50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Absurdity

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

Missing From the List: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Hello again, class.

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

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

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

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


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

The first book, titled The Bad Beginning (1999)

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Metamorphosis

Good morning, class.

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


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

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

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

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


Author Franz Kafka

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

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


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

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey