[EconTalk] Janine Barchas on the Lost Books of Jane Austen

Janine Barchas on the Lost Books of Jane Austen

20/01/2020 by EconTalk: Russ Roberts

Web player: https://podplayer.net/?id=93367345
Episode: http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2020/BarchasAusten.mp3

Author and professor Janine Barchas of the University of Texas talks about her book, The Lost Books of Jane Austen, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. The conversation explores Austen’s enduring reputation, how the cheap reprints of her work allowed that reputation to thrive, the links between Shakespeare and Austen, how Austen has thrived despite the old-fashioned nature of her content, Colin Firth’s shirt, and the virtue of studying literature.

Start date: early March 2020, when I was still in Kanchi

Finish date: 25 April 2020; taking about three exercise sessions in Delhi over three days for about thirty six minutes worth of podcast


  • This super long time taken to finish the episode means I only have the barest recollection of the first half – but here is what I do remember. Jane Austen (and also other authors, but the guest focuses on Jane Austen) was published not only in posh editions; but also in extremely pulpy editions. And these cheap editions on bad paper are what made her so widely read and a literary superstar.
  • In a way, this was a hidden episode on printing technology and price discrimination, or it could have been. But for whatever reason, Russ Roberts and Prof Barchas chose not to go there, and I don’t really mind, because of all the interesting branches the conversation took in the absence of that discussion.
  • What was totally unexpected was Prof Barchas saying that the modern day appeal of Austen to her students is that it’s escapism into a world where nobody is obsessing over the hidden meaning of a Facebook or Instagram like.
  • Also totally delightful – that Lever Soaps used to print its own Jane Austen editions to give to customers who returned X soap wrappers. Before Lux being the soap of movie stars, Sunshine was the soap of Emma Wodehouse! There’s a soap opera joke also to be made somewhere around here.
  • Another thing that is missed in here but would probably have been helpful as an explainer – what copyright terms were during this period.
  • Also super enjoyable: Janine Barchas’ parody of “Shakespeare’s plays were not really written by Shakespeare” for Jane Austen.
  • The bit about how fiction makes us empathise for people who aren’t real is another piece in the empathy / imagination jigsaw puzzle which I’m building up, but where I’m still not sure that I can come to a coherent point. But the other pieces in that puzzle: Theory of Moral Sentiments, Paul Bloom, Terry Pratchett and his quotes about narrative, and so forth.
  • There was this back and forth:

Why take a class in Jane Austen? Is it just for the entertainment value of learning about–I mean, it doesn’t have to be productive. It doesn’t have to raise your salary. There are a lot of reasons that are good reasons for doing things that aren’t related to income. But, what would you say in defense of English Literature and studying it at the university level?
I could go on all day about the things that you can learn from one Jane Austen novel, let alone six. As I ask my students to rehearse on an almost daily basis, I tell them: We’re not reading for plot. And then I say, ‘No. No. I’m really serious.’ And, ‘Repeat after me and with feeling: We are not reading for plot. And, we’re reading in order to transport ourselves to another time, perhaps so that we don’t repeat all the lessons learned from life in 1813, but can learn from these works.

  • So, maybe the exchange would have been more illuminating if it had been two literature professors talking, not an economics and literature professor. But maybe two literature professors would have made it less illuminating for me because then I would be missing out on things they take for granted in the conversation. Who knows?
  • But the question it left me wanting to ask was “OK, granted that we don’t read for plot. But you’re going to take away something different from your reading depending on how old you are or what your life’s experiences have been at the point you read it. So what does an English literature professor advise on that. What should you read for as a school student, as an undergrad, or purely as a layperson? And what are the possible paths?”
  • ” It really is. And it shows that deep in your soul you are a punster at heart, and I’m not sure what to make of that. One makes use of the pun, Russ, but one does not necessarily believe in it in a faith sense.” Ahahahahahahahahaha.


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