50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Grief

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

“‘There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die . . . that we may appreciate the enjoyments of life.

Live, then, and be happy . . . and never forget, that until the day when God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words,—“Wait and hope.”‘”

—from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

“Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”

—from Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

A Christmas Carol

Merry Christmas, class!

Celebrate with me—I’ve made it through four months, 10 books, and 50 posts! The finish line may not be exactly close, but I must profess (haha) that I’m having fun. I hope you are as well, students.

A Christmas Carol is one of those classics that everyone sort of knows. Charles Dickens’ novel helped define modern Christmas traditions in Western cultures, and the story and characters are instantly recognizable—especially Ebenezer Scrooge, the 19th Century Grinch who loves money and hates people.

Ebenezer Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost

The fantasy elements—Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, as well as Marley’s Ghost—are grounded by religious themes and societal struggles. Dickens isn’t afraid to get dark—he portrays hunger, poverty, disability, grief, and greed in the Christmas season. A Christmas Carol doesn’t let the joy of Christmas diminish the needs of society, but uses Christmas to represent joy with societal needs in mind…all while redeeming the grumpy old Scrooge.

Scrooge isn’t as much of a “scrooge” as society makes him—he isn’t a stereotype. For one thing, it’s clear from the beginning why he dislikes Christmas: his friend and business partner Marley died at Christmas-time several years ago. He used to enjoy Christmas, but by the beginning of the story, Christmas is nothing but hardship for him, and he has no patience for generosity.

Generosity just happens to be his problem—he plays by the rules of money and capitalism, and giving away money goes against the rules. If everyone fended for themselves, it would be a better world for him. In fact, he could have lived out his days that way, storing up his treasures on earth, had it not been for Marley’s Ghost.

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (2009)

The intrusive spirit does Scrooge a favor and shows him the true meanings of Christmas—love, family, friendship, giving, joy. Scrooge is shown what Christmas used to be, what Christmas could be if he doesn’t change, and what Christmas is to the people he claims to hate. Scrooge learns the lesson and is reborn, and (spoiler alert) finds a happy ending.

A Christmas Carol is a transparently humble story—it doesn’t claim to be anything more than what it is. It’s as short as it is humble, and it’s separated into staves (musical sections) rather than chapters, making it more “carol” than “novel.” Dickens’ writing style is particularly unique—long sentences that build up to important points, bleak form and bleak content, etc.—but it rarely sounds dull or dated. Reading the novel feels simultaneously familiar and fresh; it bursts at the seams with originality, but always resembles the ghost of a song we already know.

If you have time this holiday season, I recommend reading it. It’s a quick read and a timeless classic. In our time, when Christmas seems too rushed or commercialized, having fallen prey to money and capitalism, A Christmas Carol is a good way to remind us what this sacred time is really for.

I’ve already started my next read, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which is one of my favorites. Unlike A Christmas Carol, which lightly reminds readers of religious themes and topics, Life of Pi hits religious topics with full force. Post #51, here we come!

Until then, enjoy your holidays,

Prof. Jeffrey


A Portrait of William Shakespeare

A Portrait of William Shakespeare

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, class.

Hamlet is one of my favorites. It’s been pulled apart by experts for hundreds of years, and it can still be interpreted in new ways. But no matter what, it still remains a classic, untarnished by these interpretations. It stands the test of time, thanks to Shakespeare’s awesomeness.

On the surface, Hamlet is about a grieving prince trying to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle. This leads into a sweeping commentary on suicide, revenge, masculinity, insanity, parenthood, inaction, the afterlife, humanity, and ghosts, all at once. The discussions that spring from this story are limitless.

