50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Books

Off-Topic: Definitive Ranking of All 50 Books

Good morning, class.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: My Want-To-Read List

Happy almost-Halloween, class!

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord of the Rings

Welcome, students. I’ve finally finished reading all 1,000+ pages of The Lord of the Rings.

I am biased, in a way: I grew up watching The Lord of the Rings as movies, so I knew the story almost by heart by the time I sat down with the original material.  But there is so much that separates the original from the movies, not only in the medium, but in the mood and development of the story too.  It not only looks different; it feels different.

The trilogy has its problems, but it is outmatched by what Tolkien does right.  For example, Middle-Earth is astounding–the hobbits of the Shire, the mystical Elven-land of Rivendell, the forests of Lothlórien and Fangorn, the vast kingdom of the horse-land Rohan, the glorious realm of Gondor helmed by the white towers of Minas Tirith, and the dark and fiery Mordor.  Its scope is matched with depth; Tolkien creates dynamic cultures from the ground up, founded on his beautifully invented languages.

Gandalf the Wizard

Gandalf the Wizard

Tolkien’s characters are wonderful, and I’ve got three favorites–Gandalf, Gollum, and Sam.  Gandalf, a wizard, is the voice of wisdom; he is the story’s mind and moral compass.  Gandalf fights evil in many ways, but his chief method is through acts of love, and through the comfort of believing in the smaller things that tip the scales in times of war.  He is, quite possibly, the most quotable character.



Gollum is much more interesting to study–he has been torn apart by the dark magic of the One Ring, and the pieces of himself fight with each other.  He calls the ring “my precious,” an excellent metaphor for materialism and what it does to the soul.  He is the smallest of enemies, but he is dynamic, pitiable, terrifying, and integral to the quest of our characters.

Samwise Gamgee

Samwise Gamgee

And then there’s Sam.  Samwise Gamgee is the heart of the story, and easily the most cherished character.  He is Frodo’s servant and friend, and as Frodo dutifully bears the ring, Sam bears his master Frodo.  Amidst the terrifying obstacles they face, Sam is incredibly brave, refreshingly hopeful, and unquestionably hilarious.  He is also directly involved in every tearjerker moment, in both the books and the movies, and while the cost of their quest is greatest on Frodo, Sam’s place helps ground that cost back in the real world–in the hope that after such a journey, such a treasure as home can be regained.

The trilogy has flaws.  The most glaring issue is the fact that it has, approximately, four female characters.  Two of them are forgettable, one is an Elven queen (angelic beyond compare, so impossible to connect to), and the last is a warrior, who eventually gives up fighting for her kingdom when she finds true love.  Feminism does not abound here.

On a personal note, Tolkien also suffers when it comes to exposition.  The movies notably tighten the story, but the novel lags on in huge passages where Tolkien is simply trying to catch up with his characters’ tales, and it forces the reader to trudge through the narrative.  The story seems to date itself when it handles conspiracy and secrecy, but because I know the movies so well, it could just be that the big reveals didn’t feel like much.

The One Ring

The One Ring

These issues aside, the depth of the world and the everlasting themes are the reason to read The Lord of the Rings.  Environmentalism has its say on more than one occasion, most notably when the trees of Fangorn fight back against Saruman’s machine-like destruction of the forests.  The ring’s dark power is temptation–characters succumb to pride, vengeance, greed, and selfishness, which speaks to the power of things and the frailty of humankind.  Tales and songs act as meta-fiction, showing us that this is a great story as we read it–this is a kind of song, an epic journey for the ages, that helps us appreciate the stories we know and the stories we’re in.

Most importantly, we see a sprawling war hinge on the actions of a hobbit, the smallest of creatures in Middle-Earth, who has a greater strength than men twice his size: an inner strength, which is more powerful than an army of monsters.  Through the small things–acts of love and kindness, trust, bearing our everyday burdens–we can change the course of the future.

My reading of The Lord of the Rings is unconventional–the movies helped me understand the book.  I’d like to hear from others who just so happened to experience the opposite.

