50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Childhood

Missing From the List: Peter Pan

Welcome back, class.

Peter Pan seems accidentally special—like it struck the right cord with its audience and they never let it go. It’s inventive and ageless, but it’s also simple. It’s for children, written by a man that seemed never to grow up (and I mean that only in a good way), so there’s a reason it’s so magical. Reading it as an adult, I picked up on the fact that Peter Pan wasn’t meant for me at all—it only clued me in on the fact that, being a grown-up, my innocence was already gone. The rest of its efforts were directed towards its childhood audience.

Compare Peter Pan to a good Pixar movie, for example—they are family movies, and while they are kid-oriented, they are as much for the parents as they are for the kids. The Incredibles is as much a story about the children with superpowers as it is about the two superhero parents, in a struggling marriage and trying to keep their family together. Inside Out is the story of 5 different characters—emotions—making developmental decisions on behalf of a young girl, and I promise you that’s more for the parents’ benefit than for the kids’.

But that’s not Peter Pan—just like The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, which was written by a teenager for teenagers, Peter Pan is about children and, in its way, written by a man that might as well have been a child. That’s why it should have made the list of books everyone should read before they die.


A statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, which served as inspiration for J. M. Barrie as he wrote the story.

Growing up, I knew the story of Peter Pan from its adaptations—the animated Disney film was familiar, and a few spin-off/prequel books pulled a Wicked and made Captain Hook the focus. But my favorite adaptation is the 2003 movie, staring Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan and Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook. By staying more faithful to J. M. Barrie’s original story, it was a darker take—to my surprise, the original novel is darker than it appears.

For one thing, Peter himself is everything a child can be when unsupervised. He is innocent, impulsive, and (to use the novel’s exact word) heartless. There’s something unnatural, even monstrous, about this boy that never grows up—we don’t really get to the point that we’re supposed to fear him, but being his friend is not something you’d want. Maybe that’s the adult in me talking . . . who’s to say?

Then there’s Wendy Darling and her two siblings, John and Michael, who escape with Peter impulsively to fly to Never Never Land, where they might get the chance to remain children forever. They meet Peter’s gang of Lost Boys (a nicer crew than the Lord of the Flies boys, but same principle); they see mermaids, fairies, Indians (yes, this is fairly racist and does not age well); and they fight pirates, specifically the maddeningly evil Captain Hook, who hates Peter with a burning passion. Adventure ensues.


Author J. M. Barrie

I’ve compared Peter Pan to The Wind in the Willows before—both are simple stories, meant specifically for children, as opposed to stories like Alice in Wonderland. Lots of children’s stories are allegory and symbolism, meant to convey deeper meanings for the people that look for them. Alice in Wonderland makes a point to criticize society through methods specifically for adults to understand, unbeknownst to the children enjoying the fantasy. While Peter Pan certainly has its moments of meaning—powerful, moving moments—they aren’t buried in literary codes. The amazing things about Peter Pan are on the surface, not between the lines.

And one of the things that makes Peter Pan so amazing is Never Land itself—it’s Disney World. It’s an imaginary theme park, complete with every fantasy creature and villain a typical child wants. Wonderland and Oz are mighty scary at times, but Never Land is a dream come true. Even the pirates and the danger they pose are fun and exciting. Never Land is imagination, and Peter Pan is fantasy come true—that’s why it should have made the list.


I’m just finishing The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope—it may be from the same era and even location as Peter Pan, but they are both about as far apart as The Lord of the Rings and The Lord of the Flies. So I’ll save my discussion for next time. 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

“Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”

—from Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Wind in the Willows

Hello again, class.

The Wind in the Willows is one of the most pleasant stories I’ve read in a long time. It’s short and entertaining, full of talking animals on crazy adventures, and never shallow enough to lose suspension of disbelief. More importantly, it’s a children’s story—easily what a parent would read to their children every night, which means unlike most novels on the 50-books list, this actually is something everyone should (and could) read.


The story follows four animal characters, who each live on or around a great river: the Mole, the Water Rat, the Toad, and the Badger. Their stories intersect mildly, as the Mole adventurously abandons his home or the Toad tries desperately to return to his own, and the characters gather together at the end to wrap up the plot. It’s funny and sweet.

Author Kenneth Grahame

I don’t think the story and characters would be all that special, though, if it wasn’t for Kenneth Grahame’s writing. He adapted the bedtime stories he would tell his son into this novel, and because of that, he made it meaningful. Grahame balanced the animal-instinct for adventure with the desire for the comforts of home; he harnessed the distinctions between creatures and embraced those differences; and he portrayed the simple elements of nature with the same depth and complexity as the world of humanity can be perceived—at least by a child. His care for this story made it beautiful, and that’s why it makes the list.

