Read Austen, Train Your Brain

Mention Austen to literature lovers and you get one of two reactions: love her or loathe her.

Mark Twain was perhaps her harshest critic.  He said, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

I like Twain but I’m a fan, so each year I read Jane Austen; that is I reread her.  I finished Pride & Prejudice this weekend and my friend could not understand why anyone would read the same book again.

For an answer, we need only look as far as our children when they ask us to read a story just once more.  My daughter learned the words to Green Eggs & Ham before she could read.  That’s what happens after reading it enough times.

Books are like a favorite dish or old friend; we come back to them again and again.  With books, however, it’s different each time you read them.  The book and its words are the same, but it’s you who are different.  And that makes the story different because reading a book at 18 turns out to be very different at 38.  Dr. Suess in particular never struck a political chord until I reread him as a parent.

In the case of Jane Austen, we’re learning she may be worth rereading ever since she made the news in neuroscience.   At Stanford, “Researchers observe the brain patterns of literary PhD candidates while they’re reading a Jane Austen novel. The fMRI images suggest that literary reading provides ‘a truly valuable exercise of people’s brains.'” (This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes)

Test subject Matt Langione, a doctoral candidate at UC-Berkeley, leisurely reads Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’ in the mock scanning room. The researchers found that blood flow in the brain increases during such leisurely reading, but in different areas of the brain than when the subjects read the novel more closely.

I’ve read Pride & Prejudice several times and at middle-age it is comical, morally satisfying, and unfailingly just. The romantic story between Darcy and Elizabeth is lovely, but not the focus of the novel, nor do I believe that Austen designed it to be.  The characters as well as Austen’s sense of justice come through in every sentence of this work.

Miss Bingley is jealous of Darcy’s increasing affections for Elizabeth and in a two sentence exchange, the author metes out justice in a fair rebuke of a high-handed barb.

“Miss Eliza Bennett,” said Miss Bingley, “despises cards. She is a great reader and has no pleasure in any thing else.”

“I deserve neither such praise nor such censure,” cried Elizabeth; “I am not a great reader, and I have pleasure in many things.” (Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 8)

And the characters rise off the page into palpable beings we have known and met.  Who doesn’t know a Mr. Collins, the sycophant and yes man whose station in life derives itself solely from his patronage to the great Lady De Bourgh?   Here is a character study.

Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father; and though he belonged to one of the universities, he had merely kept the necessary terms, without forming at it any useful acquaintance. The subjection in which his father had brought him up had given him originally great humility of manner, but it was now a good deal counteracted by the self-conceit of a weak head, living in retirement, and the consequential feelings of early and unexpected prosperity. (Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 15)

I liked Austen’s ideas about friendship which arose in a discussion between Darcy and Elizabeth.

“To yield readily — easily — to the persuasion of a friend is no merit with you.”

“To yield without conviction is no compliment to the understanding of either.”

“You appear to me, Mr. Darcy, to allow nothing for the influence of friendship and affection. A regard for the requester would often make one readily yield to a request without waiting for arguments to reason one into it.  . . . But in general and ordinary cases between friend and friend, where one of them is desired by the other to change a resolution of no very great moment, should you think ill of that person for complying with the desire, without waiting to be argued into it?”(Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 10)

While reading this passage, I asked myself, do I look for reasons and justification to help or aid a friend as Darcy? or do I do so readily as Elizabeth would, especially if it is a “resolution of no very great moment”?  The dialogue on friendship, principles, and pride is one I don’t recall from earlier reading.

And ultimately, this is what literature provides: insight into humanity, each other, and ourselves.

Austen fans are legion and she has notable male admirers among her ranks, from Tennyson and Darwin to Churchill who wrote about her in his autobiography: the comforts she brought him while he was ill and his wife read Pride & Prejudice to him.  (Churchill on Austen)

So whichever camp you may be in, fan or foe, I don’t think it matters whether you like Austen or Twain or Rowling or Riordan.

The key is to read literature, the good stuff.  Train your brain.

May 13, 2014

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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