50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Category: Missing From the List (page 1 of 3)

Missing From the List: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Hello again, class.

At this point, I’ve picked more than 20 books that are “missing from the list”—books that I think deserve to be read as much as the “50 Books to Read Before You Die.” They all stand out for one reason or another . . . they all feature some crucial element not found on the original list. The Outsiders is hallmark young adult fiction, in a way that the other 50 books fails to deliver; The Shining is one of the best horror novels of all time, and horror in its own right is not as featured on the list as it should be; Citizen is one-of-a-kind, a cultural collage of racism in America; and there’s nothing in children’s literature quite like the works of Dr. Seuss.

Then there’s Cloud Atlas—a book that I chose to write about not because it had something crucial the list was missing . . . but because it mashes the best books on the list together. Cloud Atlas is not one book, but several—it’s a montage of genres throughout time that resonates more strongly as one piece. In a way, it’s its own library.

The full set of the 13 book series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, published from 1999-2006.

The same can be said of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. This 13-book series is filled to the brim with cues from the greatest books of all time, so that each new character, plot device, or unfortunate event is the makings of Lemony Snicket’s personal, quirky library. From 1984 to Moby Dick, and from the poetry of T. S. Eliot to The Little Engine That Could, Lemony Snicket filled his books with other books and made something original: a modern literary canon for kids, as well as a part-time dictionary, a how-to manual, and a kind but constant reminder that the world is a treacherous place . . . and that knowledge, dedication, and empathy are the tools one needs to fight treachery.

I’m not sure that a synopsis is needed for a series this famous, but just in case . . . this is the miserable story of the Baudelaire children, who, after a fire in their home, become the Baudelaire orphans. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, each with their own talents and skills, are thrust into a world without the comforts of home and with only the memory of their parents, and they fall into the hands of Count Olaf, a villain who wants to steal the Baudelaire fortune. Time and again the Baudelaires escape his clutches, and time and again he catches up to them, making every chapter in their lives seem more unfortunate than the last.

The first book, titled The Bad Beginning (1999)

And no—it’s not a happy children’s story. The narrator makes that unbelievably obvious in every single installment, writing about how dreadful the lives of these children are and how you, dear reader, would be far better off not reading this story at all. That’s part of the genius of A Series of Unfortunate Events—author Daniel Handler, who created the fictional narrator Lemony Snicket, writes in a way that makes this tragic story absurdly interesting. I’ve said it before . . . it’s almost impossible to describe, it simply has to be experienced.

There are several reasons I think A Series of Unfortunate Events should be included on the list. For one thing, the series handles concepts like grief and sadness in ways that are perfect for children and teenagers, without compromising on those concepts to make them “child-friendly.” Evil exists, and Count Olaf represents it, but that evil has been in this world long before Count Olaf appeared and it will be here long after he’s gone. Facing evil takes love, like love for a sibling, love for those we’ve lost, and love for others in this world that are suffering, who need a volunteer to help them—and not simply a blind, thoughtless love, but a courageous, unconditional love of understanding and acceptance. That kind of love can be hard to find in a world of schisms and fires, but it’s our last hope against evil, and we must cling to it.

A symbol used throughout all 13 books, revealing many secrets for the Baudelaires. It most commonly appears as the sinister tattoo on Count Olaf’s ankle.

With that as the backbone of the story, what remains is an absurd world filled with poorly named reptiles, hypnotism, a pit of hungry lions, several angry mobs, a bad acting troupe, vicious leeches, a deadly fungus, and a secret organization filled with codes, disguises, weapons, and more mysteries than can be imagined. The story is ridiculous, often funny even, and stands out accordingly.

And for all that, there’s a reason it belongs on the list that’s special—the thing that makes this series special, not just among children’s literature but among all stories. It’s the same thing that makes Cloud Atlas special—A Series of Unfortunate Events is, among other things, a complicated concoction of the greatest moments of literature, and that blended result is something entirely different than what came before. It’s even a direct reflection of the 50-books list itself, taking the old stories and making them new. A Series of Unfortunate Events is a library all on its own, and this is a story that loves how a library can be a kind of sanctuary—a place that fosters curiosity, provides access to knowledge, and can be one of the last safe places in a dangerous world.

This blogger can testify that stories and books have always been a refuge. Stories can take you places you’ve never seen, reveal truths you’ve never imagined, and comfort you when you’ve never been lonelier. Lemony Snicket understands that better than most, and he understands that stories can give you the tools you need to go out into the world after you’ve set the book down. Even if this series isn’t for everybody, I can personally testify that it’s one of the forces of good in our treacherous world.

I’m not sure if I can say the same about Catch-22, which I’m still finishing up for next time. I’ve said already that it’s sort of an anti-story—and an anti-war story to boot. It’s experimental, and that’s always a plus in my readings. I think there’s a subtle reference to Catch-22 in A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I can’t be completely sure—emotionally, the two stories aren’t that far apart from each other, so it doesn’t surprise me. The horrors of war played for laughs in a comedy of the absurd would be the perfect inspiration for the Baudelaire’s ridiculously miserable lives.

