50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: History (page 1 of 2)

Heart of Darkness

Hello again, class.

Heart of Darkness is controversial. It is a novella about Africa, written from the perspective of a European. It’s a story about the “lesser people” of Africa, the “civilized countries” attempting to conquer it, and the darkness men can succumb to in the attempt.

When I read it first, it was hard enough to simply follow the plot because it was so dense. The second time I read it, I felt as though I had conquered it myself—the fact that I could understand it was enough for me, and I dug no deeper into the racism and prejudice that was there. What I did notice, I excused with “it was a different time”, and that’s a sufficient defense for most art.

But I studied the novel a third time to write this post . . . the racism was much clearer than I remembered. Words like “savages” and “rudimentary souls” describe the people of a conquered continent, and scenes depict them worshiping a white man mad with power. Africa is shown as a backwards and evil land that corrupts the noble European cause—in the context of Heart of Darkness, that cause is stealing African ivory to sell back in Europe.

There’s no beating around the bush—racism is rampant throughout Heart of Darkness. My goal with this post is not to point out every racist moment in the story, though that’s a worthwhile cause. I think it’s more important to talk about why this book made the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, and whether or not the story’s racism had something to do with it. The reasons behind the story and it’s placement on the list may not be as important as the reasons we still read it today . . . maybe that makes all the difference.


Heart of Darkness opens with Marlow, a man with a story to tell about his time in Africa. He was sent there by a European company to investigate what happened to a man named Kurtz, one of the company officials. Marlow must journey into the heart of Africa in the hopes of finding Kurtz, and the further in he goes, the more “savage” things become.

Apocalypse Now (1979) is a Vietnam war drama adapted directly from Heart of Darkness. While the setting and time period have changed, the original characters and story points remain; Apocalypse Now is one of the most famous and most sincere adaptations of Heart of Darkness.

It’s not an adventure story, with epic battles or a heart-warming quest. It’s a disturbing journey, and we’re meant to hope Marlow turns back before it’s too late—in the same way that it’s too late for Kurtz, corrupted by the darkness of the environment. The longer these men stay in the heart of this dark land, the closer they are to reverting to savage ways—the ways of the African people.

This is the flaw in the story. To believe that civilized people are in danger of becoming savages by being around a continent full of savages, is to simultaneously demean a diverse group of people as uniformly savage (for differences of culture and skin color) and to antagonize that group of people as threats to one’s own standard of civilization. In Heart of Darkness, Africans are seen as slow-minded, low-born, and weak-spirited, and by some twisted logic they happen to have the ability to corrupt civilization elsewhere.


So why read Heart of Darkness? Easy: it’s written beautifully. I haven’t read a lot of Joseph Conrad’s work, but everything I’ve read by him has been just short of magical. It may be dense, but Conrad’s writing is unmatched. Knowing that English is not his first language (it’s his third language) makes it clear that he was a master in his craft. His words deserve to be read, and Heart of Darkness is some of his strongest writing.

Author Joseph Conrad

The problem, of course, is the content. If his other novels are written just as well, and are less problematic, wouldn’t those be better choices for the list? The controversy surrounding the novel (similar to the controversies of Huckleberry Finn) have made Heart of Darkness more famous, so that’s something—as if Heart of Darkness is the “gateway” to Conrad’s other works.

But if we’re to look at Heart of Darkness just as it is—if we focus on the story, rather than how it’s told or what it means—we get a pretty good idea of the evils of colonialism. Instead of reading Heart of Darkness and chalking up the apparent racism as byproducts of a “different time,” we can study the racism of the past—in all the glory of Conrad’s beautiful prose—to understand the racism of the present. The best way to read Heart of Darkness is as a historical artifact—appreciation with a grain of salt—and in that form, it deserves to make the list.


Next up is the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I didn’t like reading it in high school, but I went in prejudiced against it—it didn’t match the Frankenstein myth of a reanimated corpse-turned-zombie, and it lost all its cool-factor. I hope I read it this time with more open-mindedness. But more on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war.”

—from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“There was one man who thoroughly believed that the thing at the present moment most essentially necessary to England’s glory was the return of Mr. Melmotte for Westminster. This man was undoubtedly a very ignorant man. He knew nothing of any one political question which had vexed England for the last half century . . . had no preference whatever for one form of government over another, never having given his mind a moment’s trouble on the subject. He had not even reflected how a despotic monarch or a federal republic might affect himself, and possibly did not comprehend the meaning of those terms. But yet he was fully confident that England did demand and ought to demand that Mr. Melmotte should be returned for Westminster. This man was Mr. Melmotte himself.”

—from The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Birdsong

Hello again, class.

