I love Michael Crichton intellectual thrillers. And I want everyone (particularly those in government) to read Hugo's Les Miserables and see what I see in those blessed pages. And nothing warms my spirit like reading an installment of Sherlock Holmes. But, as great as those books are, they are not as impressive to me as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Here's why.
It was the 90s when I was introduced to Austen. The music of Nirvana was liberating us from the "synthesizer-itis" our generation had succumbed to in the 80s. Megadeth and Mortification were hardcore bands, and anyone who called Metallica a "metal band" was probably a sissy who collected dolls and thought ponies were cute. Films like Natural Born Killers and The Crow (along with the classic horror films), and shows like The X-Files were regulars on my TV, and I had already been reading Stephen King's intense stories since middle school.
Pictured above: Hetfield (from Metallica) being about as hardcore as someone's grandma. [Source]
I dreaded "girl books," and I remember doing a lot of intense eye-rolling on the day Pride and Prejudice was handed out in class. I sat in my seat like a prisoner in cell and waited for the guard to come over to my bunk with my last meal. I would have preferred hard labor.
I scanned the back of the book. The protagonists were named Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, and I gathered that they would end up together after a few misunderstandings and some red herring suitors. How long was this book? Couldn't I just skip to the end? Wasn't Anna Karinina enough punishment for one year? Shouldn't these boring books be spread out a little more?
So I begin reading. Sort of. I put it off, mostly. I didn't care that Darcy didn't dance at the party (I wouldn't have either). Oh, big surprise, Elizabeth has a few other gentleman callers and her designated boyfriend might not get to marry her! I totally didn't see that one coming.
When I got to the second half of the book I started to notice two things.
First of all, Jane Austen is funny - really funny - but it's not easy to pick up on her subtle humor. (When British people are subtle, it's really subtle.) I started to notice that she was making fun of her own storyline and the entire genre of romance literature with each line. This piqued my interest.
Then, the characters began to unfold. I thought I knew Darcy. I didn't. He turned out to be a very complex person, and one of the most interesting characters in all of literature, to me. And Elizabeth won my respect with her deep thoughts and clever ways. But it took time. The book very slowly sheds light on these two people and their true selves. Just like people in real life, the characters in Pride and Prejudice could not be understood easily.
And I started to root for Mr. Darcy. "Don't do that, Elizabeth!" I would say out loud, "Darcy is the right man for you! Leave that other guy alone! He's a loser!"
Then I would ponder what kind of a sissy I had become. I was rooting for the designated couple in a girly romance book - surely this was an action restricted to lonely old ladies! But, alas, there I was, reading the book into the night to be darned sure that she hooked up with my man, Darcy, and not that other loser. I felt like I understood Mr. Darcy, and could imagine wanting a girl like Elizabeth to fall for me. (And when I married my beautiful wife, this came true! But, I digress.) I went to class and pretended that I had hated the book, but I secretly loved it.
I've read/watched/endured other romance stories and very few (if any) of them are enjoyable to me. Romantic stories are terribly predictable and tend to include the same stock characters (sometimes, the same actors over and over in the same roles with the same other actors...) going through the tired old motions again and again. Without interesting characters such a story has no value, and that's why Jane Austen is the greatest writer ever - because she was the first storyteller to make me care about an old-fashioned love story.