50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Harper Lee

Missing From the List: In Cold Blood

Hello again, class.

Last week, I talked about Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which for over 50 years was the only novel she’d published. It’s fitting, then, to talk this week about the other novel she worked on with friend and author Truman Capote. Though she isn’t credited as an author, she had a significant hand in creating In Cold Blood, a non-fiction novel about the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. It’s an amazing novel that, I think, should make the list of books to read before you die.

Capote and Lee went researching after the murders were committed to tell the story: Herbert and Bonnie Clutter, and their two youngest children Nancy and Kenyon, were killed on November 15, 1959 by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The novel follows the murderers, the victims, and the rest of Holcomb leading up to and following the crime.

This isn’t simply a review of the facts, however; just like Lee, Capote has a knack for beautiful writing, and that’s partly why it should make the list. The expressive detail used in writing the book transforms a crime into a story—one that delves deep into the psychosis of criminals and the darkest elements of human nature. Like the best of the based-on-a-true-story genre, In Cold Blood takes the interesting, the mundane, and the twisted events surrounding this mid-century mass murder and makes prose.

In Cold Blood is also one of the first novels of its kind: creative nonfiction. Capote isn’t the first writer ever to write facts of a crime in a creative way, but he may be the first to do it in novel form. The nonfiction novel is unequal parts journalism, invented dialogue, history, and entertainment—real events told in both fictional and factual ways, which Capote had done better than anyone before.

Author Truman Capote

In Cold Blood is also criticized for this core concept—the reputation and financial success of both Capote and his novel stem from a real tragedy, which he used for the sake of art and his own personal gain. It says a lot about people who read the novel, too; how much are we glorifying violence or celebrating crime by buying his book, praising its achievements, etc.? The novel reveals the darker side of human nature not just from within the story, but from its margins as well.

That’s exactly why In Cold Blood should be read and studied: it’s culturally, psychologically, and artistically significant to our time. On the surface, it is a well-written and enjoyable crime drama. But underneath that is a lens that shows how far humanity is willing to go for fame, money, or even a good story. Underneath that still is a rather unnerving mirror.

Speaking of the darker side to human nature, I’m halfway through Lord of the Flies, and those children are terrifying. There are plenty of reasons that novel made the list . . .

But more on that next time; thanks for making it to class!

Prof. Jeffrey

To Kill a Mockingbird

Good morning, class.

I am officially halfway through the list! And To Kill a Mockingbird is an incredible book to cherish the milestone.

Written by Harper Lee and published in 1960, in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement, To Kill a Mockingbird is a racially-charged courtroom drama taking place in a small Alabama town. Scout Finch tells the story of her childhood in the mid-1930s, as her single father Atticus defends a black man charged with the rape of a young white woman. Through Scout, we see the intricacies of Maycomb, Alabama—its strange population, funny traditions, overbearing weather, and painful secrets.

I can’t count all of the reasons To Kill a Mockingbird made the list of books to read before you die. First of all, Harper Lee’s writing is amazing—it rises and falls like the musical twang of Southern culture. The narrative can fool you into thinking it’s random, but it is beautifully structured. Every word is in keeping with the story, the location, the characters . . . the novel feels divine.

Scout and her older brother Jem experience the town of Maycomb as children, which proves both funny and heartbreaking. Their innocence gives them the full spectrum of emotion when it comes to misunderstanding the world of Maycomb—tradition baffles them, racism makes them weep, and adults are the oddest creatures imaginable. Scout in particular has trouble with the entire idea of becoming a “lady,” preferring her overalls and the simpler company of boys to the overly complicated world of tea-time conversation—to hilarious results.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

But they would be ordinary children without Atticus. While Lee’s newest novel Go Set a Watchman might show a darker version of the character, this Atticus Finch is one of the greatest literary heroes ever written. His moral compass and passion for social justice in the South is combined with his understanding for children and his empathy for victims. Scout and Jem would follow Atticus to the ends of the Earth if he’d let them—he spends most of the novel teaching them respect, explaining injustice, comforting their very real fears, and guiding their moral development, despite opposition he faces at every turn.

The plot is mostly driven by the trial of Tom Robinson, the man accused of rape. Atticus takes the case to try and make change in their town, and realistically, he is met with both opposition and support, temporarily upsetting the fragile dynamics of Maycomb. At one point Atticus compares the case to the Civil War—but, as he explains, “‘This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends.'”

The trial is viewed from Scout’s perspective, but in little ways, Lee helps Scout see the events from the perspective of the black population in Maycomb—for example, as the kids sneak into the trial, they arrive in the segregated black seating area, where most of Atticus’ supporters sit. A similar scene occurs when Scout and Jem are invited to a black church, and for the first time they experience a new culture from across the train tracks. I think it’s safe to say that this novel is written mostly to a white audience, but for a clear reason—Lee writes to those with the power and privilege to make change, who choose to wait for justice to come instead of act. Slowly, through the novel, it feels like every character either fulfills or rejects Lee’s demand for justice.

Author Harper Lee with friend and author Truman Capote

That being said, Tom Robinson’s trial takes up only some of the action—it’s almost a secondary plot. The children spend most of their imagination and conversation on Boo Radley, the mysterious, legendary ghost-like figure that inhabits a house down the street. Scout and Jem also spend their summertime with Dill, a boy based on Harper Lee’s real-life friend, fellow author Truman Capote. During the rest of the year, school-time politics take up their day, including condemnable teachers and bullies with racial slurs all within a complicated and questionable Alabama school system. To Scout and Jem, Maycomb is their entire world.

