50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: 50 Books to Read Before You Die (page 2 of 6)


Hello again, class.

World War I and World War II are often lumped together as a collective global stain of history. They are so linked that WWII is usually seen as an extension of WWI, and it’s hard to talk about one without the other. It’s easy to forget that at the time, WWI was its own devastating conflict, worse than anything that had come before it and unimaginably tragic on its own.

That seems to be the driving motive behind author Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong. In lumping together both World Wars, the identity of the first Great War gets lost in the past—Birdsong is about bringing that past to the forefront, lending focus to the social and cultural atmosphere at the time of WWI. The story is in its own way about uncovering history, using it to guide our present and plan our future while appreciating it for what it is, regardless of what happens next.

Poster for the stage adaptation of Birdsong (2010)

Faulks wouldn’t be able to accomplish this without a supportive story, and good characters to populate it. It’s safe to say that Stephen Wraysford is Birdsong‘s main character—he is a man with a complicated upbringing coupled with a melodramatic love affair in his early 20s, who is thrust into the Great War. His relationships with other men in the war help to humanize the conflict, though with all the violence he sees, he is always questioning humanity and its destiny. He seems fairly determined to hide his past, though he isn’t ashamed of it, and his love affair plays an important role in his future.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, where we meet a woman who is presumably his granddaughter—Elizabeth Benson, who shares some of the responsibility as main character. This 38-year old woman, having an affair of her own, is contemplating her place in life and decides to unearth her ancestral history. The novel jumps back and forth between Stephen’s perspective and Elizabeth’s, merging both points of view to appropriately assess the events of the war.

Author Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong is historical fiction—not a dramatization of real events. A based-on-a-true-story approach might have worked just as well for the sake of realism, but Faulks isn’t interested in detailing who did what where. He created fictional characters to fill them with the spirit of the people involved. Birdsong is a human drama, not a war epic or a nonfiction account—those things would be about the war itself, which is just another conflict in our history. Birdsong instead tells a story about individuals, who bear the weight of a larger catastrophe and question their place in it all.

If it were boiled down to one thing, Birdsong is a story about the best and worst of human nature. Stephen constantly asks himself how far the people in this war are willing to go, and nothing he sees lets him rest easy. But humanity has its moments of redemption in the way individuals treat each other: the way soldiers treat fellow soldiers, the way Stephen treats those he loves, and the way Elizabeth is able to find love amidst the war of her past. Humanity can be a cannibalistic hunger, a vain and selfish ambition that threatens its own existence, but it can also be warm and compassionate, full of love and hope. Birdsong makes the list for portraying humanity at its ugliest and at its most beautiful.

I liked reading Birdsong a lot, which has maybe contributed to my distaste for the next book on the list—a novel by Martin Amis called Money: A Suicide Note. I know why it made the list, but all the same I haven’t enjoyed it at all . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey


Call me Prof. Jeffrey.

Moby-Dick is one of the novels on the list that toes the line between too difficult for someone to enjoy and important enough to power through nonetheless. Most of the novels that fall into this trap are older works, like Dante’s Inferno or Don Quixote, both a bit too old and out-of-touch to enjoy outside of a class. Moby-Dick doesn’t do that though—its place in history recent enough that it doesn’t feel out-of-touch. Herman Melville actually makes plenty of genius moves with Moby-Dick that make it special even now, doing things that most novels today wouldn’t dare to do.

But it’s also a lot like James Joyce’s Ulysses—the novel is successfully doing so much that the end result is far too complicated. Of all the books on the list it’s probably most like The Count of Monte Cristo, in several ways—notably, both are tales of revenge where fate plays a big part. Melville makes sure to tell all sides of the epic tale he dreamed up, which makes the story thorough and way too long. It never fails to be interesting, though—I’ve learned more about whales and whaling than I ever wanted, and Melville did that without compromising on a story that was impressive to begin with.

Altogether, Moby-Dick seems near perfect; it may come off as long or tedious, but there’s no denying that all the pieces are in the right place for a story worth telling. That’s more than enough reason to read it before you die.

When I say I’ve learned plenty about whales, I mean it—the reason this novel is so long is because half of it is a textbook. The narrator, who calls himself Ishmael (and a questionable authority if there ever was one), spends most of his time making sure we understand exactly what our characters are facing . . . by describing any and all potentially necessary information about whales. He describes the body, behavior, history, and cultural impact of whales, along with details about whaling, oil, ocean life, the routines of the crew, and most importantly, the full description of Moby-Dick himself. As an example, one chapter is called “The Whiteness of the Whale,” which takes several pages to describe Moby-Dick’s rare white skin.

