Franz Kafka said, “we ought to read only books that bite and sting us.” What’s the last thing you read that bit and stung you?
The last book I read that really bit and stung was All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Smith. It’s the autobiographical tale of a college professor who took a year off to study the ways that people in different cultures react to the works of Jane Austen. It may sound rather dry, but it has really stayed with me.
Until I read this book, I never “got” Jane Austen. I read two of her books and enjoyed them enough, but I didn’t think they were anything special. Other women love Jane Austen; her works are a template for almost every romance novel. From the nearly illiterate woman at the end of my street to the smartest woman I know –my friend Tosha—everyone I know who has read these books loves them. Everyone but me.
Reading All Roads Lead to Austen gave me an insight into Pride and Prejudice and Emma that finally made it go “click” for me. I get it. I understand the gentle but slightly snarky satire, the statement on her life and time, even the arguable hints of feminism. I finally understand and appreciate Jane Austen!
But that’s not what stung me about this book. I can’t even begin to comprehend what it must have been like for Smith to walk away from her life for an entire year. A year! She traveled through South America alone, settling in for a month here, five months there, and so on. She went into the adventure with a few contacts here and there, but was on her own for most of it.
It made me remember my own long-ago dream: I was going to buy a little pop-up camper and take a year off to drive around America alone. I was going to spend that year writing, daydreaming, exploring. It never happened.
I never used to be afraid to take risks. I went to college in another state, eight hours away from home, where I knew no one. I could go up on stage and perform comedy or drama; I traveled through London and Wales with a theatre group and even performed in a park in Monmouth. I parasailed over Lake Michigan, camped on Assateague Island to watch the wild ponies swim, went to the Chicago ComiCon alone.
I went to Cosmetology School with a plan. I was going to use my license to get a job in a salon on a cruise ship, and I was going to see the world.
Three months in, I met my husband. Totally different kind of risk and adventure. I now have kids, a house in the country, a dog. I make hand-stitched quilts and some pretty amazing peanut-butter no bake cookies.
In short, I am boring.
My truly astonishing young niece has been teaching English in Seoul, South Korea for the last two years, and I am the first to admit that I am jealous. What I wouldn’t give to have her courage, her opportunity! At her age, I would have done it in a second. But now . . .
Years ago, a group of Dr Who fans asked the question: If the TARDIS showed up in your yard, would you step inside? Once upon a time, my answer was an immediate yes. Now, I’m afraid I would say “No, I’ve got a roast in the Crock Pot, and the kids will be getting off the bus soon, and I’m due at the fundraiser soon . . . “
Reading All Roads Lead to Austen made me take a good, long look at my life and realize that I have lost my old adventurous spirit, and that I want to get it back.
It’s time to take some risks again.