Why We Don’t Have Time for Jane Austen

A lot of people pine about going through separation anxiety with a recently finished book. I can’t say I go through that. If anything, I’m pretty excited when I finish any novel, no matter how good it was. My “To Read” list is always increasing faster than I can get through it. I am very much of a collector of cultural products. There’s always an overwhelmingly large pool of texts still out there; I get a high from finishing things and moving on to the next ones.

One of my greatest grievances with culture is that there is simply too much of it to possibly absorb it all. As a student in Cultural Studies, you face the great frustration of always possessing a minority of the knowledge you’re actually supposed to be dealing with. You constantly face surprised looks from people saying: “What? You haven’t read that book/seen that movie/heard of so and so…?” As if literature scholars didn’t have it bad enough already. Literature can only increase in its number of works. You’re constantly catching up with history, while trying to stay on top of contemporary scenes. The 20th century provided great leaps for Mankind and only great despair for Alexis’ schedule. Presently, you need to stay on top of not only books but films, television, music, internet culture (insert here an exponentially dividing number of communities), video games, and who knows what other pop culture phenomenons you might be into.

Here, I come back to my petition to increase the number of hours in a day (scientists, any progress on slowing the rotation of the Earth?). 200 years ago, people had time for Jane Austen novels. First of all, literature had a much more restricted audience, people who had money, owned land, and had a lot of time to spare during the day. Secondly, written publications, whether books or newspapers, were the only kind of circulating stories you could enjoy at home. People had time to go through 300-page books of characters living circular lives where not much happened.

I can’t actually claim to be reading any Austen currently. The last time I had my hands on one of her books was a couple of years ago and I remember thinking the whole way through of all the other things I could be doing, as Marianne simply failed to get to the point with Mr. Willoughby. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to hate on Jane Austen, whom I do hope to eventually get around to in a more substantial way. My frustration with literature of previous ages is not only that it becomes more and more inaccessible as you go back in time, but even if you take the time to appreciate the language, it’s just too damn long.

I think a lot of our modern day short attention span comes from how fragmented our culture is. Books have not only condensed but gotten quicker. You can’t hope to tell a good story unless you’re constantly moving things forward. Same goes for movies. In the short century we’ve been making them, their rhythm has greatly accelerated. The average movie scene has decreased from over 4 minutes long in the 1950s to close to a minute today. In a video game, the character is always running and if you’re stuck in the same area for too long without a clear view of what you have to do, interest decreases quickly. TV has it worse, with constant breaks between programs, and 15-30 second flash ads conveying character, narrative and plot in fractions of time. That Cold FX lady can get over her illness, but she better not take more than 5 seconds to go from sick to healthy. We have the news to get to!

Speaking of the news, I have to say how confusing it is to watch the North American news for someone who is not accustomed to it. In France, we’ll have the newscast twice a day: around lunch and dinner time. Half an hour each. That’s it. And no one really bothers with the midday one, which is essentially fluff news. Sure, you’ll get the 24/7 news channels, but no one actually watches that unless they’re traders or retirees. For the majority of the population, you get your daily dose at 8 o’clock and probably tune off before the end, as the big pieces get through first. Now take CBC news, which I watched for about 2 years in my university dining hall whether I wanted to or not. Pieces last on average about 30 seconds. And they NEVER get to the point. The anchor only hints at what’s going on before moving on to the next headline. You have to be watching at the right time to get the extended coverage of a story. Otherwise, you just have to wait for the headlines cycle to come around again and see if they’ve updated anything.

I have a lot of gaps in my culture. I got an education in French literature, but am by no means educated in that area. English culture is just a vast umbrella term in which I have to be knowledgeable in English, American and Canadian texts (which are different things, unlike some Europeans might assume) not to mention the rest of Anglophone production throughout the world. For a long time it stressed me to constantly chase after all these media and cultures and never catch up to them. I think I may have come to terms now with the fact that there will always be more culture out of me than there is in me. Instead, I live by the motto that one book (film, TV show, etc.) read is one more accomplished. There is no end to that list, but the satisfaction comes in the form of accumulation. I never manage to absorb as much culture as I would like to each day, but I’ll keep fighting the clock and one of these days, when I feel further along this path and less pressed for time, I’ll be sure to invite Jane over for a cup of tea and hear what she has to say.

Categories: Rants | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 77 Comments

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77 thoughts on “Why We Don’t Have Time for Jane Austen

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  2. Pingback: When all else fails, I turn to Jane Austen! « Books in the Burbs

  3. jazzminedaruwala

    I really liked the article, just culdnt stop to read more. Hope that there was more.
    these are the exact observation acc. to me. hope to see more.