Either way . . . more on Catch-22 next time. Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: Peter Pan

Welcome back, class.

Peter Pan seems accidentally special—like it struck the right cord with its audience and they never let it go. It’s inventive and ageless, but it’s also simple. It’s for children, written by a man that seemed never to grow up (and I mean that only in a good way), so there’s a reason it’s so magical. Reading it as an adult, I picked up on the fact that Peter Pan wasn’t meant for me at all—it only clued me in on the fact that, being a grown-up, my innocence was already gone. The rest of its efforts were directed towards its childhood audience.

Compare Peter Pan to a good Pixar movie, for example—they are family movies, and while they are kid-oriented, they are as much for the parents as they are for the kids. The Incredibles is as much a story about the children with superpowers as it is about the two superhero parents, in a struggling marriage and trying to keep their family together. Inside Out is the story of 5 different characters—emotions—making developmental decisions on behalf of a young girl, and I promise you that’s more for the parents’ benefit than for the kids’.

But that’s not Peter Pan—just like The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, which was written by a teenager for teenagers, Peter Pan is about children and, in its way, written by a man that might as well have been a child. That’s why it should have made the list of books everyone should read before they die.

A statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which served as inspiration for J. M. Barrie as he wrote the story.

Growing up, I knew the story of Peter Pan from its adaptations—the animated Disney film was familiar, and a few spin-off/prequel books pulled a Wicked and made Captain Hook the focus. But my favorite adaptation is the 2003 movie, staring Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan and Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook. By staying more faithful to J. M. Barrie’s original story, it was a darker take—to my surprise, the original novel is darker than it appears.

For one thing, Peter himself is everything a child can be when unsupervised. He is innocent, impulsive, and (to use the novel’s exact word) heartless. There’s something unnatural, even monstrous, about this boy that never grows up—we don’t really get to the point that we’re supposed to fear him, but being his friend is not something you’d want. Maybe that’s the adult in me talking . . . who’s to say?

Then there’s Wendy Darling and her two siblings, John and Michael, who escape with Peter impulsively to fly to Never Never Land, where they might get the chance to remain children forever. They meet Peter’s gang of Lost Boys (a nicer crew than the Lord of the Flies boys, but same principle); they see mermaids, fairies, Indians (yes, this is fairly racist and does not age well); and they fight pirates, specifically the maddeningly evil Captain Hook, who hates Peter with a burning passion. Adventure ensues.

Author J. M. Barrie

I’ve compared Peter Pan to The Wind in the Willows before—both are simple stories, meant specifically for children, as opposed to stories like Alice in Wonderland. Lots of children’s stories are allegory and symbolism, meant to convey deeper meanings for the people that look for them. Alice in Wonderland makes a point to criticize society through methods specifically for adults to understand, unbeknownst to the children enjoying the fantasy. While Peter Pan certainly has its moments of meaning—powerful, moving moments—they aren’t buried in literary codes. The amazing things about Peter Pan are on the surface, not between the lines.

And one of the things that makes Peter Pan so amazing is Never Land itself—it’s Disney World. It’s an imaginary theme park, complete with every fantasy creature and villain a typical child wants. Wonderland and Oz are mighty scary at times, but Never Land is a dream come true. Even the pirates and the danger they pose are fun and exciting. Never Land is imagination, and Peter Pan is fantasy come true—that’s why it should have made the list.

I’m just finishing The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope—it may be from the same era and even location as Peter Pan, but they are both about as far apart as The Lord of the Rings and The Lord of the Flies. So I’ll save my discussion for next time. Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: Romeo and Juliet

Welcome back, class.

I’ve been back and forth on this one—there have been times when I couldn’t stand this play. But no matter if I like it or not, this Romeo and Juliet really deserves to be read by everyone, if only for the lesson it teaches—don’t let yourself be carried away by the passions of youth. That’s absolutely why we all read it in high school: so that our English teachers could remind us not to throw our lives away on “young love” and hurt others in the process.

Thankfully, the story is more than that—it is Shakespeare, after all.

It’s a story old as time—two teenagers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, become instantly infatuated with each other at first sight, even though their families are involved in an ongoing feud. They decide to get married, and in a complicated plot to get their families to stop fighting, Romeo kills a man and is banished, Juliet pretends to die to get away from her family, Romeo thinks Juliet is really dead and kills himself, and Juliet kills herself shortly after. Tragedy abounds.

People like to call Romeo and Juliet the greatest love story of all time, but the main characters are senseless, hasty, and melodramatic in their so-called love. It is an infatuation between two teenagers, built on feelings alone—not dependability, companionship, compatibility, rationality, or forethought.

