50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Hero

The Stranger

Good morning, class.

It’s hard to write about The Stranger because there’s so little of it. It’s not the shortest novel on the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, but it feels like it is—it’s like an extended short story, circling one major event in the center, building up to it and reacting to it. It’s the story of a man named Meursault, unworried and unambitious, who commits murder and goes to trial. There, he faces his own mortality and means to understand the meaninglessness of the universe.

Meursault has a philosophy of life that answers every problem that approaches him: nothing matters. His mother dies in the opening line of the novel—and nothing matters. His employer doesn’t see him as ambitious enough and dares him to care more about his job—but nothing matters. He is arrested for murder that he feels isn’t his fault—still, nothing matters. It’s more of a philosophy than a story; but then the philosophy and the story collide, and things get interesting. What about love? Romantic love, family, friendship? Does that matter? What about religion, afterlife, the soul—do those things matter? Does one’s own life matter? Meursault faces those questions with his philosophy like a knight faces a dragon with a sword—the drama of such a mundane, detached story comes in when his lifestyle of detachment is threatened by things that require passion, care, commitment . . . and whether or not Meursault upholds his beliefs is what makes him a philosophical hero.


I have some personal bias here—like with other books on the 50-books list that handle belief systems, the philosophy of this story conflicts with mine and makes it difficult for me to connect with it. It’s hard enough anyway to connect with The Stranger—it disregards and abandons connection. The belief that nothing matters is found not only in what’s being said, but also in how it’s being said. It’s a story that feels emotionless, and it means to strip away not only the things we’re supposed to care about, but also the act of caring at all. Long story short, it’s difficult to appreciate this story while reading it.

But to discuss it (especially in a classroom setting) opens up some of the most important questions people can ever ask. What does it mean to live as if nothing matters? What are the stories—or, more appropriately, lies—that we tell each other to convince ourselves to care? And the things that we care about—justice, family, God, money, comfort, morality, health, beauty . . . what if those things are simply shadows on a cave wall?

I don’t have answers to those questions, and I don’t even have all the questions. But if you read The Stranger honestly and witness this one man’s struggle with his state in the vast universe, I can bet you’ll start asking those questions yourself.


Author Albert Camus

It’s hard to tell this kind of story, so credit is due to the author, Albert Camus. It’s not the most exciting book—like I said, it’s less story, more philosophy—but Camus knows how to frame philosophy in the heart of his story. I’ve also read The Plague by Camus, and it asks similar unanswerable questions of existence and mortality, and tells a story worth reading. If anything, Camus made the list for a good reason.

Next up is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad—another one as morbid and thought-provoking as The Stranger, with a bit more story in it’s punch. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Welcome back, class.

From the start, I was comparing Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Both focus on characters with mental illness, as well as the concept of mental illness, while tackling loosely related problems like American culture, sexism, and the conflict between the individual and society. But that’s it. Beyond that, the books are as different as The Diary of Anne Frank and the Harry Potter Series.

And what makes them so different? Kesey’s novel is only about mental illness on the surface. There are clearly characters who are mentally ill, including the narrator, but that illness is simply the backdrop for a larger story—a story about oppression, anarchy, identity, and society. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest isn’t about curing those who are ill, but about freeing those who are enslaved. There are issues with that approach, but the story is good enough to rise above those issues.


First of all, the writing is SOLID. Everything about Kesey’s style is original, enjoyable, clever . . . it’s audible and graphic and is meant to immerse you into the vivid and uncomfortable world of a mental ward. On this ward, tragedy and terror happen without warning, and the smallest of details cause the biggest impact—the writing reflects that, and the few peaceful scenes that occur take such sharp turns into chaos that, after a while, the reader realizes there aren’t any peaceful scenes at all . . . only anarchy and the build-up to it. The genius of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is in Kesey’s portrayal of the story’s events, and if there’s only one reason it made the list, look no further. Knowing full well I can’t do his amazing style justice, I encourage you to read it yourself and see what I mean.

Then, there’s the story itself—Randle P. McMurphy is a criminal who pleads insanity in the courtroom, and winds up on the ward with the actual mentally ill. Within hours, he sees that the situation on the ward is a step above prison, but the countless restrictions make life about as flexible as concrete, and he decides that he won’t stand for it. The leader of the ward is Nurse Ratched, a domineering woman whose sole pleasure seems to be rigidity and order—every move she makes is to perfect the lives of her patients whether they want it or not. McMurphy and Ratched become fast enemies, and the rest of the patients get caught in the crossfire.


It’s easy to see McMurphy as the hero and Ratched as the villain, and while Ratched has next to no redeemable qualities, McMurphy is a far cry from a great leader or liberator in any scenario. His criminality alone isn’t a series of innocent slips—it’s implied he’s done some terrible things. He has moments of kindness, most of which are veiled maneuvers to try to get what he wants—more freedom on the ward for something trivial, or at least the ability to upset the power dynamic and throw Ratched off her game. But there are moments of rebellion on behalf of the other patients, and those moments make McMurphy more complicated and more interesting. Kesey refuses to let McMurphy fall into labels that trap him like “hero” or “anarchist” or “revolutionary.”

