This comes up all the time. What is your favorite book by Jane Austen? Of course they are all amazing but everyone must have their preferences. Here's my sure-to-anger list and why:
For me this is Austen at her best. First off I should admit that I adored Cinderella as a child and Persuasion is the ultimate Cinderella story. Watching Anne Elliot, really Jane's most perfect heroine, bloom into such deserved happiness is one of the most fabulously cathartic experiences literature has to offer. I will also admit that I love depressing stories (despite what one might assume based on the thoroughly happy tale I just wrote) and there is A LOT of melancholy in this story. It's difficult not to attribute it to the circumstances of Austen's life while she was writing it. For that reason, this is an extraordinarily personal tale, as close to the writer as we ever get in her fiction.
2) Northanger Abbey
This book is such a remarkable delight to read. Henry Tilney, after Mr. Darcy of course, is my favorite Austen hero and Catherine Moreland has to be the sweetest heroine she ever created. This was the first book I ever read of Jane Austen's, so it holds a special place for me in that respect, and it still makes me laugh aloud every time I read it. I get a silly grin on my face whenever I read Austen (it just makes me really happy) and it's at its biggest when I read Northanger Abbey.
3) Mansfield Park
This is Austen's most ambitious work and her most flawed novel (the attempt in and of itself is remarkable). So much more complex than her other stories, Mansfield Park depicts a rather frightening world of ambition, lust, and folly. This book is much more than a romance: it's deep social philosophy, much more akin to George Elliot's work than Austen's other novels. In Mansfield Park we see the remarkable heights of Austen's potential. It's a book that inspires awed respect.
4) Pride & Prejudice
This is the perfect romance: Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet personify true love. Of course its appealing. Every time I pick up this book I know I shall laugh, cry, and feel triumphant (sometimes all in the course of one page). Pride and Prejudice is a highly emotional story and the reader becomes fully engaged in the dramatic roller coaster that forms the plot. This is why I think so many revere this tale - it gets you about as close as anyone can come to perfect happiness. Vicariously, we bask for a moment in Darcy and Elizabeth's glory. It's terribly gratifying.
Now I have to move into defensive mode and say why I put these last two books at the end of this list instead of just declaring what I love them. Emma is wonderful but this story has just never grabbed my imagination to the same degree as the others. I suppose this is because I'm a spoiled brat myself and Emma's faults too closely resemble my own. It's very painful when your too-good opinion of yourself takes a beating, to that I can attest, but all Emma's happy ending teaches me is that, though there may be some trials along the journey, I am sure to get my way in the end. This is the only one of Austen's books that doesn't demand I try to be a better person.
6) Sense and Sensibility
After having read all of Austen aloud to my husband last year, I must acknowledge that this is the worst written of Austen's book. Sense and Sensibility is a wonderful story but the writing is choppier and more contorted than her later work. I wish she could have done another draft of this one, just to smooth out the language. I adore the dynamic between Elinor and Marianne but think that Austen had a hard time working with two heroines. Notice she never attempted to do so again.
So there you are. Please argue with me: this entire exercise is totally arbitrary and demands it. I love debating Austen.
Note added 12/5/09: I just began A Truth Universally Acknowledged (which, so far, seems an attempt to raise Austen to the level of a divinity) and came across the following quote in Susannah Carson's intro which is very relevant to this post: "Some readers are certain there is a fixed hierarchy and take no greater pleasure than in defending their choices and converting opponents. Others find the question as impertinent and irrelevant as if they had been asked to pick a favorite child." I like to think that I fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.