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Awhile back, agent Nathan Bransford asked about our "gap books": in his words, "those books that everyone in the world has read and talks about all the time and look we are really meaning to read them but we're all very busy and there are a lot of books to read and no one could possibly be expected to read them all and why do I have to defend myself aha;sldkjf;aj"
(For me: Moby Dick, anything by Kafka, The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, The Lord of the Flies... okay, hopefully I've embarrassed myself enough now. I don't like depressing stuff--does that show?)
I reference this owing to a question in yesterday's comments that I couldn't resist making into a blog post; the answer attempted to become a full-fledged essay as I typed in the combox. It's the best question I've been asked all week. Here it is: "For someone who has never read Jane Austen, where do you recommend starting?"
To George (who generally puts me to shame in the reading department): I'm so glad these are your gap books, because now I get to answer this question!
Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Emma are--in my opinion--Austen's strongest works, and I recommend beginning with one of those three. Persuasion is probably the easiest and most relatable read for a modern American, although if said American has read other English classics, this might not matter. It meanders less, clearly values intelligence and integrity over rank, celebrates some degree of informality, and combines vivid portrayals of setting and character with a strong pensive mood.
On the other hand, Pride and Prejudice is the most popular; for several good reasons, I think. It includes lifelike characters who undergo excellent personal and relational growth, loads of the sly social mockery for which Austen is renowned, and brilliant voice and wit. It makes me laugh every time I read it, sometimes at things I'd never noticed before. I started with this one, and I've got no regrets over that.
Emma is a solid, well-plotted tale with exquisite character development and a true hero. It's also one of J. K. Rowling's favorite books; according to Rowling, "The best twist ever in literature is in Jane Austen's Emma. To me she is the target of perfection at which we shoot in vain."
My suggestion, then, for George and anyone else meeting Jane for the first time, is to pick whichever of those three appeals most to you from the outside and start there. Afterward, however, if you decide you like Austen, I highly recommend Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility as well. The former moves slower than the others, but has a very pure-minded heroine, and with its strong themes of faith and virtue, I find it a refreshing read. The latter, with sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood as personifications of the title attributes, is a fascinating character study and moving tale, despite rambling a little (it was Austen's first published novel, after all.)
I liked Northanger Abbey, but its heroine is on the childish side and therefore not quite as relatable.
The short epistolary story Lady Susan portrays a truly awful woman, which is interesting, but I found it less engaging than any of the others and have read it only once.
I hope that helps! If any of you reading this have suggestions of your own, I'd love to hear your thoughts. I can talk Austen like Harry Potter--the fandom just isn't as well organized. (Maybe I should write some Austen-themed songs? A little pianoforte accompaniment would do, if only I would give myself the trouble of practicing...)