Reading Moby-Dick can be exhausting. Informative, too, but exhausting nonetheless. The monotony of the characters’ lives at sea is bleak and relentless, and the simplest action can be a reprieve from that monotony. In some chapters, nothing happens—except for a short essay on whales or whaling. These aren’t boring chapters—far from it. They are interesting and dynamic interjections, each one showing the reader something new about what’s to come or about the narrator’s mysterious inner thoughts. The takeaway is that these informative time-filler chapters—much like the book as a whole—are the essence of unconventional story-telling.

Author Herman Melville

The reason to pick up Moby-Dick off the shelf can be more easily found in two characters. One we already know—the questionable narrator, Ishmael, a passing soul in the larger narrative whose great purpose is to tell the story of the hunt for Moby-Dick. He lets us know early on that the whaling voyage is doomed, and he is the sole survivor of the ruined vessel. Because of Ishmael, most of the novel relies on concepts of fate and evil that are born from tragedy—every tension is in solving how the tragedy will happen, and every calm is subdued by the knowledge that disaster will strike soon enough.

Then there’s Captain Ahab—the obsessed, unstable, majestic, terrifying leader of the crew, most culpable in the ship’s demise and the resulting death of his crew. His arc is simple enough—Moby-Dick is responsible for Ahab losing his leg, and Ahab will sail to the ends of the earth and back on his quest of revenge to kill Moby-Dick for it. Ahab has a way of jumping off the page—he’s very human, malevolent, sarcastic, emotional, and liable to snap at any moment under the weight of his own obsession. Part of Melville’s genius is in making Ahab so many things at once that it’s hard to define him—he’s as complex as any realistic character, and just as much a legend as any character in the ancient epics of human history.

That being said, it’s just as hard to pin down what the novel really is, too. It isn’t a warning about obsession or revenge, though that seems to be an important idea. It’s definitely an epic, but it’s not a myth about an ancient legend—it’s about a whaling vessel, blown into epic proportions without losing an ounce of its careful realism (which is lacking in the myths of old). It’s not really an adventure story, though there’s adventure in it—along with too much foreboding and doom. More than a few chapters feature dramatizations or monologues, as though Melville is imitating Shakespeare. Parts of it even belong to comedy, or at least some kind of absurdism, such as it is—though it’s a bit hard to laugh knowing how it all ends.

One thing’s for sure: Moby-Dick is special. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, so I do question its inclusion on the list, but there’s something special enough about it that everyone should at least consider reading it. It’s not just one of those important works of art—it’s a good and thoughtful story. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Next up, I’m finishing up Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong—yet another I’d never heard of before starting the blog. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Hello again, class.

I have mixed feelings about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve read it a lot, and I’ve hated it, loved it, misunderstood it, and been indifferent to it. I’ve thought of Mark Twain as a genius, and sometimes I’ve thought of him as a glorified hillbilly whose works we read for unknowable reasons. More often than not, I land on the idea of appreciating Huckleberry Finn from a distance, never quite sure what to make of it while knowing that it’s worth reading—that’s the mood for today.

If only reviewing books was a simple task.

The book opens with a notice, explaining that anyone attempting to find motive, moral, or plot in this story will be subsequently prosecuted, banished, or shot. From the opening page, this book flaunts narrative, which is a hole-in-one from where I’m standing. The story that follows is a series of funny and dramatic events with a few well-developed and desperate characters and a barrage of side-character kooks to keep things light and interesting. It’s meant to be a delightful adventure story, through and through.

Or is it? One of my issues reading Huckleberry Finn is also one of the things that has kept it popular in the century-and-then-some that came after—the story itself is more than it claims to be. No one narrative-identity sticks—it can never be limited to “adventure story.” The series of adventures do have some underlying meaning, even if the notice at the beginning tells the reader not to look for it.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself—the only way this anti-narrative story even remotely works is because it has good characters. Huck is a boy in the American South, and he comes from an impoverished world with an abusive father. He views himself as a wrongdoer, or as trash, so he oscillates between wanting to do what’s right and giving up to do wrong. This puts him directly on the path of running away with an adult slave, Jim, whose relationship with Huck is tumultuous, subtle, carefree, and one of the strongest examples of friendship literature has to offer.

Twain’s portrayal of Jim is remarkable—we see all through Huck’s eyes, and Jim’s actions show him to be far more than Huck can imagine of a slave. Just like the story, Jim is more than he seems, and for all the stereotypes he seems to embody of a submissive and hard-working slave, he subtly flaunts those stereotypes in the story’s stiller, smaller moments. Twain wrote him as both a caricature and an honest deconstruction of slave characters—and Jim is one of the reasons Huckleberry Finn is still read today.

