“Can a book change the course of your life?” asks the cover headline on the latest issue of my college alumni magazine. Inside, seventeen professors supply an answer – yes, of course – and name the books that shaped them (more or less: a couple of people cheat and just name books they happen to like a lot).
Some of the choices are charming — apparently The Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles set the curator of Yale’s natural history museum on his career path — but one in particular caught my eye.
“The book that had more impact on me than any other is Pride and Prejudice, which I read when I was sixteen because my English teacher told me to,” writes Traugott Lawler, a retired Yale English professor whose academic specialty is the Middle Ages. “It blew me away! I had never imagined a novel could be so intelligent, so witty, so compelling. It made me a reader of nineteenth-century English fiction, as I still am, and it set me on a path to my career teaching English.”
Lawler is 82, so his epiphany occurred c. 1953, an era -- pre-Colin Firth, pre-Keira Knightley, pre-Jane Austen Action Figure -- when Austen’s popular profile was far lower.
In that more innocent time, without so many swoony movie versions to compete with the books’ more astringent reality, Austen appreciation was far less often gendered female. A sixteen-year-old boy could come to her novels without encountering the regrettable “those-are-girl-books” baggage that seems to weigh them down today. These days, I would guess, it’s harder for a sixteen-year-old boy to tune out the noise and get blown away by P&P. Which is yet another sad commentary on our times.