50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Category: Off-Topic (page 1 of 2)

Off-Topic: Definitive Ranking of All 50 Books

Good morning, class.

I love making lists. Ever since I started this blog I’ve been anxious to put the list of “50 Books to Read Before You Die” in order, from least favorite all the way up to favorite. I had to read them all first—so here’s a three-years-long dream coming true. I’ve read Every. Single. One.

To be honest, I paid more attention to the very least favorite and the top ten. The middle-ranked books got organized with a little less scrutiny. But I really can’t stand Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note so it’s at the bottom. I wish I could unread it.

50.Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
49.On the Road by Jack Kerouac
48.A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
47.Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
46.The Quiet American by Graham Greene
45.The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
44.The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
43.Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
42.The Stranger by Albert Camus
41.Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
40.Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
39.The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
38.The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
37.A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
36.The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
35.The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
34.The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
33.A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
32.Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
31.Lord of the Flies by William Golding
30.Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
29.The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
28.Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
27.Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
26.The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
25.Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway
24.Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
23.The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
22.Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
21.Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
20.Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
19.Hamlet by William Shakespeare
18.Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
17.1984 by George Orwell
16.The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien
15.One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
14.Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
13.The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
12.The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
11.Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
10.The Color Purple by Alice Walker
9.Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
8.The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Timeby Mark Haddon
7.His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
6.The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
5.The Bible by Various
4.Life of Pi by Yann Martel
3.To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
2.Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
1.Ulysses by James Joyce

Yes, of course Ulysses is my top pick. I know it’s certainly not everyone’s favorite, I know it’s one of my several biases . . . but I love it anyway.

After writing this list out, I looked back at some of my older posts—looks like I condemned ranking books a few times, making my list here a bit hypocritical. Well, maybe a person can’t compare one book to another in a hierarchical system like this . . . I may pick Ulysses as my favorite, but I can’t just pick it up and read it for fun the same way I can with a Harry Potter book. And, to be fair, while I picked Ulysses for the way it changed my perspective as a reader, and for the way it portrayed love and humanity, it’s not like Harry Potter didn’t do that for me first.

If I have a point, I guess it’s that a book’s meaning to you as a reader will constantly change—and that there are as many books as there are people, and as many complicated feelings about stories as there are relationships.

I’ve got one more blog post planned—I want to share some of my personal reflections about reading all 50 books. Then you can all graduate from Prof. Jeffrey’s class.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Similarities Among the 50 Books

Hello again, class.

I’m nearing the end of this blog, with only a handful of books left from the list to finish. I’ve been thinking about why certain books were chosen, and about the list overall—how the list itself affects the way someone reads the books on it. Like when I read Moby-Dick at the same time as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Men Without Women—my thoughts about themes like insanity and masculinity felt more well-rounded.

There’s something to be said for my approach . . . I imagine most people who attempt something like reading all 50 of these books do so more casually. They might add the books to some catch-all reading list and get around to it when they can, maybe jump into Ulysses as a book club or a personal reading challenge . . . and in a bookstore one day, they happen upon one of the obscure ones, like Birdsong or The Quiet American, and they buy it, only to get around to it months or even years later, remembering why they bought it in the first place. Not me—I made this list and this blog my personal mission. With any luck, I’ll have finished all 50 books in under three years, with a blog to show for it.

In reading all 50 of these books in as short a time as I could manage, I tightened the experience. It cost me in some places—reading Anna Karenina on a budgeted schedule made it hard to appreciate it in the small moments, and flying through Hamlet, even in reading it a third time, dangerously hindered my understanding of Shakespeare. But even so, I gained something as well: a greater understanding of the list itself. Most people would have read one of the books every so often, but I’ve read the list in one swift motion.

And as you, dear students, potentially read the list in its totality like I did (or like I’m doing), you might find the similarities I found. Thematic callbacks, cultural foreshadowing, opposing arguments, storytelling trends . . . every book on the list has these qualities in common. And no matter what book you pick up from the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, you’ll likely see these qualities pop up yourself.

The Theme of Humanity

That’s right—you’ll notice that every author on this list is a human.

Humanity as a theme is broader than people tend to give it credit for—it covers everything. All stories are human stories, and any story that claims otherwise is fiction or even fantasy told from human perspective. As a species we have defined ourselves and are constantly redefining ourselves with every story ever told, and the 50-books list reflects that.

There are fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings or The Wind in the Willows, involving nonhuman characters doing very human things. Romantic stories like Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights tell stories of romantic love . . . passionate, practical, destructive, all-consuming, redeeming love, defining one of the most human experiences we know. War stories like Birdsong or The War of the Worlds (as well as a true account of wartime, The Diary of Anne Frank), portray some of the darkest moments human history has to offer—inhumanity at its strongest. Stories relying heavily on religion like Life of Pi or The Divine Comedy tell stories about God in human contexts, and humanity’s contrast to God is so stark and vast that it could be the overarching theme of the Bible itself.

It makes sense that every work on the list has something to say, even if unintentionally, about the great human story we’re all a part of. The 50-Books list is a best-of compilation of Walt Whitman’s line of poetry—from “O Me! O Life!”, Whitman says “the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” The list is 50 different contributions to the powerful play of life from the greatest writers of all time.

A Western Perspective

Not all of the similarities are good—and this one happens to point out some intrinsic bias on the list. There are some exceptions, but 4 times out of 5, if you pick up a book from this list you’ll be reading stories by English-speaking, first world authors.

For instance, there seem to be no Asian authors on this list, despite there being several great Asian authors like Lu Xun or Asian-American authors like Amy Tan who could have been featured. This is made worse by the fact that Caucasian writer Arthur Golden makes an appearance on the list for telling a Japanese story, Memoirs of a Geisha. It’s a great story, which unfortunately is still a Western story and a weak form of representation for a huge percentage of the world population.

Another point of contention is the Bible being featured on the list—it is the only religious text featured. The Bible itself is not a Western text; its origins are Hebrew and Middle Eastern, and it is a remarkable reflection of oral tradition and culture from a definitely not-Western history. But the Bible, like Christianity, has first-world connotations; Western cultures have a history of forcing Christianity on others, and the Bible can be and has been used as a tool to do so.