World War I and World War II are often lumped together as a collective global stain of history. They are so linked that WWII is usually seen as an extension of WWI, and it’s hard to talk about one without the other. It’s easy to forget that at the time, WWI was its own devastating conflict, worse than anything that had come before it and unimaginably tragic on its own.

That seems to be the driving motive behind author Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong. In lumping together both World Wars, the identity of the first Great War gets lost in the past—Birdsong is about bringing that past to the forefront, lending focus to the social and cultural atmosphere at the time of WWI. The story is in its own way about uncovering history, using it to guide our present and plan our future while appreciating it for what it is, regardless of what happens next.


Poster for the stage adaptation of Birdsong (2010)

Faulks wouldn’t be able to accomplish this without a supportive story, and good characters to populate it. It’s safe to say that Stephen Wraysford is Birdsong‘s main character—he is a man with a complicated upbringing coupled with a melodramatic love affair in his early 20s, who is thrust into the Great War. His relationships with other men in the war help to humanize the conflict, though with all the violence he sees, he is always questioning humanity and its destiny. He seems fairly determined to hide his past, though he isn’t ashamed of it, and his love affair plays an important role in his future.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, where we meet a woman who is presumably his granddaughter—Elizabeth Benson, who shares some of the responsibility as main character. This 38-year old woman, having an affair of her own, is contemplating her place in life and decides to unearth her ancestral history. The novel jumps back and forth between Stephen’s perspective and Elizabeth’s, merging both points of view to appropriately assess the events of the war.


Author Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong is historical fiction—not a dramatization of real events. A based-on-a-true-story approach might have worked just as well for the sake of realism, but Faulks isn’t interested in detailing who did what where. He created fictional characters to fill them with the spirit of the people involved. Birdsong is a human drama, not a war epic or a nonfiction account—those things would be about the war itself, which is just another conflict in our history. Birdsong instead tells a story about individuals, who bear the weight of a larger catastrophe and question their place in it all.

If it were boiled down to one thing, Birdsong is a story about the best and worst of human nature. Stephen constantly asks himself how far the people in this war are willing to go, and nothing he sees lets him rest easy. But humanity has its moments of redemption in the way individuals treat each other: the way soldiers treat fellow soldiers, the way Stephen treats those he loves, and the way Elizabeth is able to find love amidst the war of her past. Humanity can be a cannibalistic hunger, a vain and selfish ambition that threatens its own existence, but it can also be warm and compassionate, full of love and hope. Birdsong makes the list for portraying humanity at its ugliest and at its most beautiful.


I liked reading Birdsong a lot, which has maybe contributed to my distaste for the next book on the list—a novel by Martin Amis called Money: A Suicide Note. I know why it made the list, but all the same I haven’t enjoyed it at all . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘Where there is real love between people, as there was between all of us, then the details don’t matter. Love is more important than the flesh and blood facts of who gave birth to whom.'”

—from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Gulliver’s Travels

Welcome back, class.

I like Gulliver’s Travels for being exactly what it is. It’s not my favorite, but I can’t help but enjoy the things that make it good. I enjoy it for the same reason I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays (and for the same reason I am currently enjoying Don Quixote, which I’ll write about soon)—the author, Jonathan Swift, takes his favorite ideas from a huge body of literature before him and makes those ideas his own in Gulliver’s Travels, which has enough flare, depth, humor, and meaning to have lasted hundreds of years.


On the surface, Gulliver’s Travels is the simple story of Lemuel Gulliver, who goes on four loosely connected adventures in his lifetime to the far reaches of the undiscovered world. He goes first to Lilliput, where he meets a nation of people mere inches tall, then to Brobdingnag where he meets a nation of giants ten times his size. His third journey involves a set of smaller adventures, notably his visit to the airborn island of Laputa. His last adventure is to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a culture of knowledgeable horses that teach him their ways.

Lemuel Gulliver on the island of Lilliput.

Ask any English teacher and they’ll tell you—Gulliver’s Travels is satire at heart. It uses the surface story of a man on a series of impossible adventures to point more than a few obvious fingers at politics, society, and humanity. I usually associate Gulliver’s Travels with The Colbert Report, if only because they accomplish the same thing in very different ways. Both use humor, absurdity, and criticism to make bold statements about the world, forcing readers and viewers to use a greater degree of logic.


Gulliver’s Travels made the list because it clearly embraces the use of satire to great success, and it did so in a way never before seen in its time. This is of course debatable—several works before Gulliver’s Travels have used satire, such as any number of Shakespeare’s works and Don Quixote. But nothing seems to have left an impression like Jonathan Swift—the entirety of Gulliver’s Travels is a dark joke, and you, gentle reader, are likely the butt of it.

