that Austen is smarter than we are, and that we can learn a lot from her.

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