When I tell people I majored in English, they generally cringe.
Very few people, it seems, enjoyed their high school English class. They feel they were forced to read books they weren’t interested in; then, they were forced to find “meaning” in those books that the author likely never intended in the first place. To many people, “studying literature” sounds like a dull, academic, and even pretentious pursuit—the over-analysis of old words written by old people for no discernible purpose.
I get where they’re coming from. For most of my school years, I didn’t enjoy “English” either.
I was always a voracious reader.
I have a collection of notes written to me by my third-grade classmates (from one of those encourage-your-classmates exercises we did back then). One of my classmates wrote, “I think it’s cool that you can read while you’re walking.” That pretty much sums me up as a child—nose in a book as often as I could. I used to hide books under my coat when I was going out to recess and then hide away in a corner of the playground to read them undisturbed.
This trend continued throughout my entire childhood. I read new books, old books, short books, long books. I discovered poetry and read that too, relishing the emotions it evoked in me, the way it transported me, the way it put into words things I had always known and felt but never been able to express. My tastes were wide, varied enough to encompass anything I managed to get my hands on that told a good story.
I read, and I wrote, and I relished in well-chosen words.
But I drew the line at “analyzing.”
Analyzing what you read took all the fun out of it.
I first reached this opinion in fourth grade, very early in our homeschooling experience. The curriculum my mom had chosen for us was literature-based; it operated from the assumption that a well-told story would stick with a child more effectively than a dry textbook entry ever could. The books the curriculum included were varied and interesting, and the schedule tied historical fiction into the history curriculum as often as possible to make history come to life for young students.
In that sense, it achieved its objectives. History did indeed come to life in our home—my siblings and I all developed an early and abiding interest in other times and places. We were exposed to a variety of good writing, and we’re all avid readers to this day. I loved our homeschool curriculum passionately and, frankly, pitied everyone who wasn’t being educated in such a delightful way.
There was just one problem: the curriculum also came with discussion questions.
The idea was that the parent would use the discussion questions to start a conversation with the child about the books they were reading. Retelling a story in your own words gives it sticking power, and talking about what you’re learning helps make the material relevant. As an adult, I see the benefits of this approach. As an educator, I’ve used it many times over with students and have seen how it deepens their understanding of their reading.
As an obstinate nine-year-old, I was appalled.
Literature had always been something I did for fun. I devoured the books I read, lived in the worlds they evoked within my imagination—but I never stopped to think about what I was reading, not in the way those discussion questions wanted me to do. Analyzing my reading sapped it of its magic; it reduced the most wonderful pastime in the world to a dull “school subject.”
So when my mom tried to use the curriculum’s discussion questions with me, I rebelled. And eventually, rather than continuing our daily battle, she gave up.
(Mom—I’m truly sorry I was such a pain.)
Obviously, I wasn’t able to evade analysis forever. Every curriculum eventually makes the study of literature a more formal part of its syllabus. By then, my conscientiousness had outgrown my stubbornness; throughout high school, I dutifully completed every assignment my literature courses prescribed. I counted syllables; I analyzed rhyme schemes; and as soon as I had finished each course, I returned to my old way of reading, basking in the experience the language evoked or the narrative the words conveyed without a second thought to any technique the writer may have employed to produce those effects.
Things might have gone on that way forever. But one day, I discovered a book—a particular book—and on that day, everything changed.
I saw the book in a blog post, and the title intrigued me at once: A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. I enjoyed Jane Austen’s novels (and the films based on them), and a cursory inspection of the book’s general premise captured my interest.
So I checked it out from the library. I expected to be entertained, perhaps even inspired on some level.
I did not expect the book to change my life.
In the book’s first chapter, the author, William Deresiewicz, describes his first encounter with an Austen novel in grad school. As he read Emma, he found himself increasingly frustrated with the superficiality and silliness of the people that surrounded Emma, and—in spite of his self-professed disdain for Austen’s domestic novels—found himself sympathizing with Emma in her irritation and impatience with the small-minded people with whom she had to interact.
Then came the climax of the novel, where Emma says something unforgivable to one of her neighbours. In spite of the neighbour’s foolishness, we all know instantly that Emma has crossed a line. Her critical attitude has led her into cruelty, and there is no justification for the hurt she has caused. Emma knows it; everyone around her knows it; the reader knows it. I was already familiar with the scene before reading Deresiewicz’s summary in A Jane Austen Education.
It was his response that blew my mind.
Deresiewicz realized, all in an instant, that it was Emma’s attitude toward others—her unchecked superiority, her untempered arrogance—that, ultimately, made her cruel. In the same instant, he realized that he was complicit in her cruelty—complicit because he shared her attitude, her sense of herself as superior to those around her. And all at once he knew that this was precisely what Jane Austen had intended him to feel. Austen had created a heroine Deresiewicz empathized with completely—and then, by showing that the very traits that attracted the sympathetic reader led Emma were what led to her downfall, Austen exposed the flaw in the reader’s own character in a moment of truth so vivid he could not ignore it.
