50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Author: wordsmith2294 (page 2 of 33)

“[Kurtz] presented himself as a voice. Not of course that I did not connect him with some sort of action. Hadn’t I been told in all the tones of jealousy and admiration that he had collected, bartered, swindled, or stolen more ivory than all the other agents together? That was not the point. The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.”

—from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

” . . . Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”

—from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

The Stranger

Good morning, class.

It’s hard to write about The Stranger because there’s so little of it. It’s not the shortest novel on the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, but it feels like it is—it’s like an extended short story, circling one major event in the center, building up to it and reacting to it. It’s the story of a man named Meursault, unworried and unambitious, who commits murder and goes to trial. There, he faces his own mortality and means to understand the meaninglessness of the universe.

Meursault has a philosophy of life that answers every problem that approaches him: nothing matters. His mother dies in the opening line of the novel—and nothing matters. His employer doesn’t see him as ambitious enough and dares him to care more about his job—but nothing matters. He is arrested for murder that he feels isn’t his fault—still, nothing matters. It’s more of a philosophy than a story; but then the philosophy and the story collide, and things get interesting. What about love? Romantic love, family, friendship? Does that matter? What about religion, afterlife, the soul—do those things matter? Does one’s own life matter? Meursault faces those questions with his philosophy like a knight faces a dragon with a sword—the drama of such a mundane, detached story comes in when his lifestyle of detachment is threatened by things that require passion, care, commitment . . . and whether or not Meursault upholds his beliefs is what makes him a philosophical hero.


I have some personal bias here—like with other books on the 50-books list that handle belief systems, the philosophy of this story conflicts with mine and makes it difficult for me to connect with it. It’s hard enough anyway to connect with The Stranger—it disregards and abandons connection. The belief that nothing matters is found not only in what’s being said, but also in how it’s being said. It’s a story that feels emotionless, and it means to strip away not only the things we’re supposed to care about, but also the act of caring at all. Long story short, it’s difficult to appreciate this story while reading it.

But to discuss it (especially in a classroom setting) opens up some of the most important questions people can ever ask. What does it mean to live as if nothing matters? What are the stories—or, more appropriately, lies—that we tell each other to convince ourselves to care? And the things that we care about—justice, family, God, money, comfort, morality, health, beauty . . . what if those things are simply shadows on a cave wall?

I don’t have answers to those questions, and I don’t even have all the questions. But if you read The Stranger honestly and witness this one man’s struggle with his state in the vast universe, I can bet you’ll start asking those questions yourself.


Author Albert Camus

It’s hard to tell this kind of story, so credit is due to the author, Albert Camus. It’s not the most exciting book—like I said, it’s less story, more philosophy—but Camus knows how to frame philosophy in the heart of his story. I’ve also read The Plague by Camus, and it asks similar unanswerable questions of existence and mortality, and tells a story worth reading. If anything, Camus made the list for a good reason.

Next up is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad—another one as morbid and thought-provoking as The Stranger, with a bit more story in it’s punch. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

” . . . everybody knows life isn’t worth living. Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn’t much matter whether you die at thirty or at seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living—and for thousands of years. In fact, nothing could be clearer. Whether it was now or twenty years from now, I would still be the one dying. At that point, what would disturb my train of thought was the terrifying leap I would feel my heart take at the idea of having twenty more years of life ahead of me. But I simply had to stifle it by imagining what I’d be thinking in twenty years when it would all come down to the same thing anyway. Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.”

—from The Stranger by Albert Camus

As I was leaving the courthouse on my way back to the van, I recognized for a brief moment the smell and color of the summer evening. In the darkness of my mobile prison I could make out one by one, as if from the depths of my exhaustion, all the familiar sounds of a town I loved and of a certain time of day when I used to feel happy. The cries of the newspaper vendors in the already languid air, the last few birds in the square, the shouts of the sandwich sellers, the screech of the streetcars turning sharply through the upper town, and that hum in the sky before night engulfs the port: all this mapped out for me a route I knew so well before going to prison and which now I traveled blind. Yes, it was the hour when, a long time ago, I was perfectly content. What awaited me back then was always a night of easy, dreamless sleep. And yet something had changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day . . . as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent.”

—from The Stranger by Albert Camus

I probably did love Maman, but that didn’t mean anything. At one time or another all normal people have wished their loved ones were dead.”