Author Samuel Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain

Twain’s real writing strength is his humor. Throughout Huckleberry Finn, there are disguises, pranks, puns, hilarious literary references, bumbling idiots and smart people fooled beyond recognition. Two characters known as the king and the duke swindle money from people for a living, and comedy ensues. Huck’s profound misunderstanding of most situations leads to hilarious chaos. One extended joke about two feuding families references Romeo and Juliet constantly, and Twain’s version isn’t half as tragic (that’s what he’d have you believe, in any case). Huck even dresses up like a girl to get information from someone. It’s non-stop, and Twain is a master of hilarity.

I can’t deny, even though I clearly think it’s a good novel, that I can’t stand Huckleberry Finn. Part of it is the overuse of the n-word, but that’s a weak reason—I love To Kill a Mockingbird for the same “fault.” Part of it is that this boy’s adventures are so unlike my life that I have no frame of reference; there’s almost no way his running away with a slave matches any moment in my own narrative. But that’s a weak reason, too—I could say the same about so many books I’ve praised before, including Pride and PrejudiceBrave New WorldThe Color PurpleAs I Lay Dying, and To the Lighthouse.

It probably boils down to taste, and that’s the best answer you’ll get out of me. I’ll praise the genius of Huckleberry Finn while keeping my distance; there are several novels I’ll reread for pleasure, and this isn’t one of them. But I wholeheartedly agree that it’s one of the 50 books everyone should read before they die.

Next up, I’m finishing Moby-Dick—another story that is so unlike my own life that I have little to no frame of reference. But unlike with Huckleberry Finn, I very much enjoyed Moby-Dick even in spite of its flaws . . . but more on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Welcome back, class.

From the start, I was comparing Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Both focus on characters with mental illness, as well as the concept of mental illness, while tackling loosely related problems like American culture, sexism, and the conflict between the individual and society. But that’s it. Beyond that, the books are as different as The Diary of Anne Frank and the Harry Potter Series.

And what makes them so different? Kesey’s novel is only about mental illness on the surface. There are clearly characters who are mentally ill, including the narrator, but that illness is simply the backdrop for a larger story—a story about oppression, anarchy, identity, and society. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t about curing those who are ill, but about freeing those who are enslaved. There are issues with that approach, but the story is good enough to rise above those issues.

First of all, the writing is SOLID. Everything about Kesey’s style is original, enjoyable, clever . . . it’s audible and graphic and is meant to immerse you into the vivid and uncomfortable world of a mental ward. On this ward, tragedy and terror happen without warning, and the smallest of details cause the biggest impact—the writing reflects that, and the few peaceful scenes that occur take such sharp turns into chaos that, after a while, the reader realizes there aren’t any peaceful scenes at all . . . only anarchy and the build-up to it. The genius of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is in Kesey’s portrayal of the story’s events, and if there’s only one reason it made the list, look no further. Knowing full well I can’t do his amazing style justice, I encourage you to read it yourself and see what I mean.

Then, there’s the story itself—Randle P. McMurphy is a criminal who pleads insanity in the courtroom, and winds up on the ward with the actual mentally ill. Within hours, he sees that the situation on the ward is a step above prison, but the countless restrictions make life about as flexible as concrete, and he decides that he won’t stand for it. The leader of the ward is Nurse Ratched, a domineering woman whose sole pleasure seems to be rigidity and order—every move she makes is to perfect the lives of her patients whether they want it or not. McMurphy and Ratched become fast enemies, and the rest of the patients get caught in the crossfire.

It’s easy to see McMurphy as the hero and Ratched as the villain, and while Ratched has next to no redeemable qualities, McMurphy is a far cry from a great leader or liberator in any scenario. His criminality alone isn’t a series of innocent slips—it’s implied he’s done some terrible things. He has moments of kindness, most of which are veiled maneuvers to try to get what he wants—more freedom on the ward for something trivial, or at least the ability to upset the power dynamic and throw Ratched off her game. But there are moments of rebellion on behalf of the other patients, and those moments make McMurphy more complicated and more interesting. Kesey refuses to let McMurphy fall into labels that trap him like “hero” or “anarchist” or “revolutionary.”

One of the flaws of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is its Hemingway-esque focus on masculinity—this is a novel about men and for men, with a sexualized woman as the villain. In this world, men are celebrated for things that are crass and inexcusable, disguised as rebellion against the established order. But, to be fair, in a world where the established order is a specific kind of oppressive—sexless, muted, inflexible—performing revolutionary acts that flaunt morality or social code may be inherently good. What bothers me is that these acts tend to be for men at the expense of women, and Kesey created a story that allows for that, knowing that to soften the backward-ness of these dynamic characters would be to weaken the story. The good and powerful themes of this novel come at that cost, so be willing to pay it when you pick it up.

