I’m on a fiction jag. More accurately, I’m on a Jane Austen jag. Masterpiece Classics on PBS has been airing “The Complete Jane Austen” and, drawn into the movies, I’ve decided finally to read the books.
My first exposure to – I won’t say experience of – Austen came in high school. As a student, I was focused on getting good grades rather than on learning anything. My report card showed B’s for calculus though I didn’t understand math beyond algebra, and A’s in English though I rarely glanced at the books my teachers assigned. At least, not until it came time to cull quotes for knitting into into long, assigned papers about the books’ themes.
I’m not sure why I avoided the assigned reading, except perhaps that it was assigned. I was a ravenous reader from the start. High school is when I began reading everything I could by an author I liked. As with my current Austen obsession, a movie prompted my first author-focused reading fit. Unlike with Austen, though, I felt drawn to Isak Dinesen because the movie based on her book befuddled me. I’d seen it in junior high, when my mom met questions about what was going on with “You’ll understand when you’re older.” A few years later, roaming about a used book store, I discovered Out of Africa on the shelves and was attracted to the lingering illicit air implied in my mom’s comment, reading it like other kids read the Joy of Sex found hidden under their parents’ mattress.
I don’t yet know how far my interest in Austen will take me, though my obsessiveness about an author can get out of hand. Out of Africa lead to a years-long exploration of Dinesen, which included a transfer from my first university in the big-hair wasteland of Dallas to the University of Washington to study Danish, Dinesen’s first language, with the thought of becoming a Dinesen scholar.
So far, my interest in Austen has resulted in reading three of her novels and seeing nearly every adaptation of any of her works I can get through Netflix.
I’m troubled a bit by watching instead of, or even in addition to, reading, especially when it comes to my daughter. My foremost objection to watching movies based on books is their pernicious tendency to preempt or supplant my own mental images formed while reading, and I worry that my daughter will likewise be stuck forever seeing Tilda Swinton as Narnia’s White Witch. Though as far as Mr. Tumnus goes, you could hardly ask for better than James McAvoy. And maybe her fascination with the movie’s Aslan, which has so far stretched into months of imaginative lion play, will grow into a love for, or even obsession with, C.S. Lewis once she’s a reader herself.