Everything seems to have a dream-like quality as well, and that’s no mistake—the word “dream” is used obnoxiously often. Apart from a few main story arcs, most of the chapters feel like individual short stories, jumping between random plot points like a dream would. The talking animals, the exciting adventures, the beautifully comforting language . . . The Wind in the Willows is a childhood dream brought to life.


I do still question it’s inclusion on the list. The excellent writing and the portrayal of a child’s fantasy dreamworld is already on the list—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s classic is also much more popular and more fantasy-heavy than The Wind in the Willows, so why include Grahame’s novel at all? If we needed another children’s fantasy, we could have also included The Hobbit or Peter Pan . . . why The Wind in the Willows?

I don’t have much of an answer. It’s not that The Wind in the Willows is bad, but there are plenty of books missing from this list. Any one of them could have replaced this one. In any case, this would only be a concern if we were ranking the books on this list, and since that’s not what the list is about, I encourage you all to give this story a go.


I’m reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird next—for my book #25! Halfway there! And there’s no better book to wrap up the first half of my blog with.

Until next time!

Prof. Jeffrey

The Catcher in the Rye

Catcher in the Rye (1951) Book Cover

The Catcher in the Rye (1951): Book Cover

Hello again, class.

Back when I wrote about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I talked about children being mistreated and not fitting in with Victorian England’s rules. Wonderland is a metaphor for the strangeness of adulthood; Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is less figurative and more realistic, but it makes a similar claim for adulthood. The real tragedy of The Catcher in the Rye is not that children are mistreated; it’s that they are ignored.

Let’s look more closely…


The hero of the hour is Holden Caulfield (officially one of my least favorite names), a sixteen year-old kicked out of yet another prep-school for failing every class but English. Over the course of three days, Holden bails from his dorm and takes a strange journey around New York, involving everything from nuns and cab drivers to prostitutes and pimps, eventually finding his way home.

Unlike in Alice, whose helpful narrator helps explain Alice’s predicament, Holden is always speaking directly to us. As a sixteen year-old, he is explicit with language and content, but there are also things Holden deliberately leaves out. He is trapped in his own head, and he isn’t aware of what’s happening to his psyche. That means this book is meant to be deciphered (puzzles!!).

First Lines and an Illustration

The Catcher in the Rye: First Lines and an Illustration

Speaking of what was meant to happen, Salinger’s intentions were especially interesting. This book was written for adults, as a way of revealing the emotions and thoughts of children that society ignores. This makes Holden’s age a careful choice—he is beyond childhood innocence, but he shuns maturity and adulthood, so he is caught in the middle. As a result, Catcher has become an inspiration for teenagers in rebellion; Holden’s violent thoughts, potent imagination, and social aversion became rallying cries for teenagers that feel ignored, want to be left alone, and hate the established order of the world (as stereotypical these attributes sound, part of Salinger’s point is that rebellious teenagers are not a stereotype).

Salinger’s intentions were also tragically misunderstood in the resulting attacks on President Ronald Reagan and John Lennon. I haven’t been able to research the full extent of these stories, but both attacks are said to be inspired by The Catcher in the Rye. For an extra frightening factor, the movie Chapter 27 is a fictionalized account of the assassination of John Lennon, named for the 26 chapters in Salinger’s novel.


But in the end, these external facts have clouded the importance of the novel itself. I was reading it for the first time and expected some kind of violent, tragic end, especially with all of the references to his own insanity and the recurrence of his red hunting hat as a symbol. Fortunately, the story is not so predictable. If you read it yourself, I recommend leaving an open mind about what kind of person Holden is—don’t just sympathize with his isolation, but empathize with his quest.

And yes, there is a quest—even if its not on the surface. Holden’s quest is about happiness. No matter what physically happens to him, he is searching for something to take comfort in…something to give him hope and peace. Underneath Holden’s chaotic odyssey is a relatable emotional journey.


I’d like to hear from you: what were your own thoughts on Catcher in the Rye? It’s gone from banned reading to studied carefully in high school classes, so I look forward to the spectrum of thoughts here.

Next up, I’m reading The Grapes of Wrath, another kind of odyssey. I hated it in high school, but I look forward to giving it another chance. Some things can’t be enjoyed in high school.

Until next week,

Prof. Jeffrey

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all—I’m not saying that—but they’re also touchy as hell.”

–from The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger