Friday, June 3, 2011

A Jane Austen Education

Ah, Jane Austen. Of course my first pick for summer reading would be about my favorite author of all time… Ms. Austen. After reading the first chapter of A Jane Austen Education, by William Deresiewicz, my first thought was: A man who loves Austen… be still my beating heart! As I kept reading, however, my thoughts became much more reflective because the book became increasingly challenging. I love the subtitle: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love Friendship and the Things that Really Matter. Because that is exactly what Jane Austen teaches in her novels: the things that really matter.

Each chapter of A Jane Austen Education teaches an important life lesson from what it means to be a good friend, to really listening to the people around you and allowing them to tell their stories. The author shares Austen’s belief that it is our duty in life to be kind and useful to the people around us, even when we don’t feel they deserve it. He also came around to Austen’s ideas about love. Love does not hit us suddenly or feel like falling. It comes on gradually and more closely resembles growth. I happen to agree with that notion whole heartedly.

My favorite chapter in the book was the chapter on friendship which also happened to be the chapter on Persuasion, my favorite Austen novel. (Maybe my favorite book, period.) I have always loved Anne Elliot, and looked up to her as someone who should be emulated, as much as humanly possible. She always put others before herself, even when that meant being torn away from the man she loved because her family disapproved.

But even though I love Persuasion and Anne and Captain Wentworth, the reason I loved this chapter so much was not because Deresiewicz seemed to share all my opinions about my favorite novel. It was the story he shared about his life I found most appealing. During this chapter of the book, the author was remembering a time in his life when he felt displaced. I think many people in their late twenties/early thirties are familiar with this feeling. We have finished college--the core groups of friends we spent so much time with and took for granted have dispersed to other parts of the country (or world) to start careers or families or other kinds of adventures. Deresiewicz gives an account of his own life: living alone in an apartment, a little gray cat being his only constant companion.

This seemed to parallel my own life not more than a couple of years ago, except I didn’t even have a cat to keep me company. I was in desperate need of a community. I eventually found it in a good church and also in a young couple from the library I work at. I made friends in the community in which I live. But the chapter reminded me how important it is not to take your true friends for granted because life can change in an instant.

He ended the chapter with a description of the friends he had to find after his period of solitude and loneliness: “There were about eight of us sitting around the kitchen table that night, smacking our lips over some dessert she had made. The candles were burning low, her cats were nosing their way among our legs, someone had just cracked a joke. I leaned back, I looked around, and I thought, Yes, I’ve found my family.” I knew exactly what he meant because it is exactly how I feel every time I sit in church, and it’s exactly the feeling I experience when I visit the house of the couple from the library I mentioned earlier, and it’s exactly what I felt when my good friend raced to my house in the middle of the night after learning the bad news I’d just received.

As William Deresiewicz put it, “Your friends are the family you choose.” I think I’ve chosen pretty well, and I never want to take them--or anyone else I care about--for granted.

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