Lesson #116: ‘Passion for Dead Leaves’: Tips on How to Read (and Enjoy) Old Classics as an English Language Student

After admiring these acer tree leaves today, I was reminded of a memorable conversation among the Dashwood sisters in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811):

“Dear, dear Norland,” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks [are] thickly covered with dead leaves.”

“Oh,” cried Marianne, “with what transporting sensation have I formerly seen them fall! How delighted I was, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings they have  the season and the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible [from sight].” 

“It is not every one,” said Elinor, “who has your passion for dead leaves.” 

“No; my feelings are not often shared [or] understood. But SOMETIMES they are.”

– Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter XVI

Sometimes English language learners can find it difficult reading novels because they are overwhelmed by the vocabulary or the lengthy passages. 

✍️ In these situations, I advise reading only a portion of the book the first time around: skim the text for any DIALOGUE or conversation between characters and start reading that section first.

This is because good writers will adapt their characters’ language to resemble everyday spoken English. By contrast, their prose might be more descriptive and sometimes dense, so that it takes longer to understand. 

Do not skip the prose entirely, however! You will want to understand the plot it describes and benefit from its richer vocabulary. Such passages of prose will, in fact, improve your writing skills more than the character dialogue will. 

But when you are simply trying to comprehend a novel, try reading just the dialogue first, then everything together (prose with dialogue) on the second read. You will understand so much about the characters, their personalities, and their preferences from their conversation. And by comprehending this much, you will find the reading and studying process more satisfying as you progress through the book.

As with Marianne’s passion for dead leaves, the ‘old leaves’ of many books will come alive for you the more you appreciate them!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)