As much as I’d like to add to those discussions, I think it’s safer for me to stick to the story itself; I might otherwise begin writing a dissertation. That’s partly what makes Hamlet such a good work of literature—when one strips away the wide and varying interpretations, what’s left is a strong story. Shakespeare’s famous for a reason.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet after his son died at a young age. Hamlet’s journey, having lost his father, is from grief to peace, reflecting Shakespeare’s own grieving process. Hamlet spends most of the play deep in madness, revenge plots, conspiracy, and suicidal thoughts—but in the end, even as he faces death, he seems to have found an inner peace.

This journey is catharsis—the release of overflowing emotions—and it’s one of the oldest reasons why literature is important (we can thank Aristotle for that). Hamlet, like many great works of literature, art, and music, is therapeutic. It portrays grief and the path to peace, and reading it or viewing it, just like Shakespeare’s act of writing it, is a catalyst for the grieving process.


Poster for Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” (1996)

This is an important point for Shakespeare, because Hamlet is his longest play. The only movie version I know that’s portrayed the entire text is Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996), which clocks in at FOUR HOURS of screen time. Hamlet alone has more to say than any other Shakespearean character, with enough monologues to fill up the standard length of a play by himself. His journey through grief is long and painful.

The length of the play also reveals a foundational element for the character: the middle three acts of the play have Hamlet struggling to act on the wishes of his father’s ghost. He doubts himself, seeks evidence, kills the wrong man, pretends to be insane to throw people off, and monologues like there’s no tomorrow. I think this is about his grief as well; he loves his father more than he hates his uncle, and he resists the call to murdering his father’s killer because of the pain of his father’s death. The ghost wants his son’s anger, but Hamlet is more complicated than pure revenge will allow.

One passage that struck me reading it this time is in Act 1, Scene 2 (Hamlet’s introduction scene). Hamlet’s uncle calls his excessive grief “unmanly,” because he is still in mourning after the rest of the kingdom, even the king’s wife, has moved on. Hamlet has an air of femininity throughout the play, conventionally speaking, and this provides some context in regards to the questions about Shakespeare’s sexuality.

Hamlet is the hero, not in spite of his femininity but because of it. His “feminine” qualities make him who he is—a different kind of man, perfect for the scenarios provided in the play, and therefore our tragic hero. His “unmanly grief” isn’t weakness…it’s love.

David Tennant as Hamlet (2009)

David Tennant as Hamlet (2009)

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, so I encourage you to try Hamlet on your own. In fact, try any of the movie versions first; watching Hamlet is far more enjoyable than reading it. I know of five solid adaptations, featuring actors like Sir Laurence Olivier, David Tennant, Sir Patrick Stewart, Glenn Close, Ethan Hawke, and even Mel Gibson.

If none of those versions suit you, just watch The Lion King. Simba is Hamlet, Mufasa is the King, Scar is Hamlet’s uncle, Nala is Ophelia (with a happier ending), Timon and Pumbaa are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…the list goes on.

David Tennant as Hamlet and Sir Patrick Stewart as King Claudius (2009)

David Tennant as Hamlet and Sir Patrick Stewart as King Claudius (2009)

If you know Hamlet well enough and need even more existential crises, I recommend the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. It’s philosophically funny and expands on Shakespeare’s ideas in the best way possible.

It would seem that Hamlet is just as important for the works it has inspired.

Don’t forget your homework! Reply in the comments: If you’ve read Hamlet before, what’s your favorite part? Why do you like it? Or not like it?

Take a moment to celebrate with me…I’ve been professor-blogging for two months now, and I feel like it’s going well! Grades look good, so you must be learning something.  Keep up the good work, students.

I’m reading my next book, but it will take a while. Next week, I’ll talk about a book I’ve chosen not to reread—the Bible. I know what you’re thinking… “even you, Professor, could stand to reread the Bible.” As it turns out, I have been reading my Bible everyday, and I’m a few chapters away from a years-long goal of reading it cover to cover.  In fact, I’ve studied the Bible since the earliest memories of my childhood, since before I could even read. I even currently work at a church. How do you like them apples?

In any case, next week is gonna be a scream.

Prof. Jeffrey