50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: 50 Books to Read Before You Die (page 1 of 6)

The Final Review

We’re at the end, class!

I’m not dying, or anything. But I promised myself at the beginning of this that I wouldn’t push this blog too far. I wouldn’t let it be one of those blogs that posted a lot at once, tapered off into a few posts a year, and died out from age or boredom. (If anyone thinks to look back at the posting dates of each one of my posts, you’ll notice a remarkable consistency.)

Which means there’s a finale to this saga. I read and reviewed the 50 Books to Read Before You Die, according to a bookmark. Just a few final remarks, and that’s all, folks.


I liked most of them. I loved many of them. There were a few I couldn’t stand, and I’m getting rid of those (to leave room on my bookshelf for better books). They all left an impression . . . they all gave me something to think about, something to chew on. Reading each one gave me a world to explore or a new perspective to consider. That’s what books are for.

Several of them gave me clues about how to be a better writer. This list is full to the brim of storytelling techniques, fascinating characters, and hilarious puns. I think all the great storytellers and artists copy from the greats, and this list featured some of the greatest stories of all time—so I’ve got a storytelling repertoire that will continue to inspire before I expire.

I keep coming back to why I chose to do this, and there’s one very obvious answer. I’d just graduated college. I loved college, and more importantly, I loved going to class. I love reading books and then talking about them. We just read this amazing chapter in this book I love, I can’t miss class! The professor’s going to break it apart, show me the little pieces that I missed—then I’ll love it even more!! That’s me. So what’s a man to do after graduation, when there are no more classes, no more professors, no more books and discussions? He starts a blog, of course.

I did this because I’d done nothing but read the assigned reading for the past four years. I wanted to dare myself into reading “literature” on my own. This was my way of making a real life class for myself, a series of self-assigned readings that any professor of a grade-A-geek would be proud of. And I did it for myself—not to show off my limited knowledge to people that know me, but to make myself better as a reader, writer, and storyteller, through the magic of the internet.

But I don’t stoop to think that this almost-three-year task made me a better person. I didn’t expect it would, because a better reader/writer/storyteller is not a better person. (If that sounds like too obvious a statement, I can assure you, that’s something I had to learn, and it’s something several fully grown adults still don’t know.)

It’s like the difference between living and reading about living. Some writers will tell you that the story is all that matters, but that only applies to stories, not to life. Stories serve many purposes—relief, connection, understanding, entertainment, discovery, motivation—but the one thing a story can’t do is replace living. Stories are reflections of life, and so is everything from history to art, from the greatest movie ever to a good joke. The reflections take us where we cannot go, far and wide around the Earth, back in time and forward to the future, and life still waits for us when we return.

No, this didn’t make me a better person. I learned a lot, though. If I use all I learned to not only tell better stories, but live a better life, then I’ll become a better person, I hope. That’s why the blogging is done, at least for now—I’m done with this chapter of my life-book, and if I stick around for too long, I might not get to the rest.

So keep reading. Then go live with what you learned.

Prof. Jeffrey

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

Frankenstein

Good morning, class.

I’ve made it to the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There are parts I like and parts I don’t like, but one thing continues to stand out to me: Frankenstein is considered by many as the birthplace of science fiction. The genre has a reputation for being male-dominated—as though Star Wars and Jurassic Park are only meant for men—and yet, science fiction seems to be established by a woman. It’s a reputation perpetuated by sexism and confounded by Frankenstein‘s very existence.


The blueprint of the story is well-known, even though the details have been undone and remade over two centuries of reinvention. An ordinary man, Victor Frankenstein, sets himself to the extraordinary task of creating life, and in a way, conquering death. He becomes a now-stereotypical mad scientist, unrivaled in determination and unthinking of consequences; and his creation is much more monstrous than he anticipated. The monster, sympathetic as he is, rampages through Frankenstein’s life until a devastating climax, and we readers are meant to learn our lesson: mindless ambition, even for the right reasons, can cause serious harm.

The original story is much more literary than it’s several reimaginings. It’s framed in a handful of narratives and allows for different perspectives on morality, fault, religion, and science. Most importantly, the monster himself is a fleshed-out character—thinking, learning, and speaking monologues on par with Frankenstein himself. It may not be realistic, but it’s the key to understanding who this creature is, what he wants, and why he acts the way he does.

The monster may be terrifying, but he is equally a victim of humanity’s abuse and hatred. It’s made very clear that the monster’s villainy exists because he has known nothing but misery—he was never loved, and that makes him as evil as he is. He is rejected and feared by all, and to defend himself, he quickly learns to fight back against those who mean him harm. He learns the ways of violence and revenge to survive, and the blame is traced back directly to his creator.


