Serendipitous: (quickly) getting a handle on Jane Austen's works

By Walter Ang
August 11, 2000
Confuse Shoes column,

Over the past few months, I was able to catch up on my reading list. I got through a couple of books I've been meaning to digest. I would have felt totally pleased with myself, if it weren't for one elusive book that I couldn't finish. Every time I was done with a couple of chapters, I would stop, shake my head violently and throw the book across the room. Who knew reading "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austen would be such an ordeal? I don't know why it's so hard, considering I'd already read "Sense and Sensibility" by the same author.

The first time I encountered Jane Austen was when I watched the movie "Sense and Sensibility". When I saw it, I wasn't paying too much attention. As a consequence, I thought it was a dumb movie. My second encounter with Austen was yet with another film -- "Clueless". I didn't know this for a fact until I was reading some movie reviews, which pointed out that the movie was an adaptation of the Austen novel "Emma". Clueless was a hilarious movie. Jane Austen was a dead white female writer who wrote boring English novels that were made into dumb movies. I was semi-intrigued.

How could this be possible? I brought this up with some my friends who, as it turned out, have all read either "Sense and Sensibility", or "Pride and Prejudice", or worse, both. I was stupefied. When they found out I still hadn't, they were the ones who were stupefied. "Shame on you!", they reprimanded with a shaking finger. I retorted with, "At least I've seen the movie!" They rolled their eyeballs and admonished me, "Watch it again, and this time, pay attention!"

Serendipitously, it was shown on cable TV that same week. I watched. I paid attention. And I discovered something: Jane Austen is really, really funny! The story of two sisters and their misadventures with men seemed so much like a silly Tagalog romance flick, only the women wore empire cut dresses and spoke with British accents.

I called up my friends and told them to send over their books. This is how I got into reading Austen, by watching it first. It's kind of embarrassing actually. I read "Sense and Sensibility" on and off at home, and sometimes, in boring laboratory sessions in school. I finished it. Not bad!

Reading Austen is no joke. She's funny, but you do need a little handle on the language to get some of the humor. Otherwise, it's a fun romp as you realize you're reading what is basically gossip. Austen talks about the neighbors and everyone else and their manners and their schemes at getting their daughters married off. She tells it to you like the hottest, juiciest news in town.

Going back to the problem of the unfinished book. I was desperate. Fortunately, the internet offered an interesting solution. I found out that there is a website [Book-a-minute Classics] that condenses books so that you can read one in a minute or less. I typed in Jane Austen and one mouse click later, a webpage appeared that featured all of her works in one condensed form. A few seconds later, I'd solved my problem.