I don’t condemn the inclusion of the Bible on the list, because it has had such a huge cultural impact on stories across the globe that it’s worth reading for that reason alone. But what if another religious text was featured to balance things out? Including the Quran on the list, as an example, would have shed light on Islamic beliefs and reflected the culture of a different people—a small step in undoing social biases and bridging cultural divides, a step that this list does not take.

This doesn’t mean “don’t read from this list, it’s biased and overrated”—if that’s what I meant I would have stopped this blog a long time ago. It just means “take this list with a grain of salt.” Like all things, this list has its flaws, and it should not be treated as a sacred end-all-be-all to your personal library.

Modern Literature

I have a theory here—one that I already brought up on my post about Modernism and Postmodernism, so I won’t go into too much detail. Basically, I think that modern literature is the focal point (or maybe tipping point?) that all other literature revolves around. The modern era is the first half of the 20th Century, defined by world wars, technology, psychology, shifting morality, financial crisis, and all the art that resulted from it. I think modern literature is that which lends focus to the chaos of our world, specifically the chaos of the 20th Century, and all literature before that time is a part of the long journey building up to it.

Every book on the list (arguably) falls into this category. Older stories like Gulliver’s Travels and Don Quixote foreshadow the changing literary landscape, while novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick are prefaces to 20th Century literature. Novels from the actual time period like UlyssesThe Great Gatsby, and Men Without Women each deal with the chaos head-on—grapple with it, challenge it, fear it, and attempt to make art out of it. Novels after that period are postmodern reactions to the chaos, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, and more contemporary novels like Life of Pi or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are more like celebrations of the chaos that make the world and the people in it more interesting.

The list is a series of historical milestones, looking forward and backward to find truth in the chaos, or to at least accept the chaos as the truth. Questions posed by stories of the past are answered by stories of the present (though they answer with more questions). Each of these stories questions convention and force us to think in a modern way, and that change of perspective is everything in a good story.

How to Tell a Story

Every story on the list has a meta-storytelling approach. Or, put a different way, every story on the list is aware of itself as a story, and is all the better for it.

Most stories stop at telling a story, plain and simple. There’s nothing wrong with that; stories make the world go ’round, just as they are. But the best ones seem to reflect on themselves, challenge themselves to be better (almost like people—the best stories are the ones that are almost alive, and they can comfort, frighten, challenge, and improve us like other people can).

This usually pops up in small ways, like when a story is told in a different form. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, which means it’s told entirely in letters—a simple method that upends the entire dynamic of the story. All eighteen chapters of Ulysses are each in a different form—a play, a series of newspaper articles, a romance novel, a catechism, and so on. Even the Bible is told in several forms—law books, poetry, parables, letters, and gospels, all with different authors, audiences, and intentions. To play with the form of a story is to find out how to tell a story in a better way.

More often than not, a book from the list will include stories within stories as a reflection on their own storytelling. Don Quixote and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are a series of overlapping episodes and several mini-stories, told in the context of the overall story. The Canterbury Tales is a set of stories within stories within stories, all within one big story. Hamlet features its famous play-within-a-play, a common and effective Shakespeare move. Moby-Dick is filled with textbook-like interludes, almost anti-stories, with enough aesthetic merit to not feel out of place.

A lot of the authors on the list write stories about authors and storytellers, who tell stories of their own and reflect the authors’ personal narratives. Stories like The Divine Comedy and Money: A Suicide Note feature the authors themselves (Dante Alighieri and Martin Amis, respectively) as major characters. Gulliver’s Travels and The Way We Live Now feature fictional authors that the real author can use to criticize or shed light on other real life authors. Life of Pi and Memoirs of a Geisha are both disguised as works based on a true story, which gives their fictional main characters a kind of authoritative power and reorients the kind of story they are telling.

In every case, it’s about story. These are all books written for the purpose of advancing what a story can do, and what a story can be. These are all books written by people who not only know how to tell a story, but who are dedicated to telling lasting stories, and that’s why they each made the list in the first place.

I expect the remaining books on the list to have these same qualities—and I expect a lot of the great books I’ll read down the road will be similar. I know I won’t enjoy every book previously vetted by a master list like this (as we’ve seen with MoneyA Bend in the RiverHuckleberry Finn, etc.); but even for the books I don’t enjoy, I’ve developed a few tricks up my sleeve to see if a story is objectively good. Being able to tell the difference between a story you don’t like and a story that’s bad is a pretty useful skill.

I’m finishing up Rebecca—I’ll leave the discussion for next time. Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: My Poetry

Good morning, class.

I should tell you . . . I’m not always writing about what other people have written. I feel like I’m doing a good enough job reviewing the 50 Books to Read Before You Die (you’d tell me if I wasn’t, right?)—but my writing talents aren’t limited to book reviews. I’ve written my fair share of poetry, for instance, and a handful of those poems have even been published. And today, I’d like to lend a bit of credibility to my own writing—by sharing some poetry, of course!

I’ve picked three of my poems to share, with a bit of commentary for good measure. Enjoy!

Consider the Ravens

Regarding musical thoughts . . . consider
The difference between thoughts and the ones who
Think them.

Through meticulous study, through
Expression, we thinkers rage and condemn
Stark thoughtlessness.

To impose on mayhem,
Order—that is our aim, our daily stress,
Our pang-laden dreamscape.

If we should guess,
God might be mayhem—leaves stretched in no shape
While we stand mean on wrathful roots.

That scrape,
Which our thoughts brace against the gentle fruits
Of our bodies and spirits, is music.

Consider the ravens—thoughtless and whole,
Scolding our scrape with their symphonic squall.

“Consider the Ravens” comes from a Bible passage, Luke 12:24, which can be boiled down do a pretty simple concept—birds don’t worry about anything and are fed nonetheless; you shouldn’t worry either. This verse always seemed to be aimed at me—the proof that I shouldn’t worry too much because God tells me everything will be alright. But worrying seems to be something the animal kingdom doesn’t suffer from all that often. Humans, on the other hand, worry all the time—it’s how we improve, how we change, how we challenge the status quo, and most importantly, how we make art, literature, and music. Our worry is what makes us seek perfection, and we’ll never reach it but never stop seeking it either, and that back and forth is sort of the secret to humanity.

I liked how this poem turned out, especially the rhyme scheme. This is a sonnet, but it’s been broken places that give it a different feel without becoming unbalanced. It looks like chaos, but it’s more like rearranged order, and I’m proud of that.


A Crack
And a faint Echo.

He Snaps the branches,
Here a hard wrist twisting and there a swift foot stomping,
With a surge of Crunch and Crackle—
Fingers careen down the bark, rough skin toppling twigs and leaves
That Clatter to the ground like debris.

Then, repetition:
Crack, Echo…
Snap, Crunch, Crackle, Clatter, Clatter—
Crack, Snap, Clatter,
Crack, Snap, Clatter.

He gathers, organizes, sets—
The overlapping wood,
The hodgepodge twig-pile,
The leaves, crushed and stuffed—
All in a cube—a prison of bark.

He isn’t alone—poking out of his pockets are the fire-starters of the unnatural world:
Old newspaper,
Weeks of collected dryer lint,
And the protruding metal stem of a blood-orange barbeque lighter.

There’s an accompanying Snap.

Another Snap.

Another Snap—and then a Crack, and a spark.

A flicker appears—a teardrop of light—
And it buds into two,
Produces four, reproduces eight,
And becomes a living flame,
While a column of smoke explores the air.

Lint catches, newspaper blackens, leaves curl, wood peels,
And the bark settles into its pit.

The light swims across his hard eyes
As he surveys his work—he is calculating, probing, observing, listening . . .
He protectively prods the creature with a leftover branch.

His eyes soften. His shoulders settle.
He interlaces his fingers and Cracks
The air out of his knucklebones.
Then he sits in his foldable chair
And settles his arm on my shoulders.

Sylvia Plath’s poetry had a tendency to take something ordinary and describe it so poetically that it seemed strange and foreign. That was my approach here, and though I don’t think it turned out that way, the result was something so simple and rustic that I fell in love with it. It’s a scene around a campfire; the wood is collected, the fire brought chaotically to life, and the fire settling into a dependable flame.

I applied some of the regular poetic tricks—the metaphor of the fire as alive, the implication that the man is creating a living thing (almost parent-like), the destruction of the first half building to the creation of the second half, etc. I’m particularly proud of the use of sound . . . I’m typically more of a visual/verbal guy, and this is my attempt at capturing the noises of the scene as much as the visuals. You’ll notice the sound is mostly at the beginning, before the light becomes a factor in the scene (oooooo . . . meaning!!)

To Know a Man

I know a man as if from a strange dream. I know
His fervent voice, his sympathy, his charming face,
His internal adversity, and his true, whole
Story. Of few others can I claim such a bare
Knowledge; but my knowing is like a song I hear
In rare moments, when certainty guides my passion.

He wears a wooden mask, matching social passions
For etiquette’s sake—and with all I seem to know,
His mask, at times, fools even me. The voice I hear
Between the wooden lips of his fictitious face
Kindles in me an insobriety. I bear
It, if only to sense the more resonant whole.

I can sense harmony there, which resonates whole,
But seems built brutishly with divergent passions—
A series of conflicting fragments, never bare
But for the miracle of the harmony—no
One flaw exposed. This seemingly perfected face
Spoils any harmonic strain I would wish to hear.

But beyond these sounds is a voice I want to hear—
The voice of that man’s mind, trapped by the sullied whole
Of that harmonious character and that face
He shows the world. His mind speaks of different passions,
Of contrarian thoughts, of worlds I could not know,
And of dreams my spirit could only hope to bear.

Within the depths of such a hidden mind, he may bear
An ocean of knowledge, which deepens as it hears
The songs of others and swells as it comes to know
The strangeness of a senseless world, bursting with whole
Fragments of melodic, discordant compassion
That dares to flaunt itself at his fictitious face.

Beyond this hidden mind, and far beyond that face
Is, hopefully, some soul—a purity he bears
For entropy’s sake. This soul may guide his passions,
Divergent as they are, and may let his mind hear
Of love in the darkness we endure as a whole.
And beyond this soul dwells something no one could know . . .

. . . Perhaps some faceless, transparent eardrum that hears,
Perhaps, the whole human symphony, and that bears,
Perhaps, a passion for a man he hopes to know.

This one is more personal. There’s a man in my life who is hard to describe, but I used poetry and made an attempt—I left out the details and decided to describe my knowing him . . . the poem is less about the person and more about his closeness to me. He is a lot like me, and there’s a lot we know about each other, but the great obstacles of humanity keep us from knowing each other completely—I know him as he presents himself to me, but I don’t know his thoughts, his dreams, his soul . . . I can’t know those things. I can tell there are things about him that I can know, even without proof, because I like to think he is like me in that way—he wants to know me as much as I want to know him, and through that, we begin to know each other more deeply.

This poem is in the form of a sestina—a long and repetitive form that uses the last word in each line over and over again in different, predictable patterns. Using this form is a great way to tackle the kind of subject that is hard to convey in fewer words—the kind of subject that needs a variety of approaches in order to make sense, or that attempts to capture a concept in its totality, from all angles. It doubles back quite a bit, but I think it gets the point across, and of that I am happy.

I’m finishing up Martin Amis’ novel Money: A Suicide Note, so that’s what I’m writing about next. I’ll be honest, I am not at all thrilled by it—there’s a lot that makes it unlikable, uncomfortable, and unnecessary. I’ve got a few ideas about why it made the list, but I’m not sure that any of those reasons made it actually worth my time. In any case, I’ll try to write as unbiased a blog post about Money as possible.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Favorite Movie Adaptations (From the List)

Welcome back class.

Movies have always connected with me. My interest in writing comes from falling in love with the stories in movies—and one of the greatest things a movie can do is bring a novel to life. It’s never perfect and often falls short—it takes severe dedication, risk, and miracle work, and even then the stars need to align correctly. When it does work, though, the result is imagination made into reality.

From many books on the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, several filmmakers, writers, actors, composers, designers, and artists have taken a powerful story, done the heavy lifting, and made a faithful adaptation—the authors’ and readers’ dream-come-true. Some are good, some are great, and some are above and beyond my favorites.

So here they are, my favorite movie adaptations from the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die—in order of release date (and click on the links to see what I thought of the original novels!).

Actor Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

When a classic novel is put to screen, it’s unlikely that it competes with the original—much less becomes a classic itself. To Kill a Mockingbird does just that. The movie has stood the test of time, much like the novel, and is a powerful perspective on race, racism, Southern culture, morality, and childhood.

There are several things that make the movie special, but the cherry on top is always going to be actor Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. I’ve never seen him in anything else, but this movie alone proves to me he was one of the greatest actors of his time, and his compassionate, reserved, and compelling portrayal of such a wise father and dedicated lawyer stands out as one of the movie’s strongest attributes. He is one of my favorite father figures in both literature and film, and there’s only a handful of characters I can say that about.

Actress Whoopi Goldberg, who portrayed Celie in The Color Purple (1985)

The Color Purple (1985)

This was one of the first movies from Steven Spielberg that proved he could do it all—not just sci-fi adventures or summer blockbusters, but serious dramas that come from places of pain and joy and soul. After movies like E.T. and the Indiana Jones franchise, he helped bring to life the story a black woman separated from her sister, who subsequently discovers her sexuality and challenges the lot life has given her. The movie was beautiful and made me cry as much as the book did.

I grew up seeing Whoopi Goldberg as the comedic counterpart of any movie she was in; but seeing her in The Color Purple as Celie changed my view of her. She portrayed a woman who knew only hardship and grief, who had had her life stripped away from her, and who was able to find love and mercy in the everyday terror of her life. It’s not an easy movie to watch (neither is the book easy to read); but it’s the kind of movie that tells a worthwhile story, and in an age of action-packed blockbusters, The Color Purple is a precious gem.

Kenneth Branagh, director of and lead star in Hamlet (1996)

Hamlet (1996)

There are lots of Hamlet‘s out there. There are at least five Hamlet movies I know of acclaimed enough to be worth mentioning. But Kenneth Branagh’s version is my favorite for many reasons. For one thing, it’s one of the only Hamlet adaptations that put the entire drama to screen—and it paid the price, clocking in at a four-hour running time and milking the original text for all it’s worth.

Hamlet (1996) didn’t limit itself to accuracy though—it also happens to take place in the 19th century, far beyond Shakespeare’s time, and the dynamic setting and garish colors make a point of proving that true Shakespearean genius has never been limited to the words on the page. Most of Kenneth Branagh’s adaptations of Shakespeare have been masterpieces, and this one is arguably the best modern Shakespeare movie there is.

Movie poster for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

The Harry Potter Series (2001 – 2011)

I’m not picking a favorite Harry Potter movie (nor am I picking a least favorite, and believe me, I have a couple in mind). No, I take this childhood-altering series altogether, magic and warts and all—this movie franchise defined a huge portion of my life, and the ten-year journey I took with the characters in these films (along with the child actors that my generation and I grew up with) is half of the reason these are some of my favorite movies ever.

I have to admit something I don’t like to admit. I read all of the Harry Potter books before seeing the movies . . . all except the first one. For as much as I love reading, I can drag my feet around a new book unless I have a good reason to dive into it—something interesting to look for, or if it’s somehow pertinent to my life. This was the case for the first Harry Potter book, which I ignored until being swept up by the magic of the movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and that started a reading journey that has affected me to this day. Most of what I’ve read in my lifetime stemmed from a love of the Harry Potter series, and all of my love for the Harry Potter series stemmed from my love for that first movie—and I’m overwhelmingly grateful for it.

From left to right: Actors Dominic Monaghan, Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, and Sean Astin portraying Meriadoc Brandybuck, Frodo Baggins, Peregrin Took, and Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

The Lord of the Rings (2001 – 2003)

The Lord of the Rings movies are some of the best movies ever made. Not just the best book-to-film adaptations, not just the best fantasy movies . . . they’re some of the best, period. There are movies where the amazing dedication of filmmakers combines with an alignment of the stars that blesses the work from beginning to end—this is the case for all 9 hours of this fantasy trilogy.

These movies are some of my favorites for several reasons—the most important of which is that I watched them growing up, right alongside Harry Potter. The actors are perfect, notably Andy Serkis, Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin . . . and the list could go on! The aesthetics and special effects make this trilogy stand out as one of the most beautiful stories ever put to film—these movies proudly delivered Tolkien’s masterful world on a silver screen. It’s worth noting that the music by Howard Shore is some of the best movie music ever composed. The movies do such a good job of telling the original story that they have earned a place in my heart beyond what the book was able to accomplish—there aren’t many movies that can boast the same.

Matthew Macfayden and Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

This one surprised me. I didn’t expect a movie about a woman finding love in Victorian Era England to be so impressive, but it roped me in. The colors, the music, the elaborate nature of each scene . . . the emotional undercurrent of every interaction and the display of intelligence in every creative decision, all of it tied together so succinctly. I could fawn over this movie for days.

The 1990s mini-series is worth mentioning in the same breath, for its stronger sense of accuracy and its dedication to what makes the original novel so special. But there’s something about the 2005 movie that takes the spirit of the story and transforms it into film. Part of it has to do with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfayden, the two amazing actors that brought Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy to life. There’s always something special happening when Knightley is on screen in any movie, often being her most Victorian self, and Macfayden seemingly came out of nowhere born to play the awkward, reserved, frustrating, deeply passionate Mr. Darcy. Pride and Prejudice was always simultaneously social commentary and a love story for the ages, and this movie manages to bring that much to life and more.

There are other movies out there adapted from the list that I haven’t seen, so this is a tentative line up—but like any good English major, I plan on reading the books first, so those other movies will have to wait.

I’m finishing up Moby-Dick and I’ll share my thoughts soon. More on that next time!

Prof. Jeffrey

Off Topic: Short Story Favorites (Part 2)

Good morning, class.

After reading Hemingway’s short story collection Men Without Women, I’m revisiting my previous list of favorite short stories and adding some more. Consider this list an addendum, for a total of 13 short stories that I just enjoy, through and through. You’ll notice they’re in chronological order; just my way of having fun.

James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners, featuring both “Araby” and “The Dead.”

