This week I was sitting in a coffee shop where I’ve lately been having breakfast, a place attached to the Georgia Tech Barnes and Noble. It’s the kind of spot to find brainy people doing their brainy things in the presence of coffee. Near me sat a man engaged with a book, and from curiousity I looked over to see what he was reading. Whatever the book was, I caught sight of the chapter title, “General Characteristics of Lasers” and I thought I’d love to come up with a reason to use that as a blog title. I never could think of a good reason to use it, so I used it anyway.
Sitting in that coffee shop at the time, I was reading in the presence of coffee. I had just started a modern novel (I mean “modern” in the real sense of the word, not the stupid literary sense of stuff written 100 years ago). I wasn’t loving the book. There were things about it that I kept clunking over, particularly the unlikely behavior of the characters. I always focus on how characters act, and it’s not like I don’t make allowances for eccentricity. I’m all about eccentricity, as you may know, but they need to seem like real people.
So finally I said to hell with it, I’m in a bookstore, I’m going to buy something else. The Georgia Tech Barnes and Noble isn’t really much of a bookstore, mostly full of Georgia Tech junk, sweatshirts or textbooks on laser technology. They do have some fiction, though, and I found a section of inexpensive paperbacks of classic writings. Classics? Check. Cheap? Check. That was my section, and I bought the novel Persuasion by Jane Austen.
I read old things, I read new things, all the centuries to me are between the two covers of a book. When I really connect with the writing, I feel like the writer is someone I should have known, maybe been friends with. Within a few pages of Persuasion, I was thinking, “I’d like to meet Jane Austen,” maybe over beer and sushi. Maybe she would like to meet me, too. Maybe she liked eccentric writers.
Primarily I admire the fact that Austen is such a good writer, with a strong control of language, very capable with plotting, and skilled with the subtleties of character and feelings. While our world is filled with writers, meticulously recording a tidal wave of trivia for future social historians to do research, my personal world is not filled with a plethora of very good writers. Indeed, no plethora.
I would also like to meet Austen because she strikes me as an intelligent person, a quality that pulls me the way the sun pulls plants from the ground in spring. Describing a minor nobleman’s need to live on his income, she writes: “While Lady Elliott lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy, which had just kept him within his income; but with her had died all such right-mindedness, and from that period he had been constantly exceeding it.” At a later point Austen says, “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!”
There are two further inducements to invite Jane for sushi (and I would like her try unagi, if she’s never had it). I especially like the fact that she seems to have a good sense of human nature, with a real sympathy for our hopes and sorrows, as well as a laser eye for our remorseless stupidity. To deal with the foolishness, she has satire and a sense of humor. Describing Lady Russell’s attitudes toward the upper class, Austen writes: “…she had a value for rank and consequence, which blinded her a little to the faults of those who possessed them.”
Jane Austen’s writing seems to focus on the parasite social classes with which English history is littered. It’s kind of amazing in some of these British novels to see people go through their days without the slightest hint that anyone should be working. Austen is smart enough to satirize such lives, even though she is sympathetic to many of the human beings who live them. As a woman living in an oppressive time period (pretty much always, if you’re a woman), she also shows women trapped in the cold iron social rules that have withered so many lives, though it’s Austen’s way to leave us with some optimism.
I’m OK with optimistic endings. It is only in the modern world that artists and intellectuals, like a herd of moody lemmings, have confused bleakness with reality. In doing so, we show ourselves to have little sense and even less sensibility. I’d rather spend the evening at Umai Sushi Palace with Jane Austen. We’ll be in a corner having a beer.