It’s a fantastic story, and a revolutionary concept. But it isn’t my taste—it drags on quite a bit, with Frankenstein’s inner turmoil egregiously taking up most of the story. The middle of the story—about 7 chapters—is told from the monster’s perspective, and while I appreciate the narrative need for this section, it’s just so tedious. I want the storytelling approach to be different, so it’s hard to enjoy the book, even with so much to like.

Author Mary Shelley

But after all this, there so much it does that redefines science fiction. My favorite interpretation of Frankenstein portrays Victor as a sexist (and knowing that Mary Shelley’s mother is Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, this holds up well). Victor’s approach to creating life removed any female presence, as though in his eyes, creating life should be a male enterprise. The resulting monster is one made without female influence, and it’s Victor’s manly actions that continue to antagonize the creature, the consequences of which are irreparable. With Frankenstein, Shelley defined sexism through a male lens (as a story told by a man) and she proved that the simple act of excluding women results in disaster.

It’s clear why Frankenstein makes the 50-books list. It’s Gothic literature at its core, and science fiction before science fiction existed. It’s a story that stood the test of time and continues to affect its genre. And no matter my taste, it is a good story—one worth reading at least once.


That’s 50 books! This blog is nearing its end, and I’ve got to more posts to write—my definitive ranking of all 50 books, from least favorite to favorite, and one final review of my experience as a whole. And that’ll be it!

Thanks for reading,

Prof. Jeffrey

Heart of Darkness

Hello again, class.

Heart of Darkness is controversial. It is a novella about Africa, written from the perspective of a European. It’s a story about the “lesser people” of Africa, the “civilized countries” attempting to conquer it, and the darkness men can succumb to in the attempt.

When I read it first, it was hard enough to simply follow the plot because it was so dense. The second time I read it, I felt as though I had conquered it myself—the fact that I could understand it was enough for me, and I dug no deeper into the racism and prejudice that was there. What I did notice, I excused with “it was a different time”, and that’s a sufficient defense for most art.

But I studied the novel a third time to write this post . . . the racism was much clearer than I remembered. Words like “savages” and “rudimentary souls” describe the people of a conquered continent, and scenes depict them worshiping a white man mad with power. Africa is shown as a backwards and evil land that corrupts the noble European cause—in the context of Heart of Darkness, that cause is stealing African ivory to sell back in Europe.

There’s no beating around the bush—racism is rampant throughout Heart of Darkness. My goal with this post is not to point out every racist moment in the story, though that’s a worthwhile cause. I think it’s more important to talk about why this book made the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, and whether or not the story’s racism had something to do with it. The reasons behind the story and it’s placement on the list may not be as important as the reasons we still read it today . . . maybe that makes all the difference.


Heart of Darkness opens with Marlow, a man with a story to tell about his time in Africa. He was sent there by a European company to investigate what happened to a man named Kurtz, one of the company officials. Marlow must journey into the heart of Africa in the hopes of finding Kurtz, and the further in he goes, the more “savage” things become.

Apocalypse Now (1979) is a Vietnam war drama adapted directly from Heart of Darkness. While the setting and time period have changed, the original characters and story points remain; Apocalypse Now is one of the most famous and most sincere adaptations of Heart of Darkness.

It’s not an adventure story, with epic battles or a heart-warming quest. It’s a disturbing journey, and we’re meant to hope Marlow turns back before it’s too late—in the same way that it’s too late for Kurtz, corrupted by the darkness of the environment. The longer these men stay in the heart of this dark land, the closer they are to reverting to savage ways—the ways of the African people.

This is the flaw in the story. To believe that civilized people are in danger of becoming savages by being around a continent full of savages, is to simultaneously demean a diverse group of people as uniformly savage (for differences of culture and skin color) and to antagonize that group of people as threats to one’s own standard of civilization. In Heart of Darkness, Africans are seen as slow-minded, low-born, and weak-spirited, and by some twisted logic they happen to have the ability to corrupt civilization elsewhere.


So why read Heart of Darkness? Easy: it’s written beautifully. I haven’t read a lot of Joseph Conrad’s work, but everything I’ve read by him has been just short of magical. It may be dense, but Conrad’s writing is unmatched. Knowing that English is not his first language (it’s his third language) makes it clear that he was a master in his craft. His words deserve to be read, and Heart of Darkness is some of his strongest writing.

Author Joseph Conrad

The problem, of course, is the content. If his other novels are written just as well, and are less problematic, wouldn’t those be better choices for the list? The controversy surrounding the novel (similar to the controversies of Huckleberry Finn) have made Heart of Darkness more famous, so that’s something—as if Heart of Darkness is the “gateway” to Conrad’s other works.

But if we’re to look at Heart of Darkness just as it is—if we focus on the story, rather than how it’s told or what it means—we get a pretty good idea of the evils of colonialism. Instead of reading Heart of Darkness and chalking up the apparent racism as byproducts of a “different time,” we can study the racism of the past—in all the glory of Conrad’s beautiful prose—to understand the racism of the present. The best way to read Heart of Darkness is as a historical artifact—appreciation with a grain of salt—and in that form, it deserves to make the list.


Next up is the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I didn’t like reading it in high school, but I went in prejudiced against it—it didn’t match the Frankenstein myth of a reanimated corpse-turned-zombie, and it lost all its cool-factor. I hope I read it this time with more open-mindedness. But more on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

The Stranger

Good morning, class.

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

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


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

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

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


Author Albert Camus

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

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

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Catch-22

Welcome back, class.

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

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


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

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

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

Author Joseph Heller

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

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


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

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Rebecca

Hello again, class.

Most of the novels on the list require a bit of work—especially the older ones. This 50-books library is the kind of selection that focuses on the great works, not the most entertaining ones. There’s entertainment in novels like Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet, but that’s not why you need to read them before you die—you need to read them because they do what no other piece of entertainment did before, and significantly changed what literature was and could be. In almost every book on the list, entertainment may be there, but it’s always secondary.

Rebecca is one of the exceptions to this trend—it seems to be entertainment first. It delights in its own extravagant writing and startling twists, and the story is melodramatic and absorbing. It’s not a happy story—it’s more like a nightmare, honestly—but it exists somewhere between a classy horror movie and a turbulent romance. It’s not great art—but it’s not simple, either. It plays with its plot for dramatic effect and was more engrossing than I could have predicted. Rebecca belongs on the list because of the simplest reason of all: it’s exciting and suspenseful, and it made its mark on literature and popular culture of the time.


With most of the novels from the list, I don’t worry much about spoilers—I couldn’t really “spoil” The Divine Comedy, if you know what I mean—but I have to be very careful about Rebecca. This is the story of a newly married woman, who is beginning a new life with her husband. One thing I appreciated early on: this woman goes unnamed for the entire novel. I can barely imagine how difficult that might have been for the author—her protagonist is referred to ambiguously for the opening chapters and, after marrying, is referred to by last name only: Mrs. de Winter. We never learn her first name or her maiden name, and all we know of her identity is in character traits, not details. She is a complete character, but one without identity.

Actors Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter in the movie adaptation of Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

This nameless woman marries a widower, Maxim de Winter, whose first wife is the eponymous Rebecca. Rebecca died before the narrator met Maxim, and Rebecca is some hideous unspoken secret in their new marriage. Nonetheless, they attempt to live happily in de Winter’s estate of Manderley, a large and beautiful house that is as much a character as the narrator—it’s given personality and even agency in what happens to the characters living there. The servants and guests at Manderley all seem to know something about Rebecca that they want to keep from the narrator, and because of that, Rebecca herself seems to haunt Manderley. She is around every corner, threatening to ruin the narrator’s marriage and life.


More than once, I wondered if this was a supernatural thriller—a literal haunting, with Rebecca’s spirit poisoning the house. While the narrator never sees the ghost of Rebecca walking down the halls, that seems to be the only difference between the haunting in Rebecca and something like Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. This story is the closest you can get to the supernatural while still existing in the real world.

Author Daphne du Maurier

And even though it’s not quite fantasy, either, it’s got a healthy dose of the unrealistic. Everything is hyper-characterized and played for drama or suspense, not to the point that it’s unnecessary, but entertaining for certain. It uses melodrama like it uses hints of the supernatural—instead of getting in the way of the story, they make the story fuller.

The author, Daphne du Maurier, seems to have gone to the Stephen King school of storytelling (or, rather, King went to the du Maurier school of storytelling). King believes that story matters above all. The best stories aren’t about character pieces or technical brilliance, but about telling the best story you can. Rebecca is the perfect example of an author telling the best story she can, and it’s such a good story that it earned its way onto the list of 50 books to read before you die.


Next up, I’m finishing Catch-22, which does exactly what Rebecca doesn’t—and to fantastic result. Catch-22 is almost an anti-story, with plot that folds in on itself and character-driven vignettes that refuse to bear a story. And yet, it’s every bit as thrilling as Rebecca, and infinitely funnier. Though I certainly loved RebeccaCatch-22 is more my speed—but let’s drive down that route next time.