Despite that backward-ness, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has a violent wit and a very, VERY well-told story. It may be played for crazy at the expense of the mentally ill, but it’s a novel that presents the distinction between society and its marginalized individuals with force and flare. I encourage others to read it with eyes open for the good, the bad, and the ugly.

That’s FORTY BOOKS DONE. Only ten more to go! There are some books in this final round that I’ve already read, and some that I know absolutely nothing about, so we’re not going into unfamiliar territory but we are reaching the end of our journey. I feel more enlightened already.

Next up is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, similarly controversial for very different reasons. I hope I can do it justice, because I’ve read this novel several times, and I’ve loved it and hated it, and even felt a high-school-indifference to it. We’ll see how it goes.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Men Without Women

Welcome back class.

I haven’t read a lot of Ernest Hemingway’s work—he is well-known for novels like For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, both of which I haven’t read yet. I have read several of his short stories and only one of his novels: The Sun Also Rises. So when I saw Hemingway’s name on the 50-books list, I wasn’t surprised. But when I saw the book of his that was chosen—his short story collection Men Without Women—I was baffled, because I’d never heard of it before.

I typically refer to Hemingway as an author I don’t like, though I can understand why his works are studied and praised. But if I’m honest, Hemingway intimidates me like no other author. His stories are deceptively plain, and a fast reader will breeze past all of the subtleties of his work in search of the story. On the surface, his stories are almost boring; but in the smallest of details he hides the things that make his stories great. This can make a novel like The Sun Also Rises exhausting, because if you read too quickly, you can fly through the whole book having learned nothing at all. But in a four-page short story, once you reach the end and wonder exactly what happened, you have more of an opportunity to go back to the beginning and find what you missed—the small detail that changed everything.

That’s what I discovered with Men Without Women, and I enjoyed reading it much more than I thought I would. I won’t say it was my favorite read, or even close, but I earned something out of it. That’s more than I could have hoped for.

Charles McGraw and William Conrad in a 1946 adaptation of Hemingway’s story “The Killers”

It’s much harder to review a collection of short stories, because there are no broad strokes. Some stories stand out compared to others—“Ten Indians”, the story of a boy’s first heartbreak, is one I’d read before in high school, and things jumped out at me much more this time than 6 years ago. I’ve noticed the story “The Killers” has been turned into a movie several times, and I know why—the story is about two men taking hostages in a restaurant waiting to kill a man on arrival, and so many details are left out that it’s only natural for a variety of filmmakers to fill in the gaps.

Most of the stories are under ten pages, but two of the stories are closer to 30 pages: “The Undefeated,” which opens the book, is a story about an aging bullfighter proving his worth in a new era of the sport; and “Fifty Grand,” taking up the exact middle of the book, is the story of a boxer who fixes his own match to get a payout. I think both of these stories function as a foundation for the other stories—Hemingway’s method of building an interconnecting structure between stories that are otherwise isolated.

Two stories are hardly stories at all, which fits right in with the modernist writings of the era. “Today is Friday” is a script, following a group of Roman soldiers on Good Friday after Jesus is executed, and the cherry on top is that these soldiers speak in colloquial, Hemingway English. Then there’s “Banal Story,” which is either a nonfiction piece or a stream-of-consciousness experiment that lays out storytelling rules and then breaks them, and it ends by throwing in a cameo appearance from the protagonist of “The Undefeated,” dying in a hospital after his bullfighting days are over.

Author Ernest Hemingway

No one story is my favorite, nor would I call any the most shocking or most powerful. Hemingway’s balance as a writer is strong, and from that balance comes the common theme: even though there are technically women in several stories, each story focuses on men separately from women, or Hemingway’s trademark obsession with masculinity.

Hemingway’s stories are about athletes and soldiers (in a time before it was common for women to be either); his stories are about husbands and bachelors, and about boys becoming men; his stories are maybe even about sexuality and its unspeakable deviations; and more than anything, his stories are about how internally, men rarely if ever admit to themselves that there’s something going on under the surface of their stoic, frozen masculinity. Hemingway finds clever and creative ways for his stories to celebrate the masculinity he upheld until his dying day, while also subverting it in the details of those stories, and through that lens, it’s no wonder that Hemingway made the list.

And that explains, too, how Men Without Women made the list over his novels. Hemingway’s novels might have gained more popularity than his short stories over the years, but they are no less masterpieces. What better way to capture Hemingway’s perfect understanding of men, internally, culturally, and broadly, than to include a collection of stories diverse enough to do what a novel can’t?

So even though it had its faults, and it certainly isn’t my favorite, Men Without Women has left a mark where I didn’t imagine it could. Masculinity is not the kind of content I want to focus on; we live in an age of toxic masculinity, where culturally, men are often deservedly—I’ll say it again, DESERVEDLY—the bad guy. Hemingway seems to have known all the sides of masculinity, toxicity included, but he praised it’s healthy parts as well and took masculinity as the social force it is, warts and all. The result is a collection of good stories that I recommend.

There is one other thing I picked up from Hemingway about writing, and it’s one of my favorite metaphors. A good story will act like an iceberg—icebergs hide a silent majority of their mass under water, and less than half of its mass is all that can be seen. A good story shows only a small portion of its content—the rest is hidden under the surface, and though you can’t always see it, the rest of the story is absolutely hiding there, waiting to be discovered.

Next up is Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, just as much a masculinity-infused novel. And just like Hemingway, I have my problems with it, but it’s so well written I can forgive what I don’t like. It’s hard to pull off such an epic story in a mental ward, and Kesey manages just fine.

But more on that next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

Don Quixote

Good morning, class.

I’ve been comparing Gulliver’s Travels (my other most recent read from the list) with Don Quixote, and I’ve come away with a broad conclusion on both. On my post about Gulliver’s Travels, I wrote that that Gulliver’s Travels is all a dark joke at society’s and humanity’s expense. If Gulliver’s Travels is literature’s dark joke, then Don Quixote is its lighthearted one—a series of recurring comedy sketches centered on a madman who thinks he’s a knight and the hopeless fool who tags along as his squire.

Despite that simple premise, Don Quixote is more complicated than that. The main character, whose name isn’t even Quixote, starts as an ordinary Spanish man with an ordinary life. But he reads a little too much about the knights of the age of chivalry, and starts to think he’s a knight himself, adopting the name Don Quixote. What follows is a carefully orchestrated parody of knighthood, romantic quests, and the world of literature.

Don Quixote charging at the windmills.

The relationship between Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, reminds me a lot of the relationship between Frodo and Samwise in The Lord of the Rings—both relationships come from the same place: the knight/squire relationship of older works of literature like the King Arthur stories and Beowulf. But Quixote and Sancho don’t fit these roles so easily. Quixote acts like the noble knight he thinks he is, which usually just gets him into trouble; and Sancho is simply along for the ride, not half as dedicated as he imagines and too much of a buffoon to know any better. Comedy ensues.

There are several moments that stand out—the most famous one is likely the episode where Quixote attacks a set of windmills, thinking that they are a field of giants with large swinging arms, despite Sancho’s explanations of reality. The comedy tends to remain in this area, where Quixote misreads a common occurrence as a knightly adventure, and Sancho has little choice but to go along with it.

Portrait of Author Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1615)

Author Miguel de Cervantes has more than a touch of Shakespeare about him. The dialogue is witty, with double entendres that survive translation and clever twists that make the old feel new. The meta-jokes are hilarious additions that stand the test of time (about 400 years). What’s more, since Don Quixote is considered one of the earliest novels ever written, it’s clear that Don Quixote paved the way for an entire category of literature like nothing else before it—that’s fairly Shakespearean. Cervantes was one of the story-telling geniuses of his time, and his writing is one of the big reasons Don Quixote made the list.

That said, the experience of reading it wasn’t 100% enjoyable, if only because I had to trudge through it. It’s not easy to read, and I knew it wouldn’t be as I started—the same thing happens with Shakespeare. In reading Don Quixote, there was always so much happening within so many different layers of language that most of it passed me by. It takes a steadier mind than mine to dive headfirst into all that makes Don Quixote special, and as I’m someone who prides himself on his joy of reading, it doesn’t bode well for the poor soul who reads this thinking “well, it’s one of the 50 books I’m supposed to read before I die, so I guess I’ll try it.”

But that’s my mild complaint—that I didn’t feel smart enough to catch everything that happened. I’ve already explained in other posts that there are books that don’t belong on the list, but Don Quixote isn’t one of them. Don Quixote is hilarious, thoughtful, and a perfect example of good literature from its era, and that’s the best reason it made the list.

I’m jumping forward in time and reading Ernest Hemingway next—his collection of short stories, Men Without Women. I have a lot of thoughts on Hemingway, as well as this particular choice for the list (as opposed to his several other more famous novels), but I’ll save those thoughts for next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Gulliver’s Travels

Welcome back, class.

