Yesterday I pulled down my new copy of Jane Austen’s Emma in preparation for Bellezza’s read-along this December and read the introductory material. It’s the new Penguin edition edited by Juliette Wells. The introduction itself is fine — basic information about Austen and the publication and reception of the novel aimed at a general reader — but that is followed by a section called “Tips for reading Emma” that I found most unsatisfactory. It seems to assume that readers would struggle with the novel, instead of assuming they would enjoy it. The section includes tips such as “Pace yourself,” “Read passages out loud,” and “Try an audiobook,” all of which is okay, I suppose, but condescending in the way it assumes the reader is inexperienced at … reading.
More troubling is the suggestion that “If you’re feeling frustrated or bored because nothing much seems to be happening, remember that Austen’s own contemporaries commented on how little plot Emma contains and how ordinary its characters and events are.” Why presuppose the reader is going to be bored? That feels insulting and it also very much undersells the novel. Perhaps Austen’s contemporaries noted the ordinary characters for reasons different than we might note them today — that novels in Austen’s time often contained characters anything but ordinary — but aren’t we used to characters who are like people we know in the world around us?
Worst, though, is this sentence: “Long novels such as Austen’s are a workout for our attention spans and memories.” Please. People read long, long novels all the time these days, not to mention entire series of long, long novels, and they seem to enjoy themselves greatly.
To be fair, I think a large of part of the audience the editor is writing for here is high school or college students who will be assigned this novel for a class and who may not be experienced readers. She says this is advice she gives to her students (as well as her friends), and it makes sense that Penguin would want to market this edition to schools and colleges.
But still, this strikes me as a great way to inspire dread and not eagerness in potential new readers of the novel. It implies the entire endeavor will be a chore, work instead of pleasure. I’m not entirely sure how I would write my own “tips” if I had to, but I think I would try my best to avoid the condescending tone I found here.