“The boredom and contempt that the book aroused were not signs of Austen’s ineptitude; they were the exact responses she wanted me to have. She had incited them, in order to expose them. 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. I couldn’t deplore Emma’s disdain for Miss Bates, or her boredom with the whole commonplace Highbury world, without simultaneously condemning my own.”William Deresiewicz, A Jane Austen Education, chapter 1
The moment I read these words, I realized all at once that this was the true purpose of analyzing literature: to make me think more deeply and intentionally about my own life, behaviour, and attitudes. This was the point of paying attention to how the author uses their writing to make a point about something deeper. It wasn’t about sounding smart for other academics; it was about entering into a conversation, a conversation not just between me and the writer but between every writer and every reader. It wasn’t about analysis for the sake of analysis; it was about intentionally cultivating thoughtfulness so I could do better, think better, be better.
Let me put it this way.
Every writer, no matter what kind of writing they do, expresses a belief of some kind. It could be a belief about the world—how it works, why it works that way, and what we can or ought to do about it. Or it could be a belief about human beings—what it means to be human, why we are the way we are, and what (if anything) the human experience means. Anything people wonder about and talk about and argue about has, no doubt, been written about as well.
When we read a book (or a poem, or a blog post) and respond in some way to the essential belief or worldview the author expresses, we are engaging in what some people call the Great Conversation—the conversation that spans ages, that crosses political and cultural lines. The conversation that takes place between all thinking people through our words, actions, policies, art, and music. The conversation about what really matters—and what we should do about it.
A Jane Austen Education was the book that showed me how thinking deeply about literature could change my life. Never again would I think my education, personality, or way of seeing the world made me superior to other people. Never again would I listen to the uninspiring monologue of a friend or neighbor without remembering one of the key lessons of Emma: that what the people around me care about, no matter how insignificant it may seem to me, matters because the people themselves do.
I was changed because of Emma. But I was also changed by the newfound knowledge that Austen meant for that change to take place—that the story was not just a story, but also a vehicle for conveying a message about something that matters. Suddenly, every unread book had become an opportunity to see the world differently, a chance to engage in a dialogue with the writer about things that matter.
A Jane Austen Education was the book that showed me a Great Conversation was taking place and then invited me in. And it became the first domino in a chain of events that would eventually lead me to change my major to English, a decision that forever altered the direction my life would take.
There’s a reason the tagline for this blog is “books, reading, and things that matter.”
As I learned from A Jane Austen Education, books (and reading of other kinds) start a conversation about “things that matter”—big ideas about life and love and the human experience. Well-chosen words give shape and vocabulary to our own wrestling with the questions that matter most. They deepen our thought process, open our eyes to points of view we might not have encountered before, expose us to ways of thinking that we might not have considered otherwise.
When we analyze—when we notice how the writer used language to communicate his or her point—we internalize the message each written work conveys. The analysis itself is not the point—but without it, we are unlikely to truly lay hold of the ideas literature invites us to consider. Thinking about the words we read and responding to them makes abstract ideas tangible enough for us to comprehend them, relevant enough to connect them to our own experience, evocative enough to (perhaps) move us to be changed by them.
Books and reading are the gateway to the Great Conversation about things that matter. And analysis—or thoughtful reading, or whatever you want to call it when you take the time to understand, internalize, and respond to a book’s message—is how the Conversation carries on, year after year, decade after century after millennium.
This blog is my contribution to the Great Conversation.
Whether I write a book review, an analysis of a poem, or an essay on my personal experience, I’m answering not just the words others write but the ideas they convey. I’m adding my perspective, giving further shape to a conversation that has been going on since the earliest days of humanity.
And I’m offering an invitation.
When you read my words and respond—whether your response comes as a comment on this post or on social media, a conversation starter with your real-life people, or a thoughtful shift in your way of looking at a topic—you, too, are participating in the Great Conversation. My words are one side of the Conversation; the words I reference (in books, poetry, and even film) are another; and your words, your thoughts and responses, are what carries the Conversation forward.
That’s all literature is: one person’s contribution to a Conversation about things that matter. And what we call “analysis” is, at its heart, nothing more than another person’s response, another voice joining the Great Conversation that spans millennia, carried forward in image, words, and song.
Jane Austen wrote a story about (among other things) pride and small villages and the arrogance of class superiority.
William Deresiewicz responded with a chapter about the covert cruelty of intellectual superiority—and with a changed attitude toward his own life.
And I responded to Deresiewicz by believing words can change lives—by believing it enough to change my major so I could spend the rest of my professional life focusing on words and how they work—
—and by writing this blog post.
I entered the Conversation the day I realized writers write on purpose, the day I realized the ideas underneath a story can change a life—the day another writer’s words invited me in.
This, then, is my response. And this is also my invitation to you.
Welcome to the Great Conversation.
Let’s talk about things that matter.