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

The Way We Live Now

Good morning, class.

Money: A Suicide Note and The Way We Live Now are a lot alike. Both are about greed and corruption, individually and globally. Both focus on terrible people—those who have decided on a certain lifestyle that hurts themselves and others. Both criticize the world and the poor choices people make to hold on to money or to get it by any means.

But I can’t stress this enough—I hated Money: A Suicide Note. For all it did to successfully criticize the corrupt and greedy world of the late 20th century, I couldn’t enjoy it and I couldn’t wait to be done with it. That wasn’t the case with The Way We Live Now, which wasn’t my favorite book of all time, but it was definitely more enjoyable. The Way We Live Now did for the 19th century what Martin Amis’ Money did for the 20th—portrayed a society that was as successful and wealthy as it was deplorable, with all the humor, darkness, and drama that comes with the territory.


Unlike with Money, which told everything from one biased perspective, The Way We Live Now is about the lives of a full cast of characters and shifts focus between different intersecting plots. A few main threads keep everything together and keep things moving, such as the love-life drama of Paul Montague (blatant Romeo and Juliet reference), the upcoming election for a seat in British Parliament, and the repeatedly disastrous behaviors of Sir Felix Carbury.

Author Anthony Trollope

Sir Felix is a spoiled son of reasonable wealth—except that he spends all his time and money gambling. His mother, too afraid of driving him away, enables him by giving him money she doesn’t have, despite what it does to her unmarried daughter, who is far less spoiled and yet far less appreciated. But Sir Felix’s spendthrift ways are nothing compared to his commitments to two different women, both of whom he cares very little for, except that they might be able to provide him with more wealth if he plays his cards right. He is the story’s source of carelessness and insincerity—the purest example of insatiable greed and the path it can lead one to.

But honestly, Sir Felix is redeemable, unlike the novel’s true villain—Augustus Melmotte, a man new to the area running for a seat in Parliament, and doing anything he can to get it. He is a typical political evil—a careful liar, a corporate-level thief, a two-faced celebrity, and a cultural phase that brings out the worst in people on a worldly scale. He steals and attempts to cover it up, abuses people close to him that would traditionally be loved ones, and refuses to accept anything that doesn’t go his way. Melmotte is a smiling, charming criminal, and is everything Sir Felix is but worse. Sir Felix is always just out of reach of being his better self, but Melmotte is nowhere near being redeemable.

Paul Montague’s story is the novel’s redemptive quality. His story is about his attempts to remain a good gentleman in the midst of his chaotic love-life—he no longer loves a woman he is intended for, and he loves someone that his closest friend hopes to marry. He makes some serious missteps, but his intentions are never unclear—he means to be a good person no matter what. He juggles his relationships to find the perfect balance, so that he can maintain his friendship, sincerely end his old engagement, and begin anew with the woman he cares for.

An illustration from The Way We Live Now, featuring Winifred Hurtle and Paul Montague

Then, the threads intersect—Montague’s love is Henrietta Carbury, Sir Felix’s sister; Sir Felix is in a threadbare relationship with Marie Melmotte, Augustus’ daughter, and Augustus disapproves of the relationship; Sir Felix is in an even more threadbare relationship with a girl named Ruby, who, after being kicked out of the house for being involved with Felix, finds herself in the same establishment as the woman Paul is trying to disengage with—an American woman named Winifred Hurtle; Melmotte, Paul, and Felix, as well as several other wealthy people, are involved on the governing board of a North American railway company. Every chapter is like a roll of the dice, and no one knows what social, political, or romantic disaster might happen next—and that does make it an exciting read.


Shifting from character to character is a strength—one that author Anthony Trollope uses to his advantage. Trollope sometimes writes from Paul’s perspective and shows Felix as deplorable as he seems, but then he writes from Felix’s perspective, without changing Felix’s actions or motivations, and makes him sympathetic (or we get to hear from the perspective of his mother or sister, to make things that much more complicated). This is a bolder move than it seems, especially for the time—the novel shows its age by having an overly helpful narrator, referring to us as the reader and guiding us on this journey. There’s some of that throughout the story—a balance between the traditional and the changing future, between the conservative and the progressive. It’s a story as time-tested as Shakespeare, and as experimental as Money.