  1. “Araby” by James Joyce: Of course James Joyce makes the list again! “Araby” is a short and simple story from Joyce’s collection Dubliners—barely a featurette on a young boy with a first crush. The boy wants to buy a girl something nice at the nearby Araby festival, but his uncle keeps him from getting to the festival in time; he arrives at the festival too late, and he leaves without buying anything, hurt and upset by his uncle’s carelessness and his failure to make the girl happy. The emotions through the story aren’t complicated, but they are pure and childlike, stinging in all the right places—it’s a familiar story, and Joyce tells it amazingly well.
  2. “In the Penal Colony” by Franz Kafka: Kafka’s novel The Metamorphosis is the tip of the Kafka-iceberg—“In the Penal Colony” is just as twisted, tense, and tragic as The Metamorphosis. An unnamed traveler visits the execution grounds of a foreign land, where the executioner shows off an extravagant contraption used to kill criminals in the most just way possible (according to the executioner). The traveler knows that the contraption is inhumane, and the methods used to carry out executions are unethical—he debates whether or not to bring up his concerns as a foreigner, while the executioner describes the machine in detail. Once the traveler speaks his mind, though, the executioner makes a final decision about his machine, leading to a disturbing and dreadful climax that I won’t spoil here. It’s one of those stories that chills to the bone, while still being thoughtful and enlightening.
  3. “Big Two-Hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway: I have mixed feelings about Ernest Hemingway (like I mentioned on my Men Without Women post), but this is a Hemingway story I love. “Big Two-Hearted River” didn’t appear in Men Without Women, but it left its mark when I read it the first time six years ago. The main character, Nick Adams—a recurring character in several Hemingway stories—goes on a camping trip, making subtle references to the war he fought in and the trauma he’s suffered. It’s not a very exciting story, but it’s emotional and meaningful in Hemingway’s special way. I don’t see it mentioned often on lists of Hemingway’s best short stories, but I can say for sure that it’s my personal favorite of his.

    Joyce Carol Oates, author of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

  4. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates: Another chill-to-the-bone story, about a girl in a terrifying position with an older man. The girl, Connie, is the youngest in her family and seems to be the disappointing daughter, with flirty behavior and little responsible thinking. But the action of the story builds when a smooth-talking stranger who calls himself Arnold Friend comes to her house, and she’s alone. She carries on a conversation with him but keeps him at bay, until she realizes that things aren’t what they seem with this man at all. Most of the story is this conversation, and Oates writes the story with a kind of narrative science—everything is balanced and thought-out, with a million and one symbols, references, codes, and secrets hidden in the story’s details to fill English-class essays for decades.
  5. “Entropy” by Thomas Pynchon: Speaking of narrative science, “Entropy” is more a scientific narrative—a story that studies and responds to the scientific theories on Pynchon’s mind, specifically that of the heat-death of the universe and the deterioration of everything into chaos. Pynchon focuses us on a party that has been in motion almost two full days by the story’s opening, and won’t be stopping soon. Various scenes take place at this party—discussions on ongoing and ending relationships, games played, songs sung, alcohol abounding, and even an almost-drowning by a girl in a bathtub. People have existential conversations about language and meaninglessness while the party rages out of control, into the chaos the title hints at. It’s experimental and conceptual, and as a work of art always gets to exist beyond itself—breaking and redefining rules like few stories can.

    ZZ Packer, author of “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.”

  6. “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” by ZZ Packer: This story doesn’t quite fit in with the rest on my list, if only because it tells a very contemporary story. It focuses on Dina, a new student at college, who is isolated, obstinate, passive-aggressive, and a red flag for every authority figure and potential friend that meets her. She strikes a teetering relationship with a girl named Heidi, which blossoms into a sexual awakening and—as her therapist claims—an identity crisis. Dina is in denial about plenty of things, not just with her sexuality and how it affects her identity, and it makes her one of the most interesting characters in any story. Through the hints and nods ZZ Packer sets up, we get to learn more about Dina than Heidi or her therapist ever could. It helps that this is one of the funniest short stories I’ve ever read—most of my favorites are downers, and this one is no exception, but it’s funny all the way down.

So there’s my list! Next up, you’ll see my review of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Favorite Authors

Welcome back class.

I think every self-respecting avid reader has a list of their favorite authors at the ready. Sometimes, when you’re wandering aimlessly through the used bookstore, knowing full well that you don’t have enough money to buy all the books you want, the only lifeline you can cling to is the recognition of a familiar author’s name.

So today, I thought I’d share with you my short list of favorite authors. I only had one rule when picking out each name—I have to have read more than one of their books. As much as I’d love to include Harper Lee because of To Kill a Mockingbird or Yann Martel because of Life of Pi, I only know that I like one of their books. The list below weeds out any potential one-hit wonders.

Click the links to see my blog posts on each book. The list is alphabetical to avoid bias, in case any of them stumble across this blog one day.

And without further ado, my list of favorite authors!

James Joyce

Books I’ve Read: DublinersA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses

I know I’m in the minority here. Most people find James Joyce’s stuff tedious, deliberately confusing, and needlessly weird (though Dubliners is a notable exception—it appeals to a wider audience, so if Joyce makes you uncomfortable, start with Dubliners). But for me, Joyce is a huge inspiration. His experimental style and meaningful stories have changed the way I read and write. I was lucky enough to have read his books in a helpful environment, which made it possible to understand his approach and intent while also encouraging me to discover things in his books for myself. If I see his name on the cover, I’m reading it, whatever it is.

Stephen King

Books I’ve Read: CarrieThe Shining, and On Writing

I don’t imagine Stephen King and James Joyce have much in common, but I love King for the same reason I love Joyce—he has inspired me and changed the way I read and write. Whenever I notice myself using an adverb, I think of King’s unadulterated hatred of adverbs. To him, they are a sign that the writer is afraid of being unclear . . . so they throw in the adverb to assert feelings on the reader, leaving little room for interpretation and chipping away at a story’s power.

But I didn’t just discover word choice with King—I discovered that story matters above all. Through both Carrie and The Shining, King crafted strange characters and supernatural worlds all in service of a good story. I’ve only read three books off of his loaded bookshelf, and I plan on reading more. Joyce may keep me in the clouds with his complexities, but King grounds me in a way that few authors ever have, and that’s been important to my journey as a writer.

Lois Lowry

Books I’ve Read: The Giver and Number the Stars

Lois Lowry is one of those young adult authors that prepare young readers for more mature reading. Both of the books I’ve read by her were assigned reading in middle school, and both of them left a bigger impact on me than most books from that time in my life. The Giver was an excellent piece of science fiction that prepared me for books on the 50-books list like 1984 and Brave New World; and Number the Stars portrayed the lives of children in the Holocaust, and left me empowered to be the kind of hero the protagonist chose to be.