Author Jonathan Swift

Swift at some point discovered that satire is one of the best forms of shaming people and calling for radical change while still being art. Somehow, in the reality we live in, the thoughts spoken meaningfully can get lost in the clutter of everyone speaking at once, but saying the exact opposite of what we mean while being facetious enough to get our point across makes people shut up and listen. In the meaninglessness of Swift’s fantasy worlds is where we can find meaning.

But Swift wasn’t entirely meaningless—a lot of passages, especially from his fourth adventure, are honest and sincere. As Swift’s narrator, Gulliver is more than a finger for pointed critically at society. We see these adventures take a serious toll on his life and directly affect his view of his family. In speaking with the Houyhnhnms (probably some of my favorite passages), he confronts some of the uglier parts of humanity and changes irreversibly.

And yet, for the most part, Gulliver is the kind of character that functions as a blank slate—a way for Swift to paint a picture of the world as he sees it, with the flare of fantasy for good measure. Gulliver’s flaws as a character help us see what Swift intends, and Swift intends a lot. His relentlessness towards society’s mass imperfections have enough detail to fill a history class, and yet are broad enough to apply to the flaws of several societies centuries later. Gulliver’s Travels is not my favorite, but it’s a work of genius everyone should get to know.


Up next is Don Quixote! I’m enjoying it so far and I’m excited to write about it.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“Thus, gentle reader, I have given thee a faithful history of my travels for sixteen years and above seven months: wherein I have not been so studious of ornament as of truth. I could, perhaps, like others, have astonished thee with strange improbable tales; but I rather chose to relate plain matter of fact, in the simplest manner and style; because my principal design was to inform, and not to amuse thee.”

—from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

“I was chiefly disgusted with modern history. For having strictly examined all the persons of greatest name in the courts of princes, for a hundred years past, I found how the world had been misled by prostitute writers, to ascribe the greatest exploits in war, to cowards; the wisest counsel, to fools; sincerity, to flatterers . . . [H]ow low an opinion I had of human wisdom and integrity, when I was truly informed of the springs and motives of great enterprises and revolutions in the world, and of the contemptible accidents to which they owed their success. ”

—from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

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

Missing From the List: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Happy Holidays, class! Let’s talk about nonfiction.

The full title of the work is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.

While the Bible depicts some historical events, the only nonfiction work on the entire 50-books list is The Diary of Anne Frank (which I will write more about in a future post). And though I think the nonfiction novel In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is missing from the list, too, I also believe so about the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass—for entirely different reasons. In Cold Blood is an unnerving look at humanity’s desire for witnessing a brutal and real crime. In some ways, Douglass’ Narrative is similar—Douglass shows the criminality of slavery that scarred his own life and American society as a whole. But it’s a redeeming tale, too, revealing the outcomes of perseverance against a system of oppression . . . one that Douglass defies with his very existence.


Douglass writes of his life growing up as a slave, the people who influenced him, and the realizations he came to in his hardships. He’s a traditional storyteller, which he was likely conscious of in order to attract a traditional audience—the kind of audience who needed to read his story, and to understand his humanity. His experiences can affect hearts and minds by their ever having been allowed to happen.

And while each of his experiences are both meaningful and inhumane, one stands out to me every time. The wife of his slaveowner begins to teach Douglass to read, until her husband stops her and tells her it’s illegal and will “spoil” the slave for life . . . meaning that reading tends to empower a slave beyond a slaveowner’s control. This is not only all the evidence Douglass’ story needs to prove his own humanity—that his intellect, as a human quality, cannot be denied—but this is also the passage that proves that reading can set a person free.

It makes me think of all those blissfully stupid inspirational posters in public schools about how knowledge is power and how reading can take you to the stars. It makes me think of the stress parents and teachers put on the importance of reading and learning. Our society’s idea that reading is everything came from stories like Douglass’ Narrative—where the kindness of a fellow soul and the strength of a human mind can conquer slavery, and where reading can change lives.


Douglass’ life also has enough historical significance that it should be read whether it’s good or not (it just so happens that it’s good writing as well). The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is an important historical milestone for the abolitionist movement of its time, which forever altered American history through the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern race issues we still struggle with today. Like similar nonfiction works, it should be required reading for everyone—it belongs on the list because it helped change the world.


As I continue to read Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, the fictional account of a geisha’s life in the first half of the 20th Century, I’m noticing similarities between it and Douglass’ Narrative, if only in the way the story is told. The attempt to reflect on one’s own life and tell as rounded a story as possible is something no one can completely achieve. Douglass’ story is, more often than not, about slavery, and not about himself. The picture he paints for us reveals the experiences that affected him more than it reveals his character. To describe yourself, using your own point of view, is one of those impossible things human beings always try and fail to do—which actually makes Douglass’ Narrative more meaningful and Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha more enjoyable.

More on that next class!

Prof. Jeffrey

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