Each summer, Oxford University Press USA and Bryant Park in New York City partner for their summer reading series Word for Word Book Club. The Bryant Park Reading Room offers free copies of book club selections while supply lasts, compliments of Oxford University Press, and guest speakers lead the group in discussion. On Tuesday 22 July 2014, Jenny Davidson, Professor of English at Columbia University, leads a discussion on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.
What was your inspiration for choosing this book?
The book I’ll be talking about is Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park. It doesn’t tend to be a favorite with readers, though I’ve always loved it; I especially appreciated it when I was a graduate student, as there is something about the status of the novel’s protagonist Fanny Price as hanger-on and dependent relation that resonated with my own station in life! I write a little bit in my new book Reading Style: A Life in Sentences about how there is a perfect Austen novel for every stage of life: I loved Pride and Prejudice the most when I was young, Sense and Sensibility as a teenager, Emma in bossy adulthood, and Persuasion now that I have fully come into my own professionally as a literary critic. I am not a huge fan of Northanger Abbey, but I do love Austen’s juvenilia, the short tales like Love and Friendship and so forth. I think in many ways they show us how we might want to read the novels of Austen’s adulthood.
Did you have an “a-ha!” moment that made you want to be a writer?
I wanted to write books for as long as I can remember. (Here is the evidence: it’s my first known work, age three or so, as dictated to my mother.) I wrote compulsively throughout childhood and adolescence, but it wasn’t until my first year of college that I realized that though I really still wanted to write novels as well, my true vocation would be as a professor of literature. It still seemed an almost insurmountably long road, but from that point onward I was sure what direction I should point myself in.
Which author do you wish had been your 7th grade English teacher?
Well, many authors would have been very poor teachers – but I would have to say Anthony Burgess, whose book 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 was my guide for reading throughout my teenage years. He would have been disreputable – unreliable, frequently hungover – but brilliant. Gore Vidal would have been another interesting one to have in the classroom.
What is your secret talent?
Punctuality. I have a very bad sense of direction – all places look the same to me, and I can get lost even in places I know very well – but it is easy for me to be on time and also to have a sense of how time’s passing. You would have to ask my students to know if this is really true, but I pride myself on not wasting their time in class and ending a little early whenever possible.
What word or punctuation mark do you most identify with?
The exclamation point! I do have a soft spot for the semi-colon, of course, and I can’t do without commas and periods. I am also rather partial to the em-dash and the hyphen, each of which has its own charms. I will hyphenate whenever possible.
Where do you do your best writing?
The truthful answer: anywhere with no Internet! I like to go to a cafe where there’s a bit of background buzz – easier for me to concentrate against a backdrop of minor noise than in full silence – and either write by longhand, with no distractions in the way of the internet.
Do you read your books after they’ve been published?
No, but I sometimes have to look up something or remind myself of what exactly I said in the past. My novel The Explosionist was written because I’d fallen in love with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books and Garth Nix’s Sabriel books, and was haunting the bookstore wishfully hoping for something similar. When there really wasn’t anything new along those lines, I realized that I would have to write it myself.
Do you prefer writing on a computer or longhand?
I am still on longhand for a lot of draft-writing. Occasionally I have a project that seems to call out for typing rather than handwriting, but it’s less common. The couple things I always write on the computer, that come easily and enjoyably and wouldn’t feel the same in handwriting: blog posts and lectures.
What book are you currently reading? (And is it in print or on an e-Reader?)
Just finishing Alice Goffman’s wonderful On the Run, which I highly recommend. I love my Kindle Paperwhite, and read most of my pleasure reading on it these days. My apartment is also full of stacks of library books right now that I’m dipping into to make a new fall-semester syllabus.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I have toyed with the idea of taking up “kitten socializer at animal shelter” as a secondary job description. More seriously: neurologist; epidemiologist; copy editor. It would be hard for me not to be an academic of one kind or another, though I suspect I’d be in the hard sciences, computer programming or mathematics if I weren’t a humanist.
Jenny Davidson is a Professor of English at Columbia University in the City of New York. She is interested in eighteenth-century British literature and culture; cultural and intellectual history, especially history of science; and the contemporary novel. He latest book is Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. She blogs at Light reading.
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