A few years ago, I learned about a book about Jane Austen that I thought would be an interesting read. I put it on my Amazon wish list, and there it sat year after year. No one bought it for me. I finally decided to see if the Salt Lake County Library had it. They did.
I was looking forward to reading it. I read the first chapter.
The book is interesting all right—for all the wrong reasons.
I’ll leave my scathing review for Goodreads. (Yes, I do believe some books deserve scathing reviews.) What I will say is that the book was a good reminder to me about the art of reading books and the flexibility of interpretation. I also remembered one important element of reading that the author of this book ignored.
In her introductory chapter, the book’s author pointed out how little we know about Jane Austen. She questioned the reliability of the biographical information we’ve been given over the years. She pointed out how few of Jane Austen’s letters have survived and how misinterpreted they have been. Then, the author set forth the proposition that she—and she alone—could discover the real Jane Austen through the words of her novels.
It’s true that an author will always show you something of their own beliefs and ideas through their writings. But the author of this book ignored one important element of the equation: the reader can never be completely removed from the reading experience.
Reading is less a window into the author’s mind and more a mirror reflecting the reader’s. When you read a book, you read through the lens of your own experience, understanding, culture, etc. Yes, you can learn from what you read, but you will only learn what you allow yourself to learn.
It’s a risk every author takes when sending their words into the world. Readers will make connections in the story that the author might not have noticed. Readers bring their own interpretations. As an author, I want to tell a story, to convey an idea, but I can’t tell anyone how to receive it. I still believe in the importance of a moral to a story (one of the first writing concepts I learned) and that moral should be recognizable to all readers. But the details and scenes that readers connect with—they no longer belong to me. Once a book is published, it belongs to the readers.
Every book will have as many interpretations as it has readers. There is nothing wrong with that. As long as a book has led its readers down the path of discovery, it has served its truest purpose.