Review: A Truth Universally Acknowledged - 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, Edited by Susannah Carson

Why do I - why do we - read Jane Austen over and over and over? In this collection, edited by Susannah Carson, thirty-three writers try to figure it out. And some of them hit in on the head, and others really...really do not.

I approached this book, post-its and pen in-hand, like I would a text book or maybe a thesis paper. I wanted to learn from it, to have a conversation with it, with the writers. I wanted the validation of thought and passion that literary critics can sometimes give.

The problem I encountered, though, is that it lacks organization. What attempts to be an organic flow of information, opinions, criticism and thoughts jumps back and forth (as you move from one writer to the next) between focuses. They don't seem grouped in any particular way - and maybe this is supposed to be a comment on just how universal Austen is, but it doesn't work. On top of that, we are given author biographies in the back, but there's no context for the essays with the essays. With some, you can guess - we know when C.S. Lewis and Virginia Woolf lived/wrote, but some of the (for me) more obscure authors seem to float in time with no reference to the period in which they were written, and that can be very problematic. Especially when an author is writing about film adaptations with no reference past the 1980s. Or when another author makes reference to the way a class is taught that seems right out of the sixties.

Like Austen, each author comes with temporal and emotional baggage that can affect their vision. For instance, an author writing about Austen and modernism in 1920 is going to have a very different vision than the one writing about turning Emma into "Clueless."

That aside, I did enjoy the way some of these authors seemed to manage to put my feelings about Austen's works into words and theories that actually make more sense, almost as much as I enjoyed arguing with my pen in the margins. Did it make me want to hop up and immediately re-read Mansfield Park and Emma? Not really. But it definitely made me look forward to reading them again, new information and theories in-hand.


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