—from The Stranger by Albert Camus

” . . . [my boss] asked me if I wasn’t interested in a change of life. I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all. He looked upset and told me that I never gave him a straight answer, that I had no ambition, and that that was disastrous in business. So I went back to work. I would rather not have upset him, but I couldn’t see any reason to change my life. Looking back on it, I wasn’t unhappy. When I was a student, I had lots of ambitions like that. But when I had to give up my studies I learned very quickly that none of it really mattered.”

—from The Stranger by Albert Camus

Catch-22

Welcome back, class.

Author Joseph Heller invented the phrase “catch-22”—in his novel, it’s a military rule for pilots: if a pilot shows signs of insanity, he doesn’t have to fly anymore combat missions; but if he asks not to fly anymore missions, he has proven his own sanity by being aware of the danger of his surroundings, and he is required to fly as many missions as the military requests; if he doesn’t ask to be grounded, and no one declares him insane or sends him home, he continues flying missions even though he might be insane and doesn’t have to, but as soon as he asks to be grounded, he has to fly more missions because he’s clearly sane.

If you feel like your mind is doing back flips, you’re in the right place. All of Catch-22 is like this—the “catch-22” rule is one of many self-defeating bureaucratic and social conundrums that keep soldiers fighting, whether they want to or not. Unlike Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, it’s not a series of brutally realistic battle scenes, side-by-side with meditations on inhumanity (at least, it’s not ONLY that); instead, Catch-22 is an absurdist comedy, proving just how insane war really is, and how insane people have to be to want to be a part of one.


There almost isn’t a main character, but the one we focus on most is Yossarian, a fighter pilot who’s true enemy seems to be the war itself. He finds creative ways of avoiding combat—most often, he’s in the hospital for an illness that he intentionally aggravates and pretends to continue suffering from. But his officers keep raising the number of missions pilots are required to fly, and his ticket home becomes more and more out of reach. Instead of having a kind of character arc, where he finds a way to accept the war or escape it, he ends up continually fighting against the war, battle after battle, and either Yossarian or the war will lose, or it will keep on going endlessly.

The rest of the characters have a range of influence on Yossarian’s story, and each chapter is named after one of the characters in his life—fellow soldiers, superior officers, lovers, villains, and strangers he meets on his misadventures. The episodes in his life are told out of order, alternating between the present and the past so subtly that it can be hard to know when something is taking place. And one terrible event after another makes Yossarian’s life harder to protect, so that he’s more desperate to do whatever he can to save it.

The humor is warped and depraved—a not-so-subtle coping mechanism to deal with death around every corner, a mechanism that most 20th century soldiers, if not all, know very much about. This is self-defeatist comedy—comedy that points out how funny it is that the world works in such a ridiculous way, gently avoiding (or painfully reveling in) how terrible in all is. It’s cynical, uncomfortable, offensive, and nonetheless hilarious . . . that’s Heller’s genius, I think. Catch-22 is unlike any war novel I’ve ever read, because the intent is to point out, in the midst of the chaos, the rage, the terror of war, how insane it all is.

Author Joseph Heller

And for all that, Catch-22 is a messy story—and that’s a compliment. I’ve called it an “anti-story” before, because it breaks most of the rules of fiction. It’s not a linear story, and it wouldn’t be even if it was in chronological order. It’s more dialogue than exposition, and the dialogue is where most of the humor is, but it’s meant more to establish the environment of war than to tell a story. Yossarian doesn’t have an arc—he’s a desperate, determined man trying to survive, and that’s true on the first page and on the last. It’s all a mess, and most people don’t like it because of that.

And that’s exactly why it makes the list of books you should read before you die—it’s an anti-war anti-story, and nothing else I’ve ever read comes close to showing me how crazy war is, but that it’s the way of the world whether we like it or not. Yossarian seems like the crazy one because he wants to protect his own life, even as he’s criticized and penalized for refusing to die for his country. It’s a radical notion even today—that dying for your country is insane—and that makes Catch-22 one of the most important war novels from the past century.


Up next is a different kind of absurd—The Stranger by Albert Camus (referred to on the 50-books list as The Outsider—a translation discrepancy). Instead of laughing at the absurdity of it all, Camus seems to want readers to realize that nothing matters, and that’s that—much less entertaining, and much shorter, compared to Heller’s Catch-22, but just as important philosophically. What kind of life do we lead when nothing matters? More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.”

—from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

—from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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