Your homework: if you read the story BEFORE watching the movies, take a minute to comment on what that experience was like!  Was Tolkien’s work difficult to read without the assistance of the movies?  Were you more critical of the movie adaptations than most?  What did you think of Tolkien’s writing–not just the plot and the characters, but also his voice, style, exposition?  Leave a comment below!  (And I don’t want to be blatant, but the more thorough your answers are, the better your grade will be.  I’m just saying.)

Up next, I’m reading the remarkably short novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.  I’m very excited about this–I’m a fan of Irish literature, but I’ve never read any of Wilde’s work.  All I know about Dorian Gray so far is his portrayal in the graphic-novel-based movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen…so, basically, I know his name is Dorian Gray.

Hopefully, I’ll know more next week.  See you then.

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Dismantling the “Book vs. Movie” Debate

Welcome back, class.

I’ve noticed that for the first three entries for this blog–Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Harry Potter series, and The Lord of the Rings (pending…I’ll finish reading it eventually, I promise)–each novel in question has a major film franchise.  In fact, the fame for most (if not all) of the books on the list comes from the film adaptations.  I’m not saying that the movies are responsible for their success, but I am saying that their mainstream popularity can be easily linked to their movie versions.

Take, for example, the Harry Potter series.  I grew up with both the books and the movies, so like most fans my age, I have strong opinions about each novel and each film.  Based on entertainment value alone, I would say I enjoyed the movies more when I was younger, and now I enjoy the books more.  The movies did a good job bringing the magic of the series to life, and the books tend to be subtler and less stylistic in their approach.

Other opinions on the series, even in this class, will differ vastly from mine–and that’s the case with every adaptation.  Some prefer the books more, and some prefer the movies.

But every so often, these two media are dragged into the arena by screaming fans and are forced to battle senselessly. The books, as the source material, win much more often than not, and the movies are beaten to a pulp, built back up by hardcore fans, and sent back into the arena for more needless violence.  And what’s worse–our culture encourages this barbarism!

Let me lay this out plainly for you, students, so that you know exactly what’s happening here: books and movies are different.  They are as different as paintings and sculptures.  They are as different as science and history.  They are as different as Earth and Mars.  They shouldn’t be so severely ranked in comparison with each other, because it belittles the work put in by the creators of each product (and if your goal is to belittle those artists, we have a different issue to discuss).

You, as a human being with rights to your feelings, can most certainly enjoy the book more than the movie, and vice versa.  Feelings are much more permitted in society today than they were hundreds of years ago, you’ll be surprised to know.  But when you start shouting about the book being better than the movie, you better know that I FEEL enraged at your unceremoniously preposterous ranking system.  There’s no need for that kind of hierarchy.

So when I read a book and watch its movie version, I know (and, now, you know as well) that it is eye-opening to compare the two and senseless to rank the two.  The book, being the countless hours of work by both a hungering author and those responsible for editing and publishing a collection scattered thoughts into a cohesive story, cannot be better or worse than the movie, being the large-scale production of one or more directors that carefully guide actors, script writers, set designers, composers, special effects producers, and numerous other artists through a narrative set to film; it is impossible in the universe we live in.  Update your book reports and movie reviews accordingly.

Instead of ranking books vs. movies, it might be a better use of your time to analyze and discuss the ways a book and a movie tell the same story, or how one might fail to tell such a story in comparison with the other.  For instance, instead of saying “Prisoner of Azkaban was much better as a book than as a movie” or, even worse, “the movie version was STUPID,” you could say “The third movie did a good job of capturing the mood of the book and it was a good change from the first two, but it was much harder to follow the story for viewers who hadn’t read the books; I prefer the book because it tells a better story.”  See what I did there?

On a lighter note, I am enjoying reading The Lord of the Rings and I like comparing it to the movie versions.  I grew up watching the movies, so reading the original story now is akin to watching the extended editions of the movies, years after the original release.  I’m learning more about characters and more about Middle-Earth, which is going to give me a deeper understanding of the movies and of the source material.  I’ll get into all of this next week, though.

Thanks for listening to my rant.  I hope you learned something.

Prof. Jeffrey