These two books are serious dramas with emotional drive, and they are as meaningful for preteens and teenagers as they are for adults. Lowry’s stories aren’t watered-down—they are intelligent and moving. That can be hard to find in the ocean of literature for kids, and Lowry is one of those lifelines to cling to.

Gregory Maguire

Books I’ve Read: WickedSon of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men

I’ve been won over by Gregory Maguire. The first book I read by him, Wicked (which is nothing like the Broadway musical), allowed me to make the big transition between young adult books and books for adults. Maguire took the realm of a children’s fantasy series and made something serious, dark, clever, and unfiltered. And it all started with a simple concept—an attempt to understand the strange and evil Wicked Witch of the West.

I’ve read some (not all) of the sequels to Wicked, each of which have been met with mixed reactions by the same people that loved the original. I haven’t had the same reactions—I was just as moved and awe-struck with these stories of Oz-based characters beyond the Wicked Witch, and I will continue to read books by Maguire because of that. I’m excited to finish the rest of the Wicked series and I’m excited to see how special his other fantasy-oriented stories turn out.

Lemony Snicket

Books I’ve Read: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Books 1-7

This one almost doesn’t count—Lemony Snicket is the figment of the author’s imagination, through which he tells several of his stories. But I’ve never read any books by the real Daniel Handler, only those by his fictional persona Lemony Snicket, and I absolutely love Snicket’s writing. I’ve read some of his shorter works in addition, but I know Lemony Snicket mostly through his most popular series, A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Both the Netflix adaptation and the movie adaptation have their good qualities, but the books surpass them through the uniqueness of Snicket’s writing—something that cannot be described, only experienced. Snicket’s constant insistence that the reader should read something else more pleasant, his capacity for descriptive tirades and misguided definitions of large vocabulary words, his distinct brand of somber empathy . . . all of these quirks converge to portray the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaire children. To top it all off, it’s for kids—I know of no other books that portray the unpleasantries of life for kids as well as these books do, and Lemony Snicket is one of my favorite writers for that reason alone.

And that’s my list! Feel free to share you’re list with me. In the meantime, I’m finishing up Don Quixote next, and I look forward to telling you what I learned!

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Poetry Favorites (Part 3)

Hello again, class! Time to poetry it up again.

Be sure to check out my other favorite poems with Part 1 and Part 2 of this list. I’ve included links to each poem so you can read them for yourself!

Kipling isn’t one of my favorite writers, but this is certainly one of my favorite poems. It’s built on a series of almost-impossible virtues, with the father-son relationship tagged on for good measure. The poem as a whole paints the perfect ideal to strive for, and I love it.

My favorite lines are “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim.” It always reminds me that my introverted delights should have a purpose, even if they aren’t clear to begin with.

I think that “The Road Not Taken” has more depth than most people give it credit for. There’s the comparison between the two roads, one slightly more worn than the other, but both inviting and undisturbed. I like the speaker’s internal conflict about which road to take.

But it’s the last lines that keep this poem universal: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Frost made good poetry, and “The Road Not Taken” is one of his best.

This is one of the weirdest poems I’ve ever read. The word choice gets to me every time I read it—“angularity,” “avalanche,” “guttural,” “hieroglyphics” . . . and the image of a hawk’s wings as scythes cutting down stalks of time to describe the passing of a day is beyond creative.

If there’s anything this poem does wrong, it’s overreaching—poetry for poetry’s sake, one step too far. But for me, before reading “Evening Hawk,” poetry was flowers and love metaphors. This is one of the few early poems in my life that changed the game forever.

If “Evening Hawk” is one of the weirdest poems ever, then “The Red Wheelbarrow” is one of the simplest. It’s one of those that’s simple enough for anyone to read, understand, and analyze, but it’s also complete and complex enough to have layers of meaning.

It’s about the length of a sentence—four stanzas of four words each, painting a brief picture of a wheelbarrow. But if you look closely enough, you see the balance of each phrase, the care in each word, the imagery and the symbolism between the lines. It makes me smile and wonder every time I read it.

This Heart of Darkness-inspired poem (blog post pending for that novel) is classic T. S. Eliot—too vague to make complete sense but just beautiful enough so that sense doesn’t matter.

I like Eliot’s artistic choices, and it’s hard to like his work otherwise if you don’t, but it’s not hard to appreciate how powerful his poetry is. “The Hollow Men” showcases the best that modernism is known for—rule-breaking poetry, terror at the collapse of the old world, and a hodgepodge of genre that clashes against itself. It’s pretentious, but incredible.

This poem is dedicated to victims of 9/11, and for that alone it speaks volumes. Collins picks the names of individuals who died on 9/11, one name for every letter of the alphabet (though he asks us to “let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound”). Those names haunt him—or maybe it’s less violent than a haunting . . . it’s more like the names are painted on everything he sees: the rain, the night sky, the shop windows, the bridges and tunnels of the city, and the petals of a flower. It’s a literary memorial; those names, and the lives that they belonged to, remain after the tragedy. Like I said, it speaks volumes.

Of all of the poems I’ve selected (between all three posts) this one is the funniest. Sheehan wrote the exact opposite of a love poem—there was nothing else to call it but “Hate Poem.” She REALLY hates the subject of the poem. Everything about her hates the other person, from the flick of her wrist to the lint under her toenail to the “goldfish of her genius.”

What’s really remarkable is how beautiful the writing is, which is maybe even because of it’s content—it’s full of passion and exquisite hatred, and it’s one of the most enjoyable poems that’s ever crossed my path.

I’m not planning on a Part 4, but at this point, who knows what’ll happen.

Next up, I’m finishing up The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Also by Sylvia Plath, the poem “Lady Lazarus” (found on my Part 2 poetry list) equally deals in the subject of suicide. “Lady Lazarus” and other poems by Plath have a sense of glorifying suicide and death, which certainly makes me uncomfortable, but The Bell Jar seems to be more interested in portraying than glorifying. I don’t think her poetry is better or worse than her novel, but they are absolutely worth comparing, especially since they are eerily close to Plath’s real life suicide attempts and eventual suicide. But more on that next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: My Want-To-Read List

Happy almost-Halloween, class!

