I never intended to take a Jane Austen course, or read any of her novels for that matter, so imagine my surprise when I completely fell in love with her writing. Her books are funny and smart, and I wound up reading almost everything I was assigned that semester. Out of all of her books, I think Persuasion is the best. The novel focuses on love lost rather than trying to find love, and Anne Elliot is easily the strongest Austen heroine. Not only is she dealing with the regret of having broken off her engagement with Captain Wentworth, but she also has to act politely in a society that is slowly erasing her for being "too old." All of Austen's works are worth a read, but I highly recommend this one. The BBC adaptation is definitely worth a watch as well.
The Great Gatsby
So far, I've read this book twice for school, and each time it just gets better. It's extravagant and beautiful, and Jay Gatsby is living what we would all call "The American Dream." But I view this book as an important reminder to never take things at face value. People only show you what they want to show you, and throughout the book you quickly realize that Gatsby is not as "Great" as Nick Carraway dreams him to be. It's a short read, and it will break your heart. I also recommend watching the Baz Luhrmann version after you finish, because it's pretty spot on.
North and South
In a class of roughly 150 people, I was one of a handful of students to actually read this and not just watch the brilliant BBC series to get the gist. Out of all of the books on this list, this is the one I was most suprised to love because everyone kept telling me how dull it was, but it is fascinating. Margaret Hale goes from living in the beautiful English countryside to a bustling, industrial city, and she is appalled by the working conditions there, especially at the mill. She meets the mill owner, John Thornton, and they struggle to understand one another. It's a great social commentary on England's Industrial Revolution, and it's just a great piece of Victorian literature. If you like Austen, I suggest giving this one a try.
Much Ado About Nothing
You really can't go wrong with Shakespeare. I'll admit that this isn't his absolute best work, since I would rank The Tempest, Macbeth, and Hamlet all above it, but this is still my favorite play of his. Much Ado makes me laugh the hardest, what with all of the mischief and misunderstandings, and Beatrice is my favorite Shakespeare character. She spends the entire play verbally sparring with Benedick and has some of the most amazing comebacks. If you would rather watch the play, I would suggest the Joss Whedon version. I also highly recommend Speak Easy, Speak Love which is a modern retelling of Much Ado set during Prohibition.