Like with any writing that focuses on ideas, I can tell when something has struck a chord with me when my mind starts to race, and I find myself eager to jot down my reactions. But this novel also brought out tears and, um, sensations from me. I cracked up a lot of times! The book details the myth that these two reactions—intellectual and emotional—are incompatible or poorly suited.
Education with Emotions
If you’re anything like me, you’re already a fan of McGregor’s podcasting work. She co-hosts Secret Feminist Agenda, an interview podcast where she speaks with experts from various fields about feminist issues, and the long-running and recently revived Harry Potter podcast Witch, Please. I think both are excellent. (Secret Feminist Agenda is over, but fresh episodes of Witch, Please are still airing.) But if you don’t already subscribe to her podcasts, I do not doubt that this book will prompt you to do so as soon as possible.
Back to the book, though. The essays in A Sentimental Education cover a wide range of topics, from examining the politics of whiteness in well-known works for (white) girls like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women to talking about the mechanics of the podcasting format and how it fosters intimacy, authenticity, and familiarity. The book is a masterwork in the seamless blending of disparate tones, ranging from formal quotations of Sara Ahmed to phrases like “Frankly, podcasting made me into a real hard-line bitch about open access,” as if these many sentence types were intended to coexist in the same piece.
Witch, Please was initially intended to be a debate of emotions and ideas about regaining feelings toward books as they “were being mercilessly professionalized out of us,” according to McGregor. (This note made me think of the well-intended counsel I received while working on my graduate school applications for English literature: “for God’s sake, don’t state you love to read.”) This viewpoint also applies to A Sentimental Education, as shown by my emotional and intellectual dual reactions to the book. McGregor’s thoughtful consideration of affect when discussing literature, her moving incorporation of information from her personal life, particularly about her mother’s passing, and more are welcome. They represent a whole method of addressing the intellectual and do not simply add to the intellectualism of the text—my favorite. The novel spoke to me so profoundly because of this.
Fatness, queer and asexual identity, feminist ethics of care, the call for relatability in art, the joys of critique as well as reading, the importance of action for social transformation instead of passive empathy, and other topics that I haven’t yet mentioned but that you might be interested to know are discussed in A Sentimental Education.