Shakespeare makes them sound much less one-dimensional than my analysis, so the story is much better than that. His writing throughout Romeo and Juliet is romantic and beautiful, which helped Romeo and Juliet stand the test of time. But I also bet Shakespeare new exactly how dumb his main characters were, as they took their own lives for each other for the sake of what looked like love, but was actually a crush.

A Portrait of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare also gives his main characters a little credit when it comes to their families, which are pure chaos. The Montagues and Capulets are little more than rival gangs (hence the adaptation with a twist, the musical West Side Story), and they give Romeo and Juliet little choice but to marry in secret. Even the Friar that marries them has an ulterior motive—to unite the families through this marriage, end the feud, and stop the constant violence in the streets. The lesson to learn from Romeo and Juliet isn’t just for the children, but for the rest of the Montagues and Capulets that let passion guide their hearts towards violence.

That lesson—don’t let passion carry you away, for the sake of love, violence, etc.—is important in its own right, but I’ll admit it can diminish the story too. It’s easy to talk about Romeo and Juliet now, having read it almost 10 years ago, but no matter how much I made fun of it or hated reading it, it was one of the first real tragedies I’d ever read. The two main characters are partly at fault for their fate, but so are their families. This is a story about two people who committed suicide when there were so many other options available . . . all because they had dedicated their lives to a person they had known for less than a week. It’s infuriating and depressing, and a careful reminder of how far our reckless hearts can force us to go. In some twisted, backwards, cynical way, I think that makes Romeo and Juliet required reading for everyone.

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet (1996)

But if that’s not a good enough reason for you, I’ve got at least one more—Romeo and Juliet is everywhere. There are references to it in so many books, movies, TV shows, short stories, and poems that everyone deserves the chance to read it just to pick up on the subtleties of half of all art. Since teenagers with crushes is one of the most universal human stories in history, it’s applicable in every medium. On the list of the 50 Books alone, Romeo and Juliet is featured in one major form or another in Wuthering HeightsThe Great GatsbyBrave New WorldThe Way We Live NowHuckleberry Finn . . . just to name a few. Romeo and Juliet pervaded the cultural landscape and staked it’s claim on teenagers with feelings, and everything that came after is a reflection of the original Shakespeare.

All in all, I may not like Romeo and Juliet all that much, but that makes it no less important. It deserves to be on the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, and there are several books worth kicking off to make room.

I’m finishing up Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, which I’ll write about next. Romeo and Juliet may be a better “love story,” but Birdsong is, in its way, a better story about love. There isn’t as much warning against runaway passion, but Birdsong seems more dedicated to the idea of love bringing people together, even in ways society looks down upon. Had Romeo and Juliet been stronger characters, it’s possible their long lives would have looked like the tortured lovers’ lives of Birdsong—but I’m getting ahead of myself. More on Birdsong next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: Cloud Atlas

Hello again, class.

I didn’t expect to write about Cloud Atlas because I didn’t think I’d have the chance to read it, while focusing on the books from the 50-books list. But I gave it a shot, and it absolutely belongs here. I know why it didn’t make the list, but I also know that it 100% should have.

Cloud Atlas is a rare book. Author David Mitchell wrote 6 interconnecting stories in a unique and cohesive format—each story is in a different time period with vastly different characters and even different writing styles, but mostly similar themes. The stories never completely converge . . . one story may bleed into the next or reference another in the past or the future, but they are separate stories.

The first story is from the perspective of the attorney Adam Ewing on a Pacific ship in the 1800s, writing his experiences in his journal. The journal stops midway and picks up with an entirely new character, Robert Frobisher, a young composer in the 1930s working with a crippled aging composer as a sort of apprentice. Frobisher writes letters to his distant lover—both his letters and his lover are plot devices in the third story, a 70s mystery novel focusing on the stouthearted journalist Luisa Rey, who attempts to get to the bottom of a corporate conspiracy.

Then, in present day, we focus on a spirited and manipulative publisher, Timothy Cavendish, hilariously finding himself trapped in an elderly care facility by a sadistic nurse. Then we jump forward into the future, where Neo-Seoul is run by something called the Corpocracy; the hero is a clone, Sonmi-451, who begins to understand her own humanity and is kidnapped in her failed revolution, and before her execution she is given a final interview to explain the complicated details of her life. Last but not least, in the far away future after what seems like an apocalyptic event, a fearful and flawed man named Zachry, simply trying to get by in a hard-enough life, struggles to deal with a band of cannibals, a tech-savvy foreigner who he may have feelings for, and a prophecy that threatens to unbalance his life.

Author David Mitchell

But that’s only the first half of the novel—from the final story, the novel begins to work backwards, revisiting the second half of each story in reverse order. Each story has some importance to the overall arc of the novel, but Mitchell makes it clear that they are important individually, too. The ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is comic genius, while the Pacific journal is a Victorian masterpiece, ringing with Moby-Dick vibes. The Luisa Rey mystery is a perfectly cheesy hard-boiled thriller, and the broken language of Zachry’s world after “The Fall” perfectly grasps the sense of long-lost humanity and our tragic downfall as a species. Each story is good, and all combined, the one shared story is even better.