One of the flaws of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is its Hemingway-esque focus on masculinity—this is a novel about men and for men, with a sexualized woman as the villain. In this world, men are celebrated for things that are crass and inexcusable, disguised as rebellion against the established order. But, to be fair, in a world where the established order is a specific kind of oppressive—sexless, muted, inflexible—performing revolutionary acts that flaunt morality or social code may be inherently good. What bothers me is that these acts tend to be for men at the expense of women, and Kesey created a story that allows for that, knowing that to soften the backward-ness of these dynamic characters would be to weaken the story. The good and powerful themes of this novel come at that cost, so be willing to pay it when you pick it up.

Despite that backward-ness, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has a violent wit and a very, VERY well-told story. It may be played for crazy at the expense of the mentally ill, but it’s a novel that presents the distinction between society and its marginalized individuals with force and flare. I encourage others to read it with eyes open for the good, the bad, and the ugly.


That’s FORTY BOOKS DONE. Only ten more to go! There are some books in this final round that I’ve already read, and some that I know absolutely nothing about, so we’re not going into unfamiliar territory but we are reaching the end of our journey. I feel more enlightened already.

Next up is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, similarly controversial for very different reasons. I hope I can do it justice, because I’ve read this novel several times, and I’ve loved it and hated it, and even felt a high-school-indifference to it. We’ll see how it goes.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Ulysses

Good morning, class.

I’m not hiding my bias here . . . this is one of my favorite novels ever. I’ve read all 700 rambling pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses twice—once with the reassurance of a college classroom, and a second time “for fun.” I’ve mentioned it in almost half of the 100+ posts I’ve written for this blog (I recommend revisiting two of them: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Modern Literature; the review might help).

But I’m in the minority here. Most people who try Ulysses find it meandering and over-complicated. Even those that do like it tend to appreciate it from a distance, for how it changed history or defined a literary movement, but they don’t like to read it. I’m in the minority because I like experiencing the scope of the story, the empathy created by the characters, the literary connections, the “everything-is-connected”-ness of the details . . . I like it for exactly what it is, and not many people would say the same.

But, students, if I can show you why it made the 50-books list at all, maybe you can see why I like Ulysses so much.


Actor Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom in the movie version of “Ulysses” (1967)

The story takes place in Dublin, Ireland, over the course of one day: Thursday, June 16, 1904. Leopold Bloom, our “hero,” is a Jewish advertising agent roaming the streets of Dublin, and his internal monologue narrates the story in messy fragments. His thoughts wander over (among other things) the child he lost 11 years ago, his father’s suicide, and the affair that his wife, Molly, is currently having with another man.

Meanwhile, Stephen Dedalus (protagonist of the prequel, Portrait of the Artist) deals with his mother’s recent passing, his unbearable alcoholic father, and his cynical disdain for just about EVERYTHING (he’s a little nauseating). He roams Dublin’s streets as well, and he and Bloom spend most of the day almost meeting, until they run into each other in the last few chapters like destiny—a father longing for a missing son, and a son wishing for a better father.

James Joyce, author of Ulysses (1922)

And then, without giving too much away, the novel ends by giving Molly Bloom a voice of her own—the final chapter is her epic monologue reaching beyond the confines of the single day. She rambles through cataclysmic run-on sentences on sex, love, marriage, memory, and femininity, and fondly remembers the day when she agreed to marry Leopold.


There are too many literary references to count, but the most important ones are about The Odyssey by Homer. Bloom is Odysseus, journeying from his home and back (boiling down 20 years into one day), trying to return to his “son” (Stephen/Telemachus) and his wife (Molly/Penelope). The terrifying Cyclops becomes the bigot spouting his beliefs in the bar, while the visit to the underworld becomes a funeral, and the entrancing witch Circe takes the form of a prostitute in a brothel.

These Odyssey references, where the name Ulysses comes from, give the novel it’s epic-ness. The length of this one day is impressive, so filled with detail that it overflows at the seams, and it still doesn’t capture every single moment of the day. The ancient has been updated to match advances in technology and societal evolution, but it still meets the same archetypes it’s known for.

Most importantly, Bloom is a modern Odysseus—less a warrior, more a gentle soul. He is kind to animals, has a love for science, and empathizes with Molly’s extramarital desires. Unlike most men, he knows he doesn’t own her, and that she could be suffering just as much as he is over their long-lost child. He leaves only room in his heart for compassion, making him more of a hero than anyone else in the story . . . because a modern hero isn’t someone physically strong, but rather someone who performs simple acts of kindness.