  4. I was a literature major in college, and have always been an avid reader. I feel sad sometimes thinking of all the books I can’t possibly EVER get to. I do love your idea that one more book read is one more accomplished!

  5. Pingback: A Book of One’s Own | Two Birds One Blog

  6. Dear Alexis,
    I enjoyed your post thoroughly. As I read it four things pertaining mainly to literature occurred to me.
    1. It is not just in cultural studies that it is impossible to keep up with up with new texts/knowledge. It is true in most academic fields. Think about astrophysics, genetics, brain research. My own field, Education, the growth of which is much slower than that of others, still produces an overwhelming number of articles and books.
    2. If there is so much out there in whatever field under discussion, then it behooves us to be selective. Much of what is out there, again in any field, is banal and/or derivative and not worth spending time on when there is much that is worthwhile.
    3. I am one of those who, when I read fiction, I do not want the story to end and I carry the characters with me for days or even weeks, wondering how they are doing (“Room” and “Still Alice” are two such books I have read recently). But I also look at the stacks of new books on my shelves and cannot wait to dive in, and then there is the library.
    4. In spite of all the new literature, might there be a place to revisit old friends? I reread Jane Austen’s novels about every five years. I recently reread all twenty of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series, after a gap of twenty-five years. I always find some new gem when I reread a book. But then I would probably find a gem in a new book. It is a trade-off. I guess I read what moves me at the time. When I need comfort, I turn to old books. When I need challenge, I turn to new books.

  7. I totally agree, and i got your point! amazing.

  8. Reblogged this on Canada eSchool / Ottawa Carleton E-School and commented:
    eSchool loves a good novel!

  9. Fantastic, really enjoyable text, down to earth and rings so true.

  10. Wow, how true! I feel the exact same way.. Not only do I feel that there is way too much that I need to brush up on when it comes to literature especially, but it also provides me with a guilty conscience because I’m not more up-to-date with both older and newer literature. I can’t seem to shake this feeling off me, but I hope that I’ll slowly get to it there more I read.

    Great post!

  11. Great post! I always feel a little sad when I finish a novel, then I’m caught up in the world of said novel until I start another book! haha Congrats on being Freshly Pressed, keep writing!

  12. I really get your point. It’s a really good one. I’m still in high school, though. So I have a lot of time to grieve and die after reading great books…
    And that thing with the commercials on television! I seriously agree! Not just seriously… SEVERELY! I SEVERELY agree with you! That doesn’t even make sense… but what does these days?

  13. Hi Alexis,
    Your post really got me thinking. Very true that there is almost too much modern culture to absorb or deal with nowadays. A good book slows it all down. I enjoy travelling at the pace the writer intended. If you haven’t already, try Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or My Family and Other Animals. Both classics.

  14. Pingback: Why We Don’t Have Time for Jane Austen | A Few Extra Cubic Metres

  15. aroomofheroine

    Personally, I enjoy the tease in a classic romantic read: the angst of our hero or heroine as they pursue, or try to convince themselves that they are not having passionate thoughts about Mr or Miss So-and-So, the arrrrgh!!bliss moments that can be every bit as intense for the reader as a three page phwoar he’s hot, I’ll ask him back to my place for a bit of the old Lady Chatterley down the garden.

    Oh Alex, a few pages here, a few pages there, you will soon get to the end of Miss Austen’s tales! It will reward you in ways that are, I suggest, emotionally superior, to flicking between sites on the internet for periods of time that just get away.

    I agree with amelie88′s Romantic perspective on the choice she made between digital pages and paper pages: “Jane Austen was meant to be read in book form and not e-book.”

    That is the same logic I apply on the rare occasion when, and despite the mess I make, I write in nib pen and Indian ink, instead of by pen or laptop.

    It is in character and more Romantic!

  16. Totally get what you mean by feeling glad when you finish a novel. Although I do suffer withdrawal symptoms when I finish an ESPECIALLY excellent story, I’m usually really excited to be on to my next book. Like you, my To-Read list is quite epic…doubt I’ll ever get on top of it! Happy reading!

  17. Enjoyed reading that. Cheers.

  18. We may not have as much time for Jane Austen, or novels or cultural pursuits in general, yet there seems to be more than enough people wanting to write “new” novels!

  19. What a coincidence, I just picked up Persuasion by Jane Austen in Barnes and Noble yesterday! I’ve had a kindle the last few months and I hadn’t picked up a proper book in awhile. I felt like Jane Austen was meant to be read in book form and not e-book.

    I only have two more books to read that were published by Austen, Persuasion and Mansfield Park. If you only ever get to read one book by Austen, just read Pride and Prejudice. :) The other books are okay, but not great. Pride and Prejudice is the most popular one and for good reason! You read that one and you’re all set.

  20. Very interesting observations. I’d write more, but the news is on.

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