For all their differences, there are things beyond continuity that keep the stories together, and finding those things is kind of like solving a puzzle. Every story seems to have a mention about cannibals, for instance—from the actual cannibals in the far off future to Timothy Cavendish mockingly shouting at his fellow inmates at the elderly home, “Soylent Green is people!” (in reference to the 1970s movie Soylent Green, for the unobservant of you). Overall, the theme of cannibalism—the literal or metaphorical feeding off others—seems to be Mitchell’s commentary on human hunger, the inner animal with an insatiable appetite that threatens humanity’s existence. It’s a small piece of the puzzle, but an important one.

Other themes pop up consistently as well, if you have enough patience to make the connections—it’s got so many layers that I’m sure it welcomes rereading. And the goal seems to be one overall story about a soul, reincarnated again and again throughout time. The reader gets to see the story of the same soul in several different lives, moving across the centuries the same way clouds move above us, changing shape and color but staying still inherently clouds . . . hence the name Cloud Atlas—a mapping out of the life of a soul, moving like the clouds across the sky.

Poster from the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas (2012)

I know why it didn’t make the list—as good as each single story is, they’re still each performing at one-sixths capacity. Mitchell didn’t devote all his time to Ewing’s journal, just a fraction of it, so there’s no way it matches the feat that Moby-Dick achieved, over a hundred years later (blog post pending). The same can be said of his futuristic stories, creative as they are, which still come off as straightforward reflections of other stronger works like Brave New World. Mitchell’s genius may be overpowered by the weight of the story he’s telling, and even though it’s impressive and rare, that’s mostly so because Mitchell is one author rather than six.

But that’s not good enough for me. It should be on the list anyway. The six wildly different stories are still interrelated enough to make something new—something that is distinctly Cloud-Atlas-y, not a collection of cheap duplicates but something made greater in the fusion of powerful stories in their own right. This is an epic—an overarching story of humanity’s past and future, where we follow a soul’s path through time. It’s an amazing, incredible tale that everyone should read.

Still working on Huckleberry Finn, up next time. I don’t know how I’ll feel when I sit down to write about it, but I can tell you I liked Cloud Atlas better. We’ll see how that goes I guess.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Metamorphosis

Good morning, class.

I’ve made it clear that my favorite eras of literature are modernism and postmodernism, mostly because they break the rules. I’m not a natural rule breaker in real life, but I love rule-breaking when it comes to literature—I want my novels weird, thought-provoking, discomforting, and rebellious. That’s why my favorite novels from the list include Ulysses and The Great Gatsby, and that’s why I think novels like To the LighthouseAs I Lay Dying, and All the King’s Men should be included on the list of books everyone should read before they die. The same goes for the German novel The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, one of the weirdest and most challenging novels I’ve ever read.

The plot is half of what makes The Metamorphosis good—Gregor Samsa, an average man trying to support his parents and younger sister, wakes up one morning to discover he has transformed into a giant bug. There’s no explanation, no meaning (no rules) . . . just the terrible event itself is enough to propel the story forward. Gregor’s first impulses are to think about his job and how he will continue to support his family, and how to adjust to this sudden ailment. He doesn’t give himself time to think about much else—he doesn’t have time to waste.

Gregor can’t communicate with his family (or his employer), and the members of the Samsa family are all forced to adjust to Gregor’s metamorphosis, too. This includes feeding Gregor, who now only likes rotten things like spoiled meat or old fruit. Cleaning becomes quite an issue, because Gregor can no longer clean his room in his current state; Gregor’s sister Grete becomes accustomed to cleaning while he hides under the bed, worried about scaring her by showing himself. Of course, the hardest adjustments involve the family getting by without Gregor working. Mr. Samsa’s old age and Mrs. Samsa’s asthma are obstacles to overcome in order to get jobs, while Grete at 17 years old can only do so much.

The story doesn’t waver from this approach. The Metamorphosis is the most absurd family drama ever written, about how a family deals with the weight of their dutiful Gregor’s untimely transformation. Any truly fantasy narrative would capitalize on the strangeness of the fantasy, but instead, Kafka makes his story about the regular struggles of everyday life—just with an added wrinkle. Few novels can pull this off well, so for that alone, The Metamorphosis deserves to be on the list.

(Side note: the use of fantasy elements combined with the mundane realities of life is a literary technique called magical realism. Most fantasy stories are about escape—fantasy as a way to abandon the struggles of everyday life—and magical realism is the exact opposite. Magical realism happens when you are magically transformed into a bug and still have to pay your bills, for instance. It’s an amazing storytelling sub-genre and is one of the hallmarks of modern and postmodern literature.)