It all bends towards Lee’s message, which is as simple (and yet, as complex) as the novel in full. Things like racism and hatred are hidden in the confines of the heart . . . possibly in the hearts of all people, everywhere. With enough steam to back them, things like racism and hatred have the power to bust out and destroy lives. To destroy a life—or in the words of the novel, to kill a mockingbird, which does nothing but make music—is a sin. 

And that’s book #25! Next up is Lord of the Flies by William Golding—like To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s one of those books that everyone else read in high school, but somehow I never did. Therefore, I’ve heard only bad things about it, and I’m ready for it to redeem its bad reputation from the scourge of high school students.

Until then, remember: it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘Atticus, he was real nice. . . .’

‘Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.'”

—from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“‘The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.’

Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. ‘There’s nothing more sickening to me that a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves—it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in you children’s time.'”

—from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“‘Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.'”

—from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

“Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow—anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

—from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Jane Eyre

Good morning, class.

On April 23, 2006, the U.K. and Ireland celebrated World Book Day—a charity event focused on encouraging children to read—by making a list of the top 10 happy endings of all time (link courtesy of The Free Online Library). The top 5 are all on the 50-books list:

5. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The only one I haven’t read is Rebecca (blog post pending for both Rebecca and To Kill A Mockingbird), but I’m willing to bet something about that happy ending—there are absolutely no promises about a happy beginning or a happy middle. That’s the case with the other four novels, perhaps especially with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles as Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre (1943)

Jane Eyre’s childhood is full of abuse: she is the unloved adopted orphan of her home, attacked, terrorized, defamed, and ultimately cast aside by her family. She falls back on her resolve and determination, which may get her into trouble, but never makes her sacrifice who she is.

As she grows up and leaves school, she finds a job caring for the daughter of a rich man, Mr. Edward Rochester. Jane and Mr. Rochester discover their love for each other—but, of course, there are complications that threaten the future of the relationship. For what it’s worth, as we already know, there’s a happy ending.

Jane Eyre isn’t simply about a romance—its focus on class and gender issues help it stand out, much like Pride and Prejudice a few decades earlier. I might argue that Pride and Prejudice carries wit and wordplay, thanks to Jane Austen’s style, but it’s only an interesting comparison.

Author Charlotte Brontë

However, there is something Jane Eyre has which Pride and Prejudice lacks . . . something I did not at all expect—horror. The mansion where Jane cares for Mr. Rochester’s daughter is, for lack of a better word, haunted. Sudden fires threaten to burn the place down, and eerie laughter can be heard through the halls at random times. The secrets of Mr. Rochester’s past endanger the lives of his staff and his daughter, giving the novel a sense of urgency, foreboding, and distrust—even in the happiest of scenes.

From a feminist standpoint, I think the idea is that there’s a particular horror for women trapped in social conventions designed by men. Jane seems to live her life entirely as a rebel, if only for the sake of remaining good and true to herself. But this is Victorian England—there are consequences when you choose to unreservedly be yourself. The consequences for Jane have something of a supernatural flair, making the novel that much more interesting. (The same Gothic influences appear in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Charlotte’s sister—blog post pending.)

But, Gothic influences aside, what makes this story great is Jane herself. She is an excellent heroine, knowing and understanding who she is and what she deserves. She faces the consequences of her actions, refuses to let her emotions cloud her judgement, and defends her body, spirit, and worth in the face of anyone who hurts her. Even when it costs her everything, she does what any person is supposed to do—she respects herself.

This may make her sound too fierce, or even too heartless to develop relationships with others, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Jane is also compassionate, grateful, and caring to everyone. Her childhood hardships could have hardened her, but instead, they made her more empathetic and kind; not many others could boast the same. Jane is the epitome of a good person in charge of their destiny, which is a rare find.

It’s been a while since I enjoyed something as much as Jane Eyre (besides Ulysses, that is). It is a really good story, and at the end of the day, that is the best thing a novel can offer.

My next book is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have read it before, so I already know what I’m getting into—a really good story.

More on that next time!

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Great Women of Literature

Good morning, class.

It’s National Women’s History Month, and as usual, I’m celebrating through literature! Out of the many, I’ve picked my favorite female authors and poets who have changed the game (and just to be clear, it may be a national holiday, but my picks are global).

These are in no order, and I’ve included their most notable works (and links to previous blog posts, if you want to hear more of my ramblings . . . enter at your own risk).

  1. Jane Austen: Pride and PrejudiceSense and SensibilityEmmaPersuasion
  2. J. K. Rowling: The Harry Potter Series
  3. Harper LeeTo Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman
  4. S. E. HintonThe Outsiders
  5. Lois LowryThe Giver and Number the Stars
  6. The Brontë SistersJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  7. Alice WalkerThe Color Purple
  8. Emily Dickinson: various poetry
  9. Maya AngelouI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and various poetry
  10. Sylvia PlathThe Bell Jar and various poetry
  11. Claudia RankineCitizen: An American Lyric
  12. Mary ShelleyFrankenstein
  13. Elizabeth Bishop: various poetry
  14. Phillis Wheatley: various poetry
  15. Mary WollstonecraftA Vindication of the Rights of Women
  16. Virginia WoolfMrs. DallowayTo the Lighthouse, and A Room of One’s Own
  17. Aphra BehnOroonoko: or, the Royal Slave

We all know that this is the tip of the iceberg . . . none of these women were stopped by the male-dominated-ness of the world of literature, and neither were millions of others. So, small as it may be, consider this post an act of feminism.

Happy National Women’s History Month!

Prof. Jeffrey