I like Gulliver’s Travels for being exactly what it is. It’s not my favorite, but I can’t help but enjoy the things that make it good. I enjoy it for the same reason I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays (and for the same reason I am currently enjoying Don Quixote, which I’ll write about soon)—the author, Jonathan Swift, takes his favorite ideas from a huge body of literature before him and makes those ideas his own in Gulliver’s Travels, which has enough flare, depth, humor, and meaning to have lasted hundreds of years.

On the surface, Gulliver’s Travels is the simple story of Lemuel Gulliver, who goes on four loosely connected adventures in his lifetime to the far reaches of the undiscovered world. He goes first to Lilliput, where he meets a nation of people mere inches tall, then to Brobdingnag where he meets a nation of giants ten times his size. His third journey involves a set of smaller adventures, notably his visit to the airborn island of Laputa. His last adventure is to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a culture of knowledgeable horses that teach him their ways.

Lemuel Gulliver on the island of Lilliput.

Ask any English teacher and they’ll tell you—Gulliver’s Travels is satire at heart. It uses the surface story of a man on a series of impossible adventures to point more than a few obvious fingers at politics, society, and humanity. I usually associate Gulliver’s Travels with The Colbert Report, if only because they accomplish the same thing in very different ways. Both use humor, absurdity, and criticism to make bold statements about the world, forcing readers and viewers to use a greater degree of logic.

Gulliver’s Travels made the list because it clearly embraces the use of satire to great success, and it did so in a way never before seen in its time. This is of course debatable—several works before Gulliver’s Travels have used satire, such as any number of Shakespeare’s works and Don Quixote. But nothing seems to have left an impression like Jonathan Swift—the entirety of Gulliver’s Travels is a dark joke, and you, gentle reader, are likely the butt of it.

Author Jonathan Swift

Swift at some point discovered that satire is one of the best forms of shaming people and calling for radical change while still being art. Somehow, in the reality we live in, the thoughts spoken meaningfully can get lost in the clutter of everyone speaking at once, but saying the exact opposite of what we mean while being facetious enough to get our point across makes people shut up and listen. In the meaninglessness of Swift’s fantasy worlds is where we can find meaning.

But Swift wasn’t entirely meaningless—a lot of passages, especially from his fourth adventure, are honest and sincere. As Swift’s narrator, Gulliver is more than a finger for pointed critically at society. We see these adventures take a serious toll on his life and directly affect his view of his family. In speaking with the Houyhnhnms (probably some of my favorite passages), he confronts some of the uglier parts of humanity and changes irreversibly.

And yet, for the most part, Gulliver is the kind of character that functions as a blank slate—a way for Swift to paint a picture of the world as he sees it, with the flare of fantasy for good measure. Gulliver’s flaws as a character help us see what Swift intends, and Swift intends a lot. His relentlessness towards society’s mass imperfections have enough detail to fill a history class, and yet are broad enough to apply to the flaws of several societies centuries later. Gulliver’s Travels is not my favorite, but it’s a work of genius everyone should get to know.

Up next is Don Quixote! I’m enjoying it so far and I’m excited to write about it.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

The Diary of Anne Frank

Hello again, class.

This isn’t a review or a critique of Anne Frank’s Diary—that’s not something I would consider appropriate for a book like this. The private journal entries of a teenager are a certain kind of sacred. There are parts about her Diary I don’t like, but they are a part of Anne Frank’s tragically cut-short life and deserve to be cherished.

The reason a book like this is published is not for something like literary merit or artistic value (though, miraculously, it has both anyway). The reason a book like this is published is to imprint the tragedies of history into the minds of as many people as possible, and to cherish the memory of a collective and personal loss. That also happens to be why it makes the list of 50 books to read before you die—not for the value of its content or structure, but for its universal need for recognition.

There is very little of the major story within the Diary, because that story happens mostly before and after Anne Frank’s writings—the text itself fills in the details of a story that’s already in place. I’m not taking any chances here—since we live in a world of Neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, and “fake news,” I’m going to recap the moments in history that The Diary of Anne Frank is a concrete part of.

Anne’s story is about a Jewish family that goes into hiding because of the Nazi regime, a radical political party, spreading from Germany. The Nazis declared that Jewish people were responsible for German failures in WWI and were an inferior race, leading to the hunt for and capture of Jewish people. What started as a political movement became the systematic racial genocide known today as the Holocaust.