Author Franz Kafka

The other half of what makes The Metamorphosis so good is how Kafka manages to take an absurdly mundane plot to show intimate and vulnerable truths about humanity and loneliness. Gregor’s transformation and the events that follow are sometimes funny and sometimes horrifying; Kafka toes the line between those extremes in order to convince us how sad Gregor’s story is. His transformation may or may not have stripped him of his humanity, as he simultaneously thinks with the instincts of a bug and with the care and concern of a brother and son. Without the ability to communicate, he suffers alone and watches his family suffer, too. It’s not much of a spoiler to see that The Metamorphosis has barely a shred of a happy ending.

So, The Metamorphosis becomes this concoction of strange and boring, with a dash of depressing. No, it’s not a delightful story, but it never set out to be and never needs to be. Instead, The Metamorphosis is a story born out of a very human place about a seemingly inhuman creature, and it’s absolutely worth reading by everyone.

Next time, we’ll jump into my experience of reading Ernest Hemingway’s short story collection, Men Without Women. I’ll discuss my complicated experiences with Hemingway, as well as what I liked and didn’t like about his short stories—I can only promise you that I’m biased, and that my next lecture won’t be so typical.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Secret Agent

Author Joseph Conrad

Hello again class.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad is something of an espionage thriller—it’s not James Bond, though. It’s more mundane than your average blockbuster hit. On the surface, anyway.

Before I started The Secret Agent, the professor assigning it hooked me by saying that Conrad’s novel predicted acts of terrorism like the 9/11 attack, almost one hundred years beforehand. That’s not exactly true—not in the way I expected. But the way the book follows a terrorist attack out of sequence (the suicide bombing of an observatory, linked to a group of radical anarchists) makes that fictional event thematically linked to the events of 9/11. The novel’s approach to radicalism, government, corruption, and ideology paints the portrait of an act of terrorism in a modern world. That’s a world we’re familiar with now—not only because of 9/11, but because of the normalcy of violence done by terrorists with easy-to-buy weapons and misguided ideologies. Conrad didn’t predict 9/11 itself, but he predicted the world in which it happened.

The Secret Agent takes place in the late 1800’s (right before the era of modernism in literature began to pick up speed). In it, we follow the agent Adolf Verloc, stationed in London on behalf of a foreign government. He owns a pornographic shop and lives with his wife and her family, and on the side he participates in an illegal anarchist group and reports back to his own government on their actions.

Just as we start to understand this setup, the novel jumps forward and backward in time. A set of characters begin solving the mystery behind the bombing at the observatory, marveling at the horror and “beauty” of it each in their own way. Then we go back to solve the mystery ourselves, and the twist is surprising enough for a novel like this, especially of it’s time.

Part of what makes The Secret Agent special is it’s treatment of time. The movement back and forth outside of chronology was not a standard like it is in today’s film and TV—it was an experimental way to tell this story to its greatest benefit, not done for thrills (not only for thrills, at least). The same thing happens when Conrad’s characters focus on the nature of the explosion, and the people who experienced it—the moment it happened must have lasted an eternity, while the eternity of life breezes by in a moment. Conrad’s point seems to be that time isn’t as stable a structure as we like to imagine—time is in flux, and our misguided perceptions of time only widen the discrepancies between perception and reality.

The characters of The Secret Agent are trapped in this revolving plot, fated to the doom of this explosion and its aftermath. There’s a sense that the explosion is relived when we jump back in time, and the memory of it helps us to do that. In that way, it’s related to the 9/11 attacks. While those directly affected by it suffered so much more, we all deal with a kind of global trauma from that day. Through our memories of the event we relive the experience, and those moments get played out again as if for an eternity. One second is not equal to another—the handful of seconds on that day, when billions of lives changed, had more of a cost than most of the insignificant seconds that make up the day-to-day.

What really makes the novel work is Conrad’s writing, which is difficult and beautiful. His total understanding of his characters and the political action they take are matched by his style. That style may not be for everyone, but for those willing to put in the time and effort, it’s incredibly rewarding. That same style earned Conrad plenty of acclaim with his novel Heart of Darkness, and we’ll go into more detail when that blog post comes along.

As for The Secret Agent . . . while it sounds like it’s inclined to glorify terrorism, I can assure you it doesn’t. The Secret Agent has lasted so long because it shows terrorism for what it is: misguided violence with unbelievable consequences, even beyond the lives lost. Conrad uses ideas like this to criticize radical thinking as well as government inefficiency, both of which our world still suffers from as much as acts of terrorism. It’s worth reading because of its continued relevancy, and that’s why it should have made the list.

I’m still working through Gulliver’s Travels again, and it’s special in its own way. If I had to choose, something like The Secret Agent would be on the list instead of Gulliver’s Travels, but I know which one has affected the world of literature more. The Secret Agent has had little impact beyond it’s own area of literature, but Gulliver’s Travels has a uniqueness that has affected everything after it. More on that next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Awakening

Welcome back class.

My impression is that most people don’t know what The Awakening by Kate Chopin is—I definitely didn’t when I read it for the first time for a college class. It’s a novella, 39 short chapters, focusing on a woman’s deterioration and transformation (a lot like The Bell Jar and Anna Kareninaprobably why it didn’t make the list, since it made less of an impact than two other well-known and similar novels).

But The Awakening sets itself apart—what looks like the deterioration of a character may actually be a kind of empowerment. Where Anna Karenina depicts a woman who succumbs to her own loneliness, and The Bell Jar features a woman who attempting to conquer depression, The Awakening focuses on a woman who, above all, breaks free. To the other characters in her life, it looks like hysteria or psychosis. But there may be something more to her predicament.

Protagonist Edna Pontellier is a caged woman—a mother and wife living at the turn-of-the-century in New Orleans. Her cage is her husband, her children, even her own mind’s tiredness . . . she is asleep, in more ways than one. A series of small emotional prods begin to “wake her up” and clue her in to the nature of her life, which she realizes she doesn’t want. Her happiness has been set aside for the sake of who she is supposed to be, but it’s never a life she wanted.

A woman in Edna’s life named Adèle helps her realize her caged-ness, which upends life for Mr. Pontellier and their children. She begins to abandon them and all other “obligations.” But she isn’t searching for her own happiness anymore—that’s too cheap a thing to sacrifice a family for, even one she doesn’t want. Edna abandons the things that she’s supposed to be tethered to by Nature’s command. Societal restraints, emotional attachments, marital vows, human instinct . . . she eventually abandons all of these attachments, even her body’s attachment to life. For Edna, this is what it means to be awake: to break free of the cage Nature has put us in.

There’s no doubt that The Awakening is controversial. It seems to champion suicidal behavior in a way that even The Bell Jar couldn’t boast of. Edna’s decision to abandon her children is sorrowful at best, deplorable at worst. Even seeing Edna’s actions as a kind of awakening is controversial—her choices easily indicate a disturbed mind.

Author Kate Chopin

Chopin keeps it complicated. If we as readers are to really believe Edna’s motivations as a true awakening of self, we have to attribute some sense to her actions. But I wouldn’t say Chopin’s goal is to get us to sympathize with Edna’s frame of mind—I think that Chopin’s goal in writing The Awakening was to make us question our motives as human beings, and to question the characteristics humanity lends itself to, like parenthood, desire, loyalty, and even love. What if love is some kind of evolutionary imperative that keeps the species alive? Are we trapped in a cage, like Edna, because of our “obligation” to emotions like love, or concepts like humanity?

To make people ask questions like that is enough reason to put The Awakening on the list of 50 books to read before you die—as it should have been.

I’m still finishing up The Diary of Anne Frank. It’s a complete leap from The Awakening—I’m getting a little whiplash thinking about both at once. Chopin’s fictional story lets me question the flaws in human nature, but Anne Frank’s story will restore my faith in it, even with the stakes she faced.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts on her story next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: Citizen

Happy Black History Month!

I’ve recalibrated my view of Black History Month in recent years. Growing up, my privilege helped me see it as the month to remember the difficulties African Americans used to face. This is mostly the same today—it’s the “used to” that’s changed. What I see now is that the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement were both monumental eras in American history that changed how our laws and leadership treated black lives, and we have yet to solve the issue of racism separately from the law—i.e., the racism within the hearts and minds of American citizens. Nothing helped me understand that more than Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric has a perfect excuse for not making the list: it was composed after the list was. Nonetheless, since it’s publication only three years ago, I believe it’s one of the books everyone needs to read before they die.

Citizen is a collage—a hodgepodge of pictures, personal accounts, and nonfiction written like poetry. It’s also a wide variety of perspectives on racism in modern America. Mostly what you’ll find is Rankine’s unique take on moments of racism, where she describes the context to “you” the reader, putting you in the place of the slighted and ignored. She paints the figurative portraits of the man no one will sit next to, the woman listening to complaints about affirmative action as if she’s to blame, and the child ignored and knocked over by a white man.

Reading Citizen is an experience—or, rather, it portrays the experience no one wants to have: the racism she and others have personally felt in a way that’s painfully relatable. She writes of the anger black men and women are stereotyped for, and of the collective sigh built up from all of the moments when racism stung her. More than anything, Rankine proves how different the black experience is from the white in America, with privilege clearly bending toward the white.

Still of Serena Williams at the 2011 U.S. Open in a match she famously lost. Rankine uses part II of Citizen to tell Williams’ story.

