Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lost in Austen

I know it is verboten to suggest that you may enjoy a movie adaptation more than you enjoy the book itself, but I'm gonna say it. I'm gonna say it. I love the Pride & Prejudice movie, but I have never been able to push my way through the book. I'm hiding behind a stack of Bronte novels until the firestorm dies down out there.

Okay. In my defense, it is not for lack of trying. I have curled up with literature's favorite repressed love story several times. In theory, it should be my favorite kind of book: spunky heroine, spunky authoress, social intrigue, and most importantly, British people riding British tropes like little trope show ponies. And yet... and yet.

For years, I have been able to hold up my end in an Austen conversation through sheer osmosis, even inherited a bit of the Darcy inspired swoon that is so common among young women of a certain age, but have been haunted by the nagging reality. I have never read a Jane Austen novel. As someone who can read a couple of books in a day if she tries, I sometimes feel as if I don't have an excuse to read a book that I don't have interest in if it is canon. There's almost a sense of responsibility to yourself, to better understand common influences. Everyone wants to feel well read and culturally in tune. Sometimes, when something that resonates with so many people doesn't strike a chord in you, it can make you feel a little broken. And so I have nursed the sore of my Austen free reading record for a very long time indeed. With this winter sowing its brain death seeds in every New Englanders' cup of tea by February, I decided that there was no better way to fight the slump of the season than by taking on a reading challenge. And, I reasoned with myself, what could possibly be more challenging than Austen?

I knew I couldn't read Pride and Prejudice. If I failed to complete it yet again, I might never recover and even the over-arching cultural charm of the work might fall short of reviving my interest. I've seen the movie for Sense and Sensibility and love it because Emma Thompson and, just in case I despised the book, I steered clear so as not to ruin a favored film. And so I chose Emma, the only major work that I was completely and utterly unfamiliar with. As a bonus, someone dear in my life often refers to me as "Miss Emma Wodehouse" and I figured I might as well use this challenge as an opportunity to get to the bottom of that comparison (by the way, I can see it now).

It was rough.
I made excuses to avoid it.
I watched an entire season of Criminal Minds.
I decided I was behind on my aimless internet reading and took admirable steps to repair that.
And when I pulled myself over that finish line and everyone and their best friends got married, I looked back on the entire week that it took me to read my first Austen novel and realized

I didn't hate it.

While I may not have converted into a Jane Austen fan by any stretch of the imagination, I am glad that I undertook this because I now completely understand why people adore her works. I realized it was never a matter of quality, but a question of taste. I don't read romance novels. Unless there is a love interest standing in the way of my taut non-romantic conflict, I don't really want to read about it. In high school, I would reach the romance portion of a YA novel and roll my eyes, flipping past all of the quivering, sideways glances, and sighing. I love romantic films and, for whatever reason, that medium resonates with me, but I've never had much of a desire for my literature to be served hot, if you know what I'm saying. That being said, Austen will probably never be what excites me about coming home from a long day of work. But at least I now know why she provides just that for so many people.

Jane Austen totally gets it. I imagine her sitting on the edge of the activity in the parlor and simply watching. She was so very clearly a great student of the strange ways of the human heart in every kind of relationship, daughter-father, woman-man, woman-woman, and every nuanced sort of interaction in between. I felt an enormous intimacy while reading Emma, watching unbiased character sketches play out in just the way as people always do, of any class or creed, petty and generous and dear and conniving in turn, all in the same heart. Austen understood the power of a single word or the pain that can come from an off-handed sort of gesture. She understood what drives us to wound or to interpret our way to being wounded. Reading her dialogue, I simmered a little in my crock-pot of literary elitist jealousy. The dialogue was so alive and believable, that I felt as if it was overheard. Austen had the rare ability to know which words needed to be left out to say the most and writers spend their entire lives without even realizing that that is a lesson they need to learn. But Austen does not need me to defend her or even to go on about what made her so special. With or without my patronage, she has gently walked into so many hearts throughout history and whispered them love and hope and healing. My taste or opinion cannot do the slightest bit to change how darn wonderful that is. All I can do is bow my head to her prevailing charm and gentle wit and scuttle back to my museum of quirky wonders.

"There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart."
~ Jane Austen's "Emma"

So true, Jane. So true.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Reading Goals for 2015

February seems like a funny time to get this post written, but I am actively avoiding reading Emma (sorry, Jane) so it feels like a good time to update.

In this post from September (oh dear, I have not been particularly diligent, have I) I discussed the evolution of my perspective on my own reading life. It has been an exciting and validating process for a life-long "book-worm" to take a "hobby" and begin to view it as a life-style. That being said, I will keep this brief and express a couple of goals I have for myself in 2015 as a reading year.

Stage One
Read more diversely. 2014 was the year that I really became aware of the existing disparities in the publishing community, particularly for authors of color. My own reading experience has been pretty white-washed up to this point and I want to change that. The scope through which I see the world seems small for the amount that I have read, but that can be attended to. I am also trying to expand my reading of the history of people of color as penned by people of color. The victors write the history for the schoolbooks, but the truth is infinitely more complex and it is definitely out there.

Stage Two
The year of Arthur. In 2015, my major reading project will be the original Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur paired with the complete T.H. White's Once and Future King saga. Growing up, I could not put anything Arthurian down. T.A. Barron's Lost Years of Merlin series and Gerald Morris's The Squire's Tales , paired with so many other stand-alone titles and a brief spat of obsession with the questionably decent musical "Camelot", defined my reading and writing dork self in major ways. Last year, I binge-watched BBC's "Merlin" and I binge-watched it hard. My Morgana Pendragon love is a roaring fire. Anyway, this particular project is the extension of that obsession, but in a more grown-up way. Not to mention, Pendragon Cycle? I'm coming for you.

Stage Three
Reread The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and complete The Silmarillion and Books of Lost Tales. These books are so familiar to me that my tattered copies of the movie editions have soft corners from my greasy child-thumbs. I read and re-read the Battle for Helm's Deep over and over again. An entire wall of my room is a topographical map of Mordor. And, as I'm sure it was for so many people, Tolkien's masterpieces are the reason I started to write fantasy fiction, my dearest literary love. With that in mind, it has been too long since I sat down and disappeared to Middle Earth.

Hundreds of pages of poorly written LOTR fan-fiction in binders with maps hand-drawn in pencil. Fighting over the Legolas bookmark with my best friend.
Jejune summerwinterautumnspring afternoons spent living life as "the last of elf-kind" in the backyard.
Prophecies. Rhyming prophecies everywhere in everything I wrote forever.

I think that's all that need be said.

So those are my three major reading goals for 2015 (with all of the other books to be read in between). As for the reading goal I'm working on at this very moment? Jane Austen. Read a Jane Austen book. Any Jane Austen book. Trust me, I will have a lot to say whenever this book is over. That is, if it is ever over.