Otto Frank, Anne’s father (1968)

The Frank family hid in a small set of rooms behind a bookcase in a warehouse, along with four other individuals. They hid there successfully for two years, but before the end of WWII, the Franks were captured and sent to concentration camps. All but Anne’s father Otto died in these camps, and after regaining his freedom, he found the contents of his daughter’s diary. He decided to have the contents published.

The book serves as a reminder of the tragedy of the Holocaust and the very human lives lost to history, despite the inhumanity with which those lives were portrayed by the Nazi party.

Which brings us to the Diary. Anne gets the blank diary as a birthday present in 1942, and she begins writing her everyday thoughts and feelings. Not long after, the family goes into hiding—most of her writings are various forms of cabin fever from the perspective of a teenager, which is equal parts boring, frightening, and inspiring. Anne is an amazing writer and an insightful (though never unbiased) person. She seems to always write with a purpose and represents childhood and youth in her own way. Even when the entry is dull, the writing is not.

I review her writing (like I said I wouldn’t earlier) because it was purposefully well-written. She writes about being a writer and about a future in journalism, and the Diary has stood the test of time partly because she wrote so well. This diary was her chance to practice her craft, and her craft is worth reviewing. She writes about her feuds with those hiding with her, her desires for romance, her thoughts on humanity, her daily routine, and her fears and doubts. Reading her diary is watching her transform over the course of two years in hiding.

And then the Diary ends, unceremoniously. The inhabitants of the “Secret Annexe” (as it’s known in English) were captured in 1944, and the writings of a young girl were ignored and left behind. The nature of the book’s ending forces a return to the historical facts of the end of Anne’s life. You’re reading it knowing that eventually, she will die—and then the book ends as incompletely as her life. The ending reshapes the Diary back into a historical artifact, along with the reports of her life in the concentration camp and the details known of her death.

The Diary itself doesn’t tell the story of Anne’s life as much as it reflects the vignettes that make up her experience—that of a teenager in hiding (which is special enough). But the statistics of her life and death, while telling a story, are heartless. Anne’s humanity is more alive in her own writing, which gives a voice to the millions of victims of the Holocaust that could only tell stories with the statistics of their lives and deaths. The picture on the cover of The Diary of Anne Frank becomes the face of this period in history.

And as important as that is, it tends to limit all that the Diary can be. The reason to pick up the Diary and start reading is because it represents one of the darkest moments in human history, and the book itself has a tendency to belong to that part of history. But it isn’t as dark as that—this book is one of the bright spots in an era of horror. The reason to continue reading it, once you’ve picked it up, isn’t to remember the Holocaust or the death of a child. The reason to continue reading it is to witness the unabridged beauty of a young girl’s voice.

The time I have put in to reading these books and writing these posts can feel unnecessary at times. Some of the books I’ve trudged through have felt like a bit of a waste. But The Diary of Anne Frank is one of those that restored me—I read it once in seventh grade, and it left very little impact at the time, so I’ve been willing to chalk it up as nothing more than an important piece of history. But reading it again helped me realize what I missed, and how important was. I’m happy I read it, and I’m happier I read it a second time.

Next up, I’m jumping backwards to read Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. I’ve always liked the story for exactly what it is, even if it was never that special to me, but its effects can be seen everywhere in our society today. I’m excited about diving into it again.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

The Bell Jar

Good morning class.

If The Bell Jar is any indication as to what Sylvia Plath’s life was like, she was surrounded by tragedy. She wasn’t a typical tortured artist, if there is such a thing—I imagine that her art would have thrived fantastically without her mental illness. As it is, I believe her art thrived in spite of her troubled mind, not because of it. Even in my own limited experience with mental illness, I’ve never seen psychological turmoil as a gateway to impactful creativity . . . I only see it as a hindrance.

That might be reason enough to read The Bell Jar, which subverts misconceptions about mental illness, women, and the American dream without hesitation. Plath holds nothing back, and it’s painful, powerful reading.

The story follows Esther Greenwood, a young woman with a bright future who begins to suffer from depression. At first it’s mild—inconvenient distresses that affect her life here and there—but it develops into suicidal thoughts and actions. One almost-forgettable moment stands out to me: she sleeps in one morning, innocently enough, because she feels like there’s nothing to look forward to if she gets up. The light from the window shines in, but she buries herself in her sheets and under her pillow, back into the darkness. It’s subtle, but it’s a clear sign of her illness affecting her every moment.

After a suicide attempt, Esther is committed to an institution, where she goes through medication and shock therapy. She describes her condition as being trapped under a bell jar, breathing in the same toxic air every moment of every day, no matter where she is or who she’s with—the bell jar is always there.