Let me be honest with you. I’m only 23 years old. 23 years is not enough time to read all of the best books ever written, no matter what the other 23-year-olds tell you. I’ve read a lot of ’em, but my Want-To-Read List is longer than my Already-Read List.

All of those posts I’ve made about books that are missing from the list are my way of filling in the gaps of the list itself; but then there are those amazing books that I haven’t read yet. You’ve probably heard of them too—they pop up on lists and blog posts, or in English classes for all ages. You may have even read some of them yourself, but I’ve never gotten around to them.

So below is a list of the literary greats I’ve heard about. Some were recommended to me by friends or teachers (or both), and others have been praised by critics for decades. Some are centuries old, and others barely a decade young. It’s a rather arbitrarily made list, but they’re all books I’ll be excited to finish one day.

If you’ve read any of them, feel free to tell me why you think they’re great! And if I need to add to my list, tell me what I’m missing. If your recommendations are flowing, I may begin reading something new sooner rather than later. 

  1. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  2. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  3. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  5. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  6. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  7. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  8. Blindness by José Saramago
  9. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  10. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  11. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  12. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  13. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  14. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  15. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
  16. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  17. Emma by Jane Austen
  18. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  19. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
  20. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  21. The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
  22. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  23. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  24. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  25. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  26. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  27. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  28. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
  29. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  30. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  31. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  32. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  33. Madame Bovary by Gustave Floubert
  34. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  35. Midnight’s Children by Salmon Rushdie
  36. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  37. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  38. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  39. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  40. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  41. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  42. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  43. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  44. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  45. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brian
  46. The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle
  47. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  48. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  49. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
  50. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Off-Topic: Favorite Characters From the List (so far)

Good morning class.

Now that I’m over halfway through the 50-books list, I’ve seen quite a set of characters that stand out. So I’ve chosen my favorites of the bunch. Characters that shock me, make me wonder, thrill me to the bone, terrify me, make me weep, show me how to be myself . . . they’re all here, in alphabetical order (by last name, because after all, this is a class).

  • Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials Trilogy

I’m almost cheating here—I’ve only finished books one and two of this trilogy, The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife (blog post pending). But those two books have been enough to show me how amazing this 12-year old girl is. She can lie through her teeth without second guessing herself, fooling every adult enemy that crosses her path, and she is fierce, determined, and brave in every dangerous situation she approaches. She isn’t perfect, though, and her sense of morality is far too black and white (at least at first) to help her make difficult choices. But even when she takes things too far, I can’t help but admire her no-holds-barred heroism against more competent enemies and her unending kindness toward her friends.

Actor Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom in the movie version of “Ulysses” (1967)

With the way I gush about Ulysses, I’m sure this entry doesn’t surprise any of you. As much as I would have liked to have chosen the rambling and coarse Molly Bloom or the moody and literary Stephen Dedalus, my favorite character from Ulysses is the thoughtful, scientific, compassionate Leopold Bloom. He loves animals, embraces his feminine side, and changes the world by acts of kindness. He is a hero—not an ancient hero of physical strength and battle-readiness, but a modern hero of artistic subtlety and active love. The world would be a lot better with men like this.

Christopher is the most unique character from any novel I’ve read—not because of his autism, but because of the way his autism is portrayed. We don’t look at him from the outside . . . we look at the rest of the world through his eyes. He shows us how life is like prime numbers, and how animals somehow speak a universal language, and how love is a very tricky thing to define. His life can be difficult to watch, especially when his disability puts his safety in jeopardy, but his story is an amazing one that wouldn’t be half as great without him.

Most people who look at The Great Gatsby would be more impressed by Jay Gatsby himself . . . but every time I read this novel I am more and more enamored by Daisy Buchanan. As the love Gatsby is always chasing, and as a close family member of the narrator, she is almost entirely painted in a positive light, and it makes it that much harder to see how terrible she is. She is far too wrapped up in her own rich lifestyle, cares nothing for her daughter, and eventually stoops to murder to punish her husband for his affair, while the murder ultimately gets pinned on Gatsby. But I end up sympathetic to her, for reasons I can’t explain—she is pushed around by the men in her life who care more about their own passions, and she is trapped by the money she married into. I rarely feel so much anger, pain, curiosity, and pity toward a single character.

First Lines and an Illustration

Holden is another character I don’t really like—that is, if I met him in person, I would be near him for long. But reading about him is one of the more incredible experiences I’ve had reading a novel, because he is a force to be reckoned with. One never knows what he’ll say next, or what he’ll think in his twisted mind, forcing himself to be an outsider surrounded by “phonies.” But it’s not simply interesting to read his story—his angst is far too relatable, and his compassion (which he does a good job of hiding from readers) is far too powerful. Holden is a scary mirror to look into, but he’s also a touching and comforting hero on the search for happiness like we all are.

Again, most people would probably say Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, is their favorite character from this novel; there’s nothing wrong with that, because Atticus is perfect. Even a little too perfect. Scout, on the other hand, is a beautiful mess. She loves reading and hates school, gets in fights to defend her father, and always finds interesting ways to get into trouble. I love watching her transform from a free-spirited, sometimes bratty little girl into someone older . . . not quite an adult, but still someone who gains one of the most mature qualities a person can have: empathy. Her childhood is honest and hilarious to witness, making her easily one of my favorite characters from any novel.

Samwise Gamgee, portrayed by actor Sean Astin in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Among all the serious and somber heroes from this trilogy, Samwise is the goofy friend and sidekick, and it makes him stand out. But if he was only a fool, he would be no different from Merry and Pippin, who are just as goofy; but Samwise is more than that. Samwise is loyal to Frodo and, in his own comic way, wiser than everyone they meet on their journey. As much as what he does makes me laugh, he does just as much that warms my heart and makes me cheer. Every fantasy story I’ve read or watched since The Lord of the Rings has needed a hero like Frodo and a friend like Sam, or it couldn’t even compare, and I think that says a lot about Samwise himself.