Statue of James Joyce in Dublin, Ireland

So, even though there are literary reasons why Ulysses is a masterpiece, it’s Bloom’s compassion and empathy, found throughout the novel, that make this book good. It may be hard to see under the complicated language and plot, but this novel has more love on any one page than most novels can show in a hundred. Joyce handles grief, prejudice, hope, sex, depression, death, longing, wonder, and life, all with a deep and profound love.


Sometimes, it surprises me how I’m in the minority in liking this book, and then I flip through its pages and remember—this novel is HARD to read. It’s an experience that nothing can replace, and for that reason it belongs on the list, but it is not a book you just pick up and read!

If you are going to try it, and you don’t have a literary professional standing nearby at all times, you might try reading a guidebook along with it—I recommend Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living by Declan Kiberd. It’s pretty focused on understanding the intentions behind the novel, and it helped me find the love within Ulysses. I also recommend any and all online resources—a summary won’t replace the novel, but it will help you understand what on earth is happening.

I may be a 23-year old blogger, but I think I understand Ulysses, so feel free to ask me questions after class (a.k.a. in the comments below). I absolutely didn’t cover everything here, but I’ve got plenty more to say on this subject if you want to know more. Seriously, ask me questions—all I want to do is talk about Ulysses all day.


Now that I’ve finished Ulysses, I’ve started reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Whenever I tell people this, they stare, like reading Ulysses and Jane Eyre outside of school isn’t normal behavior. It seems perfectly normal to me.

Anyway, I’ll see you for class next week.

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Types of Stories

Hello again, class.

I recently read an article claiming that all stories are the same. Details differ, but the “skeletons” are all based on the same structure. The monsters in a story can take many shapes, like Grendel in Beowulf, the land owners in The Grapes of Wrath, and infidelity in Ulysses, but they’re all monsters. The quest is always about finding something—treasure, peace, home, the damsel in distress, etc. Characters have arcs, plots have acts, and Hollywood has McGuffins.

I see this as a challenge. There isn’t much in this world that’s so subtly threatening as categorizing things. Someone created each of those stories, and if you told them their story was exactly like everyone else’s, you might not get out of there alive. So before we chalk this up as fact, let’s analyze it a bit.


Frankenstein's Monster, a classic example of the monster archetype.

Frankenstein’s Monster, a classic example of the monster archetype.

If all stories are the same, then all plots and characters are based on already-established archetypes. When we talk about a monster or a villain, certain requirements of the archetype come to mind, and an author can adhere to, deny, or parody those requirements with their own creation. The overcoming-the-monster plot is an archetype as well, and certain requirements of that plot are already in place. When we see a hero fighting a monster, we understand the labels of “hero” and “monster” from other stories, and we understand the trajectory of the story from similar stories.

The claim that all stories are the same—like most generalizations—is trapped in labels…and labels are always evolving. The heroes and monsters of Ancient Greece and the Renaissance may not be the same as monsters of today, but we can “translate” the monsters of the past into monsters that we recognize. A character who is imposing, mean-spirited, and violent is a monster, whether it’s a giant one-eyed Cyclops or an angry business-owner. A monster can even be a friendly teenage boy or a devoted parent, as long as the archetype is still upheld—“translated” accurately.

These archetypes are great at doing one of two things: A) helping readers and viewers “figure out” the story by making it familiar, or B) binding the plot and characters unnecessarily, and forcing it to pull its punches rather than tell a good story.


I read another article that clarifies that there are seven types of stories—seven plot archetypes that all stories adhere to. See the article here for a more in-depth look.

  1. bookshelf-illustrationOvercoming the Monster (that’s, like, the millionth time I’ve mentioned this one—take the hint, it will be on the test)
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedies
  6. Tragedies
  7. Rebirth

Even the stories that refute or deny these basic plots are still reflections of them (each one “translated” from the original blueprint). It seems that all stories spring from somewhere else.

The first article I mentioned argues that reducing stories to a formula is like “unweaving the rainbow.” To limit all stories by these boundaries removes the magic of storytelling. I’m not sure I agree though…there is something remarkable about the fact that all stories are connected, as if it’s all one big story. Writers are building on the stories of the past toward stories of the future, and everyone adds a piece.

To quote Walt Whitman, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” And to quote Robin Williams, “What will your verse be?”


types-of-stories-book-landscapeA professor once told me that there are two ways to start a story—either a stranger comes to town, or someone decides to leave. Whatever happens from there changes everything. Somehow, that simple prompt is both challenging and comforting.

Your homework: I want to see if you have a story that won’t fit in the basic plots listed above. Prove these high brow literature professors wrong (not me, of course—all the other snooty ones). Leave it in the comment section. Don’t feel bad if you can’t find one, though. Yes, those are fighting words.

You can look forward to my post on A Christmas Carol next Wednesday. Thanks for coming to class!

Prof. Jeffrey

Hamlet

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.

hamlet-kenneth-branagh-poster

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