The extra layer of her struggle is being a woman in 1950’s America. She goes on dates with men of differing levels of ingrained misogyny. She sees other women around her as reflections of her two extreme options—the perfect do-good lady and the rule-breaker—and only she seems to belong in between. Several people, including her mother, pressure her towards finding a man, settling down, beginning a family . . . and everyone cautions her against sex before marriage, despite the obvious double standard. Esther’s life seems to be one hardship after another, and the 1950’s do her no favors.

Author Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is not light reading. Several times, over multiple chapters, Esther does more than consider suicide in a passing thought. She analyzes the best way to kill herself, and goes through the motions before being interrupted or facing an insurmountable obstacle. At one point, she remarks that her body has “little tricks” that keep her from killing herself, like an internal instinct she has no say over—but if she had the whole say, she’d be dead already. When she actually conquers this instinct, the suicide attempt portrayed on the page is simple and disturbing.

But as graphic as The Bell Jar can be, that’s not the reason to read it—the reason to read it is because of what Plath gets right in the details. The subtleties of depression are portrayed with honesty, and with no grand presentation. To read The Bell Jar is to get a nuanced depiction of a troubled mind.

Next up, I’m reading The Diary of Anne Frank—similarly not-light reading. But I’m excited because I know that it’s no portrayal; her diary, her actual thoughts, convey her life as a young woman in a strange kind of captivity. Her diary did as much for understanding young women as The Bell Jar did, if not more. It’s also not a graphic portrayal of a tragedy; it’s the ups and downs of her life, come as they may, and it’s even more honest than The Bell Jar could hope to be.

But more on that next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

Anna Karenina

Hello again, class.

The first thing you notice about Anna Karenina is how long it is. Hopefully, the second thing you notice is how short the chapters are—all of them, two or three pages a pop. It’s really easy to read a chapter a day, and most chapters pick up in the exact spot where you left off last—that’s why, for the past 15 books I’ve written about for this blog, I’ve been reading Anna Karenina on the side. It’s hardly made a dent in my time, even though it took several months to read.

I’ve heard that Anna Karenina is the best novel ever written. Though my vote for that spot is still Ulysses, I can see why Tolstoy’s novel is preferable—Anna Karenina uses a large cast of characters and their diverse inner thoughts to tell the kind of story you can’t look away from, where passion leads to terrible decisions and societal systems punish everyone, without regard to right or wrong. For that, Anna Karenina makes the list of books to read before you die.

Actress Greta Garbo as Anna in one of the several movie adaptations of Anna Karenina.

The novel follows two major stories that intersect and branch out from each other. One story is focused on Anna, a married woman who falls in love with another man and begins an affair, setting in motion the events of the novel. The other story focuses on the landowner Konstantin Levin and his relationship and eventual marriage with the noble Katerina (Kitty). It’s almost like reading two different novels, except for the moments when one story affects the other.

In Anna’s story, her life falls apart almost immediately—once she meets Alexis Vronsky, the man who becomes her lover, her marriage collapses like wet paper. Her attachments to her extended family, her love for her son, her standing in Russian society . . . all are kindling for the fire that consumes her life. Levin’s story is more traditional—he pines for Kitty, learns to live without her, happily regains his relationship with her, and, once married to her, begins the life expected of a husband. But the subtleties of his story reveal contradictions ingrained in marital expectations.

If the entire novel could be boiled down into one thought, that’s it: Anna Karenina is about the flaws of marriage, and in other systems that society puts so much importance on. More than anything, Tolstoy seems determined to point out how complicated and convoluted the ideas and expectations of marriage are, and to condemn it as part of the problem.

Author Leo Tolstoy

The novel is praised for realism, but be warned: I don’t mean present day realism, I mean 1800’s realism (which means that Tolstoy doesn’t linger on the gory details, but they’re still there). Anna Karenina has that same quality that Modernism abides by—the need to break down traditions and widely held values for the sake of shifty truths. Tolstoy does this in a way that shows off every character and their uniquely flawed perspectives, warts and all. No one character has a complete picture of the events, so it’s up to the reader to decide what the truth is, despite any one character’s beliefs or morals.

Tolstoy’s determination makes Anna Karenina challenging and important. It doesn’t hold back anything—that’s the kind of realism it brands itself with, which works to the novel’s credit.

Next up, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Of what I’ve read so far, there could be several comparisons between the protagonist Esther and Tolstoy’s Anna—I can’t share more detail without spoiling either novel, but suffice it to say that mental illness in women is misrepresented in most literature, and that what Tolstoy didn’t get right in Anna Karenina is sure to be corrected by Plath’s personal experience. I don’t look forward to a happy ending with The Bell Jar. And that’s okay.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

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