Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why Can't I Read Jane Austen?

Two years ago I bought a copy of Pride and Prejudice-- the novel-- with the full intent to get over my inability to read Jane Austen's writing. I'd just finished watching some PBS miniseries adaptation of Emma and had found it so charming and delightful that I had to give her writing another chance.

Now bear in mind here that I'm not writing this as someone who doesn't like reading or classic literature or even old prose. I've been an avid reader my entire life, who voluntarily picked up some Shakespeare when I was twelve and never stopped reading it, who burned through The Iliad and The Odyssey in three days apiece in college (and have been itching to do an adaptation of the latter ever since), and who counts e e cummings as her favorite poet in the whole world, followed closely by good ol' Edgar Allan Poe. Old writing doesn't bore me, heightened prose is like music in my brain, and subtext is one of my most favorite things in the entire world.

So why can't I get past the prologue in this book?

It isn't the story or the characters, since I'm still stuck on page five after two years. No, it's the language. I can't get past the language it's written in and it isn't that it's too old or stuffy or full of subtext and subtlety, it's the simple aesthetics of the words in my head. I have the same problem with most writing from the nineteenth century and I'm not enough of a writer or a linguist to put my finger on what it is. Maybe it's the amount of lingering detail over what I consider to be passing background images-- I love well-described scenery as much as the next person but Nathaniel Hawthorne's pages-long descriptions of the shrubbery Young Goodman Brown is passing on his way through the forest on the way to the whole point of the story make me want to gnaw off my own arm. Maybe that's an unfair characterization of the story, since I only read it once in my early twenties. It's what I remember of it, though, and with The Scarlet Letter, which I couldn't finish despite having checked it out to read of my own volition. There is something in the aesthetics of the language used in English and American literature from this time frame that turns me off completely from stories I would otherwise enjoy very much, which is a source of considerable frustration.

And ten minutes later, blah.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to use this as an excuse for why I'll just content myself with TV and movie adaptations of these stories. Far too often I've found myself on the opposite end of the argument, defending something I love from someone who isn't turned off by the story or the message but by the surface level aesthetics of it. Eiichiro Oda's manga series One Piece was the only bit of Japanese pop culture I payed any attention for nearly a decade, and did so with the kind of joy and adoration that comes along once in a blue moon. I'd go on and on to my friends about everything that I found so amazing about it, the things that moved me and why that series is pretty much the Japanese equivalent of (pre-prequel) Star Wars here or Doctor Who in the UK. Some would give it a try, but most of them couldn't get past the art. Oda's brilliant, unique, quirky art was one of the initial selling points for me because it was so different from anything I'd seen out of Japan. His character designs were and still are some of the most inventive, creative, and out of the ordinary that I've seen; it's part of what attracted me to the series. To many other people, the art is what keeps them from embracing it. This has bothered me considerably over the years, since the story and characters are so wonderful it always seemed a shame to miss out on them simply because of an issue with how "not pretty" the art is. I'd find myself wanting to tell them to just get over it and adjust their aesthetics to something less conventional, but then my thoughts would drift back to that copy of Emma I was unable to finish in high school and I felt too hypocritical to say anything.

This, to me, IS pretty.

Granted, we all have things that don't appeal to us for one reason or another and who's to decide what reasons are more valid than others? "It's not pretty enough" versus "I don't like how she writes" boil down to the same essential argument when you get down to it, and maybe that's why it bothers me so much. I don't understand why it is I don't like it, I just know that I don't. I went through the same thing with movies for years and being unable to articulate why I did or didn't like something bothered me tremendously. Learning about film and how to read it helped me learn to appreciate the entire medium more because I started to understand how deeply it can affect us and how complex it is. I may never enjoy Jane Austen's prose, just like some people might never enjoy the art of Picasso or any movie made before 1989, but that doesn't mean I can't still try to appreciate what other people see in it or what the artists in question were attempting to do. Some of my now favorite things were things I once despised as a kid; pepper, baked salmon, pink and orange together, black and white movies, subtitles, the ornateness of traditional Asian art, tea without sugar, and so on. Over time, with curiosity and sometimes even with effort, I adapted to the idea of them and learned to appreciate them in new and more complex ways. Hopefully one day I'll be able to look back and shake my head in sad wonder that I was unable to appreciate her style for so long. Who knows, by then I might have developed an appreciation for mayonnaise and/or tofu by then, too. You never know.


  1. I agree with all of your points save two:

    pink and orange look like shit together, and

    tea sans sweetener is gross.

    Otherwise we are on the same page!

    I like Oda's artwork, personally. I still want to figure out where i can get gold rings to wear on my big toes.

  2. Pink and orange are fantastic together precisely because they're hideous and obnoxious. I love it but it's an acquired taste. ;)

    Tea sans sweetener is great but again it was something I had to acquire a taste for. Mostly because I didn't want to keep embarrassing myself in my Japanese classes by wanting to put sugar in my matcha during tea ceremony.

    Oda's artwork is brilliant. I'm sure someone somewhere makes big toe rings.

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