Why You Should Read Jane Austen (and Everyone Else)

ImageI have a confession to make: I am sexist.

Not that I’ve been paying my female employees less or expecting my wife to wash my feet every night, but… actually, let’s put it another way: I’m sexist when it comes to art.

I began having this realization two years ago, when I finally got around to reading Jane Austen. In my mind, her novels were about women chasing after men or vice versa, storylines whose protagonists could be replaced with Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl without compromising their integrity. Imagine my surprise, upon reading them, to find novels that were as sparkling, clever, and poignant as any other classic I’d read. I felt pretty good about myself.

Fast forward to now. I’ve read over 300 books since 2007, and, by my count, less than 25 were novels by women. Of those 25, approximately half were Young Adult books and 2 were Harry Potter. The fullness of my prejudice hadn’t even occurred to me until earlier this year, when I was asked to review a biography of Sylvia Plath. Not having read anything of hers, I sat down with The Bell Jar, expecting an emo-tastic slog, and was amazed–amazed–when I loved it. Where had my bias come from? The blurb on the back said it was like a female Catcher in the Rye, a widely misunderstood book that I love, and that turned out to be a fair description.

And why do I feel this way? I can think of one main reason: I always assume I won’t be able to relate as well, because, well, I’m a man. That’s silly, of course–I can’t relate with Hemingway’s protagonists either, but I can understand their feelings and motivations. Leopold Bloom and I don’t have much in common either, but I don’t mind journeying through Dublin with him.

The worst thing about this assumption, though, is that it drives a stake through the heart of one of literature’s primary benefits, the chance to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see life through their eyes, to understand the weight of the things that oppress them, things that would seem silly to us without that empathy. In this way–maybe primarily in this way–literature can help make us better people; but how can it change us if we never stretch outside our comfort zone?

So I’m trying to stretch.

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249 thoughts on “Why You Should Read Jane Austen (and Everyone Else)

  1. tauromaja says:

    I’ve always like the verbal ripostes in “Pride and Prejudice”. I kind of gasped when I finally realized the weight of the one comment Lady Catherine made to Elizabeth by saying she could use the pianoforte in the maid’s room, “where she wouldn’t bother anyone.” And I have read that to different people and it has never illicited much more than a reaction to a passing car. I’ve read books, starting out thinking that they were going to be like such-and-such classic, and then to turn into something brilliant.

    Which is why we need to keep reading. So that we have the gamma to compare it to and opine.

  2. [...] ♥ Why this man thinks you should read Jane Austen (and everyone else). I concur, dear sir. [...]

  3. Dear Jane, she is a one isn’t she? Two favourites who owe a lot to her are Barbara Pym and Stella Gibbons.

  4. Euridice says:

    Reblogged this on THEMILANSTORYTELLER and commented:
    Dear Jane

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