I agree with Peter Leithart—real men read Jane Austen. It’s too bad I didn’t know this before I became a man. It wasn’t until after I was married that my wife convinced me that Austen’s books were worth reading. Why in the world would I want to spend my time reading romances? I wondered. Alas, my ignorance and pride were worthy targets for Jane’s skewering wit. My attitude toward her books revealed that I was less of a man than I thought I was.
This year marks the bicentennial of what may arguably be Jane’s best book, Pride and Prejudice, the story of how a single man in possession of a good fortune found a wife. At least, that’s what I used to think before I read the book. But Jane’s story is nowhere near so superficial as that. It is about people, about our character. Jane observes better than almost anyone else how our manners reveal our morals, how our taste reveals our loves, and how meaning pervades even the simplest aspects of our lives.
If we read, in part, to understand ourselves, then reading Austen will yield a high rate of return on our investment. I cannot think of any better education in what it means to be a gentleman and a lady.
Postscript: You may be interested in the fine annotated editions being published by Harvard University Press. Annotated editions can be a bit like study Bibles in that you can get distracted from the story by reading all the notes. I recommend reading the story on its own first, but after that, annotations can be fun.
For an intelligent discussion of the enduring relevance of Pride and Prejudice, see the panel discussion entitled “Manners, Morals, Marriage, and the Free Society,” conducted as part of the “Milestones in the History of the Free Society” Conference hosted by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions of Princeton University in May of this year. Go here, and then scroll down to the appropriate video.