50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Africa

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

A Bend in the River

Another book finished! Welcome back, class.

V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River is a difficult novel. Stephen King once wrote that a person can write about anything, as long as they tell the truth (from his book On Writing). I could go out on a limb and say that every author on the 50-books list has done this—they’ve told their own truths. With A Bend in the River, Naipaul has told his ugly truths, and they were difficult to read—truths about racism, lost souls in postcolonial Africa, disregarded marriages, violence, and the decay of humanity.


The main character, Salim, is a shopkeeper in a small town on a central African river. He witnesses the chaos of an unnamed country around him: a rebellion against the old order, the establishment of a new order and a new leader, and its subsequent corruption and collapse. Meanwhile, Salim rotates through relationships with a series of characters, including an old family servant (whose loyalty decays like the country around them), a woman with whom he begins an abusive affair, and the son of one of his customers who rises through the country’s political ranks.

The characters all seem to be parts of a moving (or, rather, dying) machine. Sometimes, when a story does this well, the story and characters are given more meaning (I can’t say it enough—Ulysses is my favorite example of this). But A Bend in the River is more about meaninglessness . . . about being trapped in a dying system, unable to fix it and unable to escape. This is a place where hope becomes bitterness, narrated by a cynical man.


Salim’s cynical tone is the story’s greatest weakness. If it isn’t clear already, I didn’t enjoy reading the novel, and it’s mostly because of the philosophies and opinions of an unlikable narrator. Salim looks down on any dark-skinned people and acts violently towards the married woman he sleeps with. He seems to view this African country as better off under rule from Europe, as opposed to being allowed to exist on its own. He sounds always above everyone in his life.

At this point, I would usually claim that the narrator is unreliable, and that the author uses the narrator as an extra form of commentary. Even if that’s true, the artistic element is too subtle to be of any benefit. It’s hard to forgive any of these qualities because there’s no catch, no twist . . . Naipaul does nothing to show that he doesn’t mirror the negative qualities of his character, which makes me question any of the truths Naipaul claims to support.


And yet, for all that disgusts me, the tone is also the novel’s greatest strength. With Naipaul’s cynicism comes careful, brilliant writing. The content may be bleak, but the way it’s portrayed is mesmerizing, and it never shows any narrative cracks. If you need a reason to read it, it’s because A Bend in the River is one of those rare pieces of excellent writing—each word fits like a puzzle piece to a grand and beautiful image.

In the same way, I could compare it to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (which I’ve written about here), and lots of critics have compared it to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (blog post pending). If only the story didn’t feel so rotten at the core, I could see A Bend in the River being one of my favorite novels ever written.


Next, I’m reading The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. I’m happy to put A Bend in the River behind me.

I’ve noticed that I have a tolerance for novels I don’t like (at least well-written novels I don’t like). I think that means that for any book, the plot can involve anything and the characters can do anything, and as long as the author knows what makes a story worth telling, I can read it. Some people can’t do the same—an unlikable character or a goofy plot makes them put a book down in a heartbeat.

Some books help you figure out what kind of reader you actually are. They’re worth something for that, even if you don’t enjoy the experience.

On that note, I’ll see you next week.

Prof. Jeffrey