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Jane Austen to Infinity and Beyond

Why should you read Jane Austen? A hundred thousand million things have been written gushing over her works, and a few about why you shouldn't (mainly just Mark Twain, but who cares about him). And many of the hundred thousand million things are right, but I think, at least in the general populous, that Jane Austen is perceived as a romantic classic, filled with love and intrigue, and while yes, duh, these are love stories, it really is a lot more than love stories. I would even venture to claim that the stories are a great deal more about character, personhood, and making fun of the ridiculous in society than the entanglement of two hearts (can you tell that in just thinking of Jane Austen's works my diction has improved--she's life changing!)

It is impossible to cover the vast, nearly infinite, litany of reason why Jane Austen's work fulfill's Horace's prescription of literature needing to educate and entertain, and even beyond all the minutia of what makes her so prescient, or even all the fascinating details of her biography perhaps seen in her works (did you know that she had Addison's disease? And that Addison's disease can give your skin a yellowish or even tan hue? And that nearly all her heroines are described as having tan or brown skin--unfashionable for the time? While her heroines most certainly are not her copies, there are at least or inklings of shadows of her true character).

However, tan heroines aside, here are the primary reasons why I think everyone should read a Jane Austen book, or six (actually maybe five--I still am not a big fan of Mansfield Park).

1. Characters

Jane Austen crafts complex characters, with subtleties of virtues and vices, and gently mocks them in her narration. And while almost all of the protagonists are compelling (NOT YOU FANNY PRICE), the best characters are the ridiculous. Lady Catherine de Bourgh's self-centeredness and utter blindness to her own imbecility is so ridiculous that you can't but snort at her. But these ridiculous characters, are not cynical plasmas to throw all of your loathing on (as Emma learned at the Box Hill Picnic). You see them, you cringe inwardly at their ridiculousness, and you learn to raise an eyebrow and draw good boundaries (and even a few you learn to love).

2. Romance & the True Self

Each of Jane Austen's novels revolve around the love of one or two couples, but the romance of these couples isn't quite romantic trope that we expect from the genre today. While there is a great deal of feeling (or sensibility) there is a tempered balance of sense. A true, good, and lasting love is born out of truly knowing the other and discovering an intellectual connection (á la Shakespeare's marriage of the minds in Sonnet 116), rather than the unyielding tidal wave of emotion. When I think of Jane Austen's characters' paths to love, they are always discovering their true self in the midst of discovering the other's true self. Reason and love are not in opposition, but informing on one another, tugging the protagonists to authenticity in a world of ridiculousness.

3. Beautiful and Hilarious Prose

I remember a friend of my mom's complaining about trying to read Jane Austen, lamenting that there was just pages and pages describing the food on the tables and the decor. When I first cracked a novel, I was surprised to find that this just wasn't true. There are descriptions of settings, but nothing excessive or unusual. The reading level may be a little higher than the average, but it really isn't that removed (nothing at all like horrendous beast Moby-Dick or even Great Expectations).

What you do find is artful language, stinging with wit. One aspect of the books that film adaptions struggle to capture is the narration. All through the novels the story is not narrated by a neutral voice, but rather playful and mocking commentary.

Take for instance the infamous opening lines to Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Clearly this is not a universal truth. Clearly being single and rich does not mean you need a wife, but also in this statement you can see that laughter at the perceptions and expectations of society.

But in addition to the wit, the lines glow with beautiful sentences and clarity. These novels truly are a work of art not just in their content but really in their mechanics as well. They are well, well worth the read.

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