Emma Watson as Hermione Granger

Speaking of other fantasy stories, I’ll always have a place in my heart for Harry Potter, and I think Harry himself is an amazing hero to lead the series—on par with Frodo. Harry has Ron in the same way Frodo has Samwise, but more importantly, Harry has Hermione. She is brilliant, supportive, and headstrong in their small group of friends. It wasn’t until I grew up and reread the series that I realized how much Hermione did for her friends, and how important she was to the series—not just for the plot, but for feminism and its reputation in fantasy. I can trace my current feminist beliefs back to my first encounters with Hermione, her toughness, her cleverness, and her emotional arc over seven amazing books.

And last but not least is a unique character from a peculiar story. Pi of Life of Pi is hard to describe—he is a heavily religious 16 year-old boy from India, who has an incredible love for stories. It’s possible that his love of stories is what drives him to create a fiction about being trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger, after his entire family dies on a sinking ship in the Pacific. There is no proof that the story is false, though the much more believable story is that he survived without taming a tiger alone on the open sea, so the adult Pi telling this story asks the audacious question: which is the better story? And it’s those that pick the story with the tiger that are the real believers, the real story-tellers, who live a more fulfilled life. For that, Pi’s story is one of my favorites, and Pi is one of my favorite characters because of it.

And that’s my list! I’m still reading Brave New World, so show up for class next time to hear my thoughts.

Until then, enjoy your week!

Prof. Jeffrey

Off Topic: Favorite Short Stories

Good morning, class.

I’ve talked about my favorite poems before (here and here), and today, I’ll do the same with short stories!

This hardly needs explaining—below, I’ve listed some of my personal favorite short stories that I’ve read in literature classes over the years. Some are long enough that they could be considered “novellas,” but that kind of categorization barely matters. What’s listed below are good stories: plain and simple and in chronological order.

  1. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne

    “Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Nathaniel Hawthorne is probably better known for The Scarlet Letter, but I like his short stories more, and this one is my favorite. It’s critical of religion while using Christian and Satanic imagery to tell the story of Young Goodman Brown’s walk in the woods, where he encounters the devil, sees all his fellow townspeople worship like heathens, and loses his wife, Faith (not-so-subtly). Then it all disappears like a vision, and he’s left alone and forever changed. The story is layered, terrifying, and much more enjoyable than The Scarlet Letter . . . for what that’s worth.

  2. “The Yellow Wall-paper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman: The way this story is written—in small, sudden paragraphs that cause an unnerving itch—is what makes it so terrifying, and so great. The narrator is writing to us, against her husband’s wishes (she must be under constant bed rest, because she “suffers” from things like nervousness, frailty, hysteria . . . by which I mean she has an actual mental illness, but has instead been diagnosed with being a woman).

    Author Charlotte Perkins Gilman

    She writes about their move to a new house, her marriage, and most importantly, the disgusting yellow wallpaper in her bedroom. I won’t give away what happens—it’s too enjoyable to spoil—but suffice it to say the wallpaper is the last straw on her troubled mind.

  3. “The Wife of His Youth” by Charles W. Chesnutt: Stepping away from horror, this story delves into the politics of post-Civil War America, from the perspective of a leader in a society of more respectable (lighter-skinned) African Americans. Mr. Ryder has worked very hard to gain his reputation and he hides his past carefully—until a less-respectable woman enters his life and disrupts his reputation. It’s a subtle look at racial treatment during the Reconstruction Era, and it makes us aware of the black community of the time, the pride and shame within said community, the masks they still had to wear, and the choices they were faced with.
  4. “The Dead” by James Joyce: Of course James Joyce makes the list! Before he was over-complicating things with Ulysses, he wrote a relatively standard collection of short stories titled Dubliners, my favorite of which is “The Dead.” The protagonist, Gabriel, is tasked with making a toast at a dinner party, and he debates inwardly what words to use and what poets to quote—cluing us into the political ramifications of the Irish-British conflict at the time. In Gabriel’s relationship with his wife, with close friends, with guests and with strangers, he is torn (just like Mr. Ryder in “The Wife of His Youth”) between two cultures—one that seems brighter and more reputable, but that will never accept his inferiority as an Irishman, and another that would feel like a step backwards from success and reputation. It’s an intricate look at Ireland and its people, and it’s beautifully written.
  5. “The Balloon” by Donald Barthelme: This one is only kind of a story—it breaks a lot of the rules of storytelling. A mysterious balloon floats loose through a town for almost a month, and everyone is left curious. They wonder where it came from, and since no one knows, they start speculating and applying their own meaning to it; for example, the narrator attributes the balloon to the time he met his lover underneath it, when she’s returned after a long absence. Ultimately, the balloon is significant because it has no meaning . . . it means whatever it needs to mean to the viewer. It’s such a weird, simple story that’s impressive, wonderful, frustrating, and layered.
  6. Author Ursula K. Le Guin

    “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin: Yet another short story that’s barely a story at all—more like a fictional essay. Omelas is a perfect Utopian town. Its citizens are happy and there is no fear or pain. The narrator describes the glory of the town and consistently asks the reader whether or not they believe such a town is even possible, until she describes one final fact: somewhere in the town is a child, locked away in a room, malnourished and constantly suffering—a scapegoat. Everyone sees this child and understands that it pays the price for their Utopia. There are those who accept the child’s suffering for the town’s ability to thrive, and then there are those who walk away from Omelas, refusing to pay such a price for paradise. It’s a thought-provoking, ethically-twisted story and worth everyone’s time.

  7. Author Jhumpa Lahiri

    “Sexy” by Jhumpa Lahiri: “Sexy” might be the plainest story on this list—it doesn’t feel like high art or challenging literature, but it’s praiseworthy nonetheless. Miranda is in a relationship with a married Indian man, who once calls her “sexy” . . . the first time she’s ever been called that. The next time she hears the word, it sounds hollow, like it doesn’t mean anything, and she starts to question if her relationship means something, or if it is worth having at all. From a lesser writer, the actions of the story would come off as melodramatic—from Lahiri, the action is poignant and moving, and every word feels like it’s affecting the entire world.

If you can find these stories online, DO IT. Even if you only pick one, any of these are worth reading—some because they’re scary, some because they’re beautiful, all because they’re incredible. And if there’s a list of “50 Short Stories to Read Before You Die” out there, these are either on it, or should be.

Thanks for coming to class! See you next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

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