And for all that, the reason it made the list is in the title—The Way We Live Now. This is a snapshot of English culture in the later half of the 19th century, an era more modern than it used to be and not as modern as today. Trollope’s goal was to point out how greed and corruption were plaguing English society, and with this novel, he does that with as much intrigue as balance. By focusing on that theme in its entirety, The Way We Live Now tackled a wide scope of ideas and truly reflected the world at the time, and with good writing to boot, it’s no wonder it made the list.


Next up, I’m working my way through Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier—another novel that serves as a snapshot of the era, the early 20th century. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Money: A Suicide Note

Good morning, class.

So . . . I’ll just come right out and say it: Money: A Suicide Note is one of my least favorite books of all time.

To read Martin Amis’ Money is to be met with a tour de force of alcoholism, drugs, addiction, rape, sexism, homophobia, manipulation, and toxic behavior the likes of which no one should have to endure. Money is a kaleidoscopic perspective on humanity’s fast and entertaining decay, due almost entirely to the concept of money and its poisonous fumes.

I will admit, there are parts I liked, or at least appreciated. And in theory, the book is a perfect criticism of celebrity lifestyle and capitalism. Money points out our inherent cultural flaw, our need for, dependence on, addiction to money—better than most books I’ve read on the subject. I have no doubt that that’s why this novel made the list.

But the details—the characters, plot, symbols, words—made me sick. It was crass and disgusting. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had known what I was getting into (before seeing the list, I had never heard of Money before, so I went in cold); after all, I’ve seen movies and read books that aim to be offensive, and the best ones, like Money, have a clear and even moral purpose, like criticizing cultural flaws. Still, I’ve never enjoyed reading a book less, and I won’t get that time back.


But the least I can do is tell you who these unlikable characters are, and a bit about what they do that’s so unlikable. The narrator is a man named John Self, a conceited, sadistic, out-of-control addict attempting to adapt his story into a movie. He is surrounded by celebrities that are as self-absorbed as he is, as money-addicted and as morally bankrupt too. He spends his days in constant cycles of prostitutes, alcohol, smoking, and mindless purchases, and all the while he experiences a ceaseless and vulgar inner monologue that is as carefully crafted as it is offensive.

John Self reminds me a lot of Holden Caulfield, the main character and narrator of The Catcher in the Rye. Caulfield is similarly problematic, with his intrusive and offensive thoughts filling up most of the novel; but I liked reading The Catcher in the Rye, and I know exactly why it was better. Caulfield was an angsty teenager, dealing with a lot of personal issues in the way a teenager might—lashing out at adults, behaving irrationally, refusing to face his issues head-on, etc. Even so, ultimately The Catcher in the Rye is about a search for happiness, and Holden’s care for younger children (and their untainted innocence) expresses that. Our focus on a an unlikable narrator becomes our focus on a teenager in crisis and on society’s mistreatment of children.

But Money doesn’t do that. John Self is a grown man, and spends a lot of time blaming his equally terrible father for his own mistakes, despite having the ability to change his ways. He has broad generalizations about the world and its mechanisms, and everything he says is questionable or flat-out immoral. He despises people that are different from him and he despises himself. He crosses the line from offensive to unforgivable far too often, in ways I don’t care to repeat. And unfortunately, he is on every page.


Author Martin Amis

Now, there are things that I like. For instance, its clear that Martin Amis knows what he’s doing—John Self’s diatribes are despicable, but well-written. The clever word choice and puns, the perfectly captured voice of John Self, the balance of the whole story from beginning to end . . . Amis is a craftsman.

Amis also happens to write himself into his own novel—a fun meta twist that uses “character-Martin-Amis” to help show what “writer-Martin-Amis” is trying to do. He gets to poke fun at his own pretentiousness and explain his actions for creating a character like John Self—it’s his way of putting all of the poison of fame and fortune into one tragic character, destroyed inside and out by the way we live now. The episodes with “character-Martin-Amis” stood out as Money‘s most creative and intriguing moments.

And yet, for all its technical brilliance, I can’t stand the novel’s content. Money‘s plot is weak, spending more time creatively caving in on itself than telling a story, which I could live with, except that whatever story is left is detestable. The thinness of the plot is paired with disgusting scene after disgusting scene—an endless episodic bombardment of debasement and degradation. I didn’t enjoy it and I’m glad it’s over now.


With that out of the way, I can look forward to the remaining books on the 50-books-list. I can’t guarantee I’ll enjoy what stories are left, but it’s a safe bet that Money is going to remain at the top of my I-hated-this-book list for quite some time, if not forever.

Next up, I’m finishing The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope—a novel that, so far, I have enjoyed. That’s more than I can say for some books.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

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