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Reading books, reading life: The cultural practice and the literary representation of reading in Jane Austen's time

Young Seon Won, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Examining the cultural and literary tropes of reading in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, this study attempts to identify the ways in which Jane Austen and other contemporary writers such as Charlotte Lennox, Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, Tobias Smollett, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Sir Walter Scott, reflect and mediate the period’s views of reading as well as actual practices of reading. The forms and functions of the reading practices represented in these writers’ works illuminate cultural, epistemological, and ethical implications of the relationship between reading activities and contemporary lives. Through parallel depictions of their characters’ reading of books and reading of life experiences, these writers offer various views about how reading can affect an individual’s life and society as a whole.^ Jane Austen’s three novels, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion, are particularly focused on to argue that Austen’s representation of reading’s dangers and new potentials makes her an active participant in the contemporary cultural and literary debates of the time concerning the proper use of reading. By exploiting the literary trope of the quixotic reader, Austen deliberately incorporates the popular conventions of sentimental and gothic literature into her work and questions her contemporaries’ normative ideas of reading, while at the same time exploring new possibilities that reading opens up for readers like her heroines. ^ In Austen’s work, an open and sympathetic engagement in reading exemplifies one’s responsive approach to new experiences, as reading teaches how to become involve in the space located at the fusion of two worlds---the world of the reader and the world of the book. By engaging themselves in across this space, Austen’s heroines learn to examine the relationship between an inner and an outer world, both in reading and life. By this means, they also learn to question the given and to explore the possible. Austen’s critical appropriation of popular literary tropes and her self-reflective writing invite readers to participate in such responsive reading.^

Subject Area

Art History|Women's Studies|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Won, Young Seon, "Reading books, reading life: The cultural practice and the literary representation of reading in Jane Austen's time" (2006). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3237387.