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Solid Advice For 21st Century Readers From Jane Austen

In addressing the concerns of the English reading public over novel-reading females of the early 1800s, Jane Austen provides valuable insights into the art of reading for the consumer of today, whatever gender. When Northanger Abbey was finally published thirteen years after a publisher purchased the rights and then sold them back, it was a time when feminist activity had been curbed due to “anti-revolutionary sentiment” (Claire Grogan 11). Overall, many British people were afraid of revolution due to the French Revolution. They were concerned about the ease at which people could obtain books, and how they could choose what they wanted to read. Females left the home libraries, headed to the lending library, and purchased inexpensive pamphlets and periodicals of their choice. With the abundance of reading materials and the freedom of choice came the prevailing belief that it was risky for women to read novels because they could too easily mix fiction with reality, and have their sensibilities and sense of self importance overindulged” (14). Even female novelists wrote in derogatory terms about reading novels.

Austen’s response was to write a novel in which she fought for the value of novels, stating that novelists’ work was “undervalued” (59). Through her female protagonist, Catherine, she taught readers to become discerning readers. Her protagonist developed her “ability to differentiate between fact and fiction” (13), both when reading books as well as when reading people she encountered. As Claire Grogan points out, through Catherine’s growth as well as through Austen’s examples of bad and good readers, readers of Northanger Abbey are given the opportunity to enhance enhance their own reading skills (8).

Some of the challenges that readers of Northanger Abbey faced remind me of some issues we deal with today in readership: shallow reading and memorizing sayings to sound intelligent. Eric Eisner in “Jane Austen and the Gothic” explains that at the time the novel was written, the British were moving from reading the same home library material over and over to reading quickly and often in little snippets. They obtained their reading materials from circulating libraries with short lending time, and read bits and pieces in short pamphlets. Thus, female readers often simply memorized pithy quotes to sound learned. Today, people sometimes memorize or pass along in social media little quotes and pithy phrases, often out of context. Also, it’s so easy today to read at a cursory level, reading the beginning of online articles or even just headlines, thinking we have a sense of the full article. In the multi-media world, there is still worry that gamers and viewers will not understand the difference between fact and fiction, thinking the virtual guns will cause teens and immature gamers to access real guns, and that people who watch shows like “13 Reasons Why” will choose death because a character chooses death.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen’s advice to readers in the early nineteenth century was to choose reading fiction and nonfiction materials, and to read fully, attentively and with discernment (22). To me, that appears to be good advice for twenty-first century readers as well.

Comments

  • Great post -- I especially like how you observe similarities between the suspicion of novels in AUsten's time and the suspicion of new media forms and texts today. Current critiques (or jeremiads) against digital communication platforms and genres posit shallowness or worthlessness in the name of older forms that are purportedly deeper or worthier; however, there are some fascinating counter-critiques of such positions -- for instance, the Stanford Study of Writing, which makes some interesting arguments for the vaslue of new media forms and platforms in the teaching, practice, and promotion of writing.

    Mark A. McCutcheon February 22, 2019 - 1:15pm

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