Back in college, I never thought I’d like Jane Austen. Don’t get me wrong. I loved literary fiction and devoured the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Walter Scott. But for some reason I associated Austen with the three-hour Anne of Green Gables marathons my little sisters used to have with their friends from Ohio. No man should have to witness that much tea, lace, patty cake and giggling. I am still traumatized. But after I read Brett McKay’s editorial, Why Men Should Read Jane Austen, I thought I should give Pride and Prejudice a chance.
It was good. It didn’t take but a few pages to realize that this was not the typical three-act, Meg-Ryan-style chick flick I was expecting. The sarcasm was hilarious, and the social commentary was profound. It was vividly clear that I was reading something from someone who had a Shakespearean understanding of human nature. And even though the plot line was relationship-based, it wasn’t a ready-made day-dream for frustrated singles. Austen actually had salient points from improving your dating life.
No man can accuse Brett McKay of femininity. He earns his living managing a website called The Art of Manliness, and I highly recommend it. So I will let McKay speak for himself on what Austen has to offer modern-day men. “With surprisingly compelling plots and deft dialogue, Austen’s novels are just plain enjoyable and entertaining to read,” he writes. “What might be most surprising to those who associate Austen with the frilly clothes and seemingly stuffy manners of the Regency period, is that Austen has a truly sharp wit. … A few years ago, I wrote an article on why men should read more fiction, and one of the reasons I gave is that it helps develop what cognitive psychologists call our ‘theory of mind.’ Theory of mind is what allows us to assess the mental states (thoughts, feelings, beliefs) of others based on a whole host of input, and to use that assessment to predict and explain what people are thinking.”
McKay makes a salient point about our ability to theorize about the way another person’s mind works. Since literary fiction is the only genre of writing that provides the reader with internal dialogue, numerous scientific studies have determined that this genre improves people’s theory of mind. This is especially true when the author understands human nature and writes realistic characters, such as Austen did. So reading her work can help navigate the unspoken complexities of interpersonal relationships, especially those relationships involving the opposite sex.
For this reason, I believe every man should read Austen. In fact, I believe that reading Austen may be more beneficial for men than women. Women are biologically hardwired to be more social than men, and that fact means women generally do better on theory-of-mind tasks than men. So women probably do not have to read fiction to develop their theory of mind. Austen is mainly entertainment for them. But for men, Austen’s works can be vital instruction on how to make educated guesses about real people.
McKay likens this to a mental muscle and that Austen’s novels are like “heavily-plated barbells.” He writes: “They’re all about relationships and what everyone thinks about those relationships. … For example, in Pride and Prejudice, there are almost 50 different characters, and all of them connect with each other in some subtle way. Keeping track of this web of relationships and figuring out what all those subtle 19th-century British social gestures really mean, becomes an intense workout in theory of mind. Whenever I finish a Jane Austen novel, I thus feel a bit more socially nimble. If you want to become a better strategizer, leader, husband, father or lover, reading Austen can certainly help.”
One of my favorite examples of some poor fool who did not understand theory of mind comes from my own life. When I was 18-years-old, I attended my first Philadelphia Church of God Singles Winter Weekend. Before Sabbath Services, I met an attractive blonde who asked some questions about where I was from and how my trip to Oklahoma was before mentioning that she needed to find her seat and didn’t know who was going to sit next to her today. So, I helpfully responded that I didn’t think seating was assigned at these types of events and she could pick any open seat she wanted. After that, I made my way back to the seat where I had placed my bag earlier, pleased with the act of civil service I had provided this poor, confused citizen. Several years went by before I realized she had given me a subtle hint that she wanted me to sit next to her, and was not asking an earnest question about pre-arranged seating.
Most men probably aren’t as clueless about theory of mind as I tend to be. But no matter how clueless or intuitive you are, Jane Austen can probably help you become more perceptive. Even a simple phase like “I just want to be friends,” can take on a myriad of meanings depending on social context. Taken literally, this phrase can mean: I am just looking to expand my social circle. But in certain contexts, it can mean: Back off and stop being creepy; I don’t like you that way. And in other contexts, it can mean: I like you, and wish you would give me a chance to get to know you better.
But to interpret this phrase correctly requires some skill in theory of mind, as McKay would put it. Many singles have consistently shut people of the opposite sex down because they interpret any sign of friendliness as proof positive that they want to marry them. But others have gone the extra mile in developing friendships and still completely missed the hints that one of their friends was open to the possibility of an even deeper relationship. And some few have even deliberately ignored those hints in a bid to lead someone on for vain and self-centered reasons.
Interpersonal relationships can be rife with misunderstandings, and we can definitely ask God for more “theory of mind.” But we can also enhance this through practice and study. In this particular case, practice involves going out and interacting with other people, but study can include the reading of literary fiction. Non-fiction works can give you some insight into how people talk and act. But well-written literary fiction, such as Jane Austen, gives insight into how people’s internal dialogue lines up with their actual actions. (The Bible is a non-fiction book containing a fair bit of internal dialogue too.)
“There’s a place in a man’s library for nonfiction biographies by writers like Edmund Morris and Stephen E. Ambrose, and for virile fiction by the likes of Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry,” McKay says. “And, there should be a place for some Austen as well. … In fact, it’ll make you a more well-rounded man.”
Of course, if you only have time to read either the Bible or Sense and Sensibility, then spend your time in the Bible. But if you have any availability or interest for literacy fiction at all, then Jane Austen can be an invaluable addition to your library!