In my late teens I read a book by the Pakistani Islamic scholar and exegete of the Qur’an, Amin Ahsan Islahi. Islahi urged young Muslims to beware of wasting their time with frivolous activities and called on them to adopt a serious reading programme. Naturally, reading and trying to understand the message of the Qur’an was No 1 on his list, but he also recommended searching out books that he said would encourage greater contemplation and self-assessment and pointed us towards the Bible, books on philosophy and the biographies of influential figures in history.
Keen to make the most of my time, I generally avoided fictional literature, though I had immensely enjoyed reading Catch-22 and Animal Farm (oh, and two of the early Adrian Mole books) etc when I was younger.
Inayat’s problem is that he has rather neglected fiction and now feels he has some catching up to do, tried Lucky Jim, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Portnoy’s Complaint from Time’s recent top 100 since its first issue in 1923, only to be somewhat disappointed, and is looking for recommendations. I suggested he might like to consider going back to the source, that he might have a particularly good reason for looking at Jane Austen:
Inayat I would give serious consideration to Jane Austen. She unified the great eighteenth century novelists—though Fielding, Richardson and Burney are usually mentioned, I think you can also see important aspects of Swift and Sterne—that went forward into the English novel, F. R. Levis calling her (and not anyone later) the first modern novelist. She was publishing her work during the Romantic period while offering critiques of it that continue to resonate, but I think you can go further and see her work as confronting the modern ‘Enlightenment’ ideas of setting aside the classical Christian tradition and founding ethics on sentiment (Hume) and rules (Kant). See A Philosophical Manifesto
While she was grounded in the classical Christian tradition she was also shaping the modern, and she remains as interesting to non-specialists as she does to scholars. Given her interest in trying to make classical ethics work in the brave new world I think you might find her interesting.
I have written an article comparing the modern responses to Jane Bennet (Elizabeth Bennet’s sister in Pride and Prejudice) to those of Barack Obama’s New Politics (much of Pride and Prejudice being concerned with the dangers of cynicism).
More articles on Jane Austen can be found here.