50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Hatred


Good morning, class.

I’ve made it to the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There are parts I like and parts I don’t like, but one thing continues to stand out to me: Frankenstein is considered by many as the birthplace of science fiction. The genre has a reputation for being male-dominated—as though Star Wars and Jurassic Park are only meant for men—and yet, science fiction seems to be established by a woman. It’s a reputation perpetuated by sexism and confounded by Frankenstein‘s very existence.

The blueprint of the story is well-known, even though the details have been undone and remade over two centuries of reinvention. An ordinary man, Victor Frankenstein, sets himself to the extraordinary task of creating life, and in a way, conquering death. He becomes a now-stereotypical mad scientist, unrivaled in determination and unthinking of consequences; and his creation is much more monstrous than he anticipated. The monster, sympathetic as he is, rampages through Frankenstein’s life until a devastating climax, and we readers are meant to learn our lesson: mindless ambition, even for the right reasons, can cause serious harm.

The original story is much more literary than it’s several reimaginings. It’s framed in a handful of narratives and allows for different perspectives on morality, fault, religion, and science. Most importantly, the monster himself is a fleshed-out character—thinking, learning, and speaking monologues on par with Frankenstein himself. It may not be realistic, but it’s the key to understanding who this creature is, what he wants, and why he acts the way he does.

The monster may be terrifying, but he is equally a victim of humanity’s abuse and hatred. It’s made very clear that the monster’s villainy exists because he has known nothing but misery—he was never loved, and that makes him as evil as he is. He is rejected and feared by all, and to defend himself, he quickly learns to fight back against those who mean him harm. He learns the ways of violence and revenge to survive, and the blame is traced back directly to his creator.

It’s a fantastic story, and a revolutionary concept. But it isn’t my taste—it drags on quite a bit, with Frankenstein’s inner turmoil egregiously taking up most of the story. The middle of the story—about 7 chapters—is told from the monster’s perspective, and while I appreciate the narrative need for this section, it’s just so tedious. I want the storytelling approach to be different, so it’s hard to enjoy the book, even with so much to like.

Author Mary Shelley

But after all this, there so much it does that redefines science fiction. My favorite interpretation of Frankenstein portrays Victor as a sexist (and knowing that Mary Shelley’s mother is Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, this holds up well). Victor’s approach to creating life removed any female presence, as though in his eyes, creating life should be a male enterprise. The resulting monster is one made without female influence, and it’s Victor’s manly actions that continue to antagonize the creature, the consequences of which are irreparable. With Frankenstein, Shelley defined sexism through a male lens (as a story told by a man) and she proved that the simple act of excluding women results in disaster.

It’s clear why Frankenstein makes the 50-books list. It’s Gothic literature at its core, and science fiction before science fiction existed. It’s a story that stood the test of time and continues to affect its genre. And no matter my taste, it is a good story—one worth reading at least once.

That’s 50 books! This blog is nearing its end, and I’ve got to more posts to write—my definitive ranking of all 50 books, from least favorite to favorite, and one final review of my experience as a whole. And that’ll be it!

Thanks for reading,

Prof. Jeffrey

“If the multitude of mankind knew of my existence, they would do as you do, and arm themselves for my destruction. Shall I not then hate them who abhor me? I will keep no terms with my enemies. I am miserable, and they shall share my wretchedness.”

—from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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

“—But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.

—What? says Alf.

—Love, says Bloom, I mean the opposite of hatred.”

—from Ulysses by James Joyce