No one passage carries more weight than another, but particular attention should be given to the passage on Serena Williams, widely considered the best female tennis player of all time. Rankine delves into Williams’ history with the game of tennis, and the racism in Williams’ most famous matches—how the umpire, intentionally or unintentionally, used Williams’ skin color and stereotyped anger to penalize her in matches she was clearly winning. But whether Williams was winning or losing, her blackness is used against her, and there is no resolution to the racism she faces; the story ends with a white athlete mocking her looks and behavior, and it’s as if that’s the resolution the audience needed . . . the stereotyped image of the best tennis player of all time, minus her black skin.

The word “citizen” appears once in the entire book, toward the end—almost carrying the weight of the entire anthology of racism before it. It seems that, for black Americans, citizenship means moving on from racism . . . letting your feelings go, however attached you are to them (even if they are all you are), and ignoring the racism against you with as much force as white people are ignoring you. That’s how poisoned by racism citizenship has become—as poisoned as America itself. That hasn’t changed since the publication of Citizen—in fact, I would argue that American citizenship has continued to deteriorate from racism in spite of Rankine’s powerful work. Perhaps if more people read it, more people would see what African Americans are seeing.

It’s not easy to read—not only because it speaks to some difficult truths, but also because Rankine’s ambiguous stream-of-consciousness poetry leaves a lot to interpretation—but Citizen is important now. It portrays the difficult truths of nowRankine’s voice is one we need to hear so that we can change what the world looks like when we step out the door. She doesn’t make it easy because she doesn’t provide political answers to a political question—she only portrays the problem of racism, which she has no solution for. She provides the empathy needed to see injustice, not the tools to fight it, and it’s not fair of us to ask her for both. After all, we’re all citizens, too.

Above: The Slave Ship by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Below: A detail of a slave’s leg from The Slave Ship. Both images appear at the end of Citizen.

A few additional thoughts: In the realm of solving the problem of racism in America, I have no answers. I know brute force doesn’t work, and I know leaving everyone to their own devices doesn’t help much. My best guess is that education and love are the solution—both of which probably only work with the kind of empathy Rankine puts on her readers in Citizen.

Acknowledge your privilege, that’s another big step. Look in the mirror and see what society values—even if it’s a value from bad intentions—and use it to make the world better (not just for you). For starters, the fact that you can read this means you have enough privilege to go around. Reading Citizen is a good place to go next, in my opinion.

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Crucible

Good morning, class.

I remember reading The Crucible in 10th grade. It didn’t change my life, but it felt important—it crossed my mind that in a younger grade or an easier class, this kind of story wouldn’t have been allowed. Before this, the hardest thing I’d ever read was Romeo and Juliet, which may seem difficult to a high school student but is simple in retrospect. I was finally getting to the thought-provoking stuff with The Crucible. I was being trusted with something more challenging.

For all the reasons I like it, I have one major criticism: it’s about as subtle as cannon fire. In Arthur Miller’s defense, The Crucible was a direct response to the McCarthyism Era of the 1950s, where the slightest associations with communism could result in unfair trials and defamation—subtlety didn’t abound. The overwhelming panic of the time inspired Miller’s portrayal of the Salem witch trials, where a similar series of baseless claims led to the torture and death of innocent lives. Miller wanted to show America that panic can do irreparable harm to society, especially when we give in to it.

John Proctor, as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in The Crucible (1996)

For students not in-the-know: the story mostly follows John Proctor, a man in a struggling marriage who despises hypocrisy, and Abigail Williams, who’s had an affair with John and becomes the spark that starts the witch trials. Abigail is clever: she uses the Puritan leadership’s fear of Satan and witchcraft to manipulate life in Salem, and encourages other girls to do the same. Abigail wants to get rid of John’s wife so that she can have him for herself, and her lies fool most of the town into thinking the Devil has his eyes fixed on Salem.

My favorite scene of the play is at the end of Act 3—after a poorly placed lie in the courtroom, an opportunity opens up for Abigail to give the performance of a lifetime. She pretends to see a bird, the shape-shifted form of a the little girl Mary (who betrayed Abigail by trying to come clean about everything). The bird Abigail “sees” begins to attack her and the girls on her side. The presiding judge eats up every word and every gesture, eventually convinced that they are under the thrall of Mary’s witchcraft. John tries to make the judge see reason, and Mary and the girls turn their attention on him, claiming that he is allied with the Devil. John gives up completely—he shouts that God is dead and that he and the judge will burn together in the end. It’s one of the tensest moments in literature I’ve ever read.

As far as characters go, Abigail is pretty simple—she wants John and finds a way to get him, with consequences she couldn’t have imagined. John’s arc is more interesting. He torments himself for betraying his wife, and both Abigail’s antics and the town’s response to them are eating away at his faith. John struggles to understand if he’s good or not; was his lust a mistake of immorality, or was it indicative of an evil he can’t help but succumb to? John’s doubt in himself makes it easier to trust him, in spite of his flaws, and that doubt is nowhere to be found in Abigail—her lack of doubt makes her determination terrifying.

Playwright Arthur Miller

But the real difference between Abigail and John—and the extremes they represent—is the ability to confess falsely. Abigail’s sway over the town came from a confession people wanted to hear, and she gave it gladly. Her lies from that point grow and explode on the town. John’s resistance against these lies make him one of the only sane people left in Salem. Even his own true confession about the affair with Abigail falls flat against her lies—in Salem, lies seem to speak more truth than the truth does.

Everyone else in the story exists between these extremes—they are willing to lie, or believe lies, for their own sake. Sometimes, they’re sympathetic—anyone will confess if there’s enough pressure, which makes John that much more of a hero. In other cases, when a character is lying for their own gain, destroying the town as they go, it’s easy to wonder whether or not Satan did have a hold on Salem.

Historical accuracy is worth noting—Miller made some deliberate changes, the most significant being Abigail’s age raised to make her a more malevolent antagonist. He also removed a lot of extra people (for example, there were more girls and judges in the scene I described), if for no other reason than to make it more feasible on stage. Miller takes some liberties, but they’re in the name of his message—again, not subtle—that panic has the ability to destroy society, if we let it. I don’t know of another story that portrays panic so well, without it being a pale imitation of this, which is why The Crucible should have made the list.

I’m just finishing up The Count of Monte Cristo, so that’s on the agenda for next class. I’m realizing that the protagonist, Edmond Dantès, is heroic for the exact opposite reason as John Proctor—Dantès’ conviction makes him a force to be reckoned with against those who ruined his life. He has no doubt that his aims are governed by God, and that he is a divine tool in God’s works. Just goes to show you how widely stories can vary.

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: All the King’s Men

Tis’ the season, class.

All the King’s Men opens with an epigraph from the Purgatory section of The Divine Comedy (which I’m finishing soon)—it says “As long as hope maintains a thread of green.” For Dante, it’s in reference to the souls suffering in purgatory who have the chance at redemption, as long as they don’t lose hope. For the characters in All the King’s Men, it’s a sign for readers that we shouldn’t expect things to look remotely hopeful—but maybe we can find a thread of it somewhere in the corruption, pessimism, and political drama that makes up the story.

It’s not my usual kind of book, but it found a way onto my favorites shelf. I read it in high school, at a time when I thought politics was the muck of humanity, and All the King’s Men hit all the right buttons for me. Willie Stark, the focus of the story, is the populist politician running for governor in a Southern state. Jack Burden (with his not-subtle name) is the political journalist following his campaign, and he narrates the story bespecked with details of his life and Willie’s.

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark in the 1949 movie adaptation of All the King’s Men.

For those of you in the back, with confused looks on your faces, the term populist (as I understand it) is used for the politician who gains steam by catering to the “common man” and antagonizing everyone else. This usually makes me think of a political character from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou!—one of the most incredible comedies I’ve ever seen, by the way. The movie’s Depression-era politician brings a dwarf to his campaign rallies and shows him off while claiming to fight for the “little fella,” and that’s why you should vote for him (both characters are later revealed to be members of the KKK, and that about sums up my views on populism). Willie Stark is not far away from this picture. He bribes, badgers, and blackmails his way into political power, all the while smiling at the crowd, coming off even as likable.

When Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King’s Men, he based Stark off of real-life Louisiana governor Huey Long, who was controversial enough to be labeled as both a hero of the people and a dictator. While there are enough politicians in history that have earned that level of controversy, anyone paying attention knows that there are more than a few of them in power now—the kinds of politicians who are obviously two-faced, and have somehow convinced the majority of the public that they are good and wholesome. All the King’s Men is one of the novels I know that handle times of political controversy with clarity—the quality most lacking in such times—and that’s why Warren’s novel made an impression on me, and why it should be on the 50-books list.

Author Robert Penn Warren

And for all that, All the King’s Men simply a good book. The story is told out of chronological order, resembling an archaeological dig, burying down into the past and resurfacing to rewrite the present. Jack’s as unreliable as any narrator from a 20th century novel, and his flawed view of the truth makes the story that much more interesting. The rest of the cast of characters (making up the “king’s men” to Willie Stark as king) are meaningfully portrayed and unnervingly relatable, and they happen to tie into the plot well, too. And it’s got enough symbolism to occupy a literature class for a year.

So, by “good book,” I mean that All the King’s Men challenges the reader, questions universal truths, invests in creative characters, satisfies that literature itch I’m always scratching, and is overall a well-written and much-needed story. That’s just about all the criteria I need.

I don’t have a lot of politically-charged novels up my sleeve, and the ones that come to mind aren’t that praiseworthy, so I’ll have to branch out to that realm when I get the chance, if only to become more aware of what’s going on today. Hopefully I wasn’t too subtle when I talked about current two-faced politicians causing controversy—there’s a lot of disgusting behavior coming from world and local leaders these days. The more we understand, the better we’ll respond when those leaders do something despicable.

Just one of those many reasons to read outside your comfort zone. Food for thought.

Prof. Jeffrey

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