50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Human Nature

“A man cannot always restrain his own doings and keep them within the limits which he had himself planned for them. They will very often fall short of the magnitude to which his ambition has aspired. They will sometimes soar higher than his own imagination.”

—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

A Passage to India

Hello again, class.

I would put E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India in the same boat as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River—a novel on cultural clash, with one nation invading another and a set of characters caught in the racial, international chaos. But where Greene and Naipaul are too cynical and become trapped by racist misrepresentations, Forster’s treatment of racial and cultural tension is careful and even kind, without being naive to its origins or consequences. For that, I enjoyed A Passage to India and highly recommend it.


A flag map of the British Raj, the British rule over India between 1858-1947. A Passage to India takes place in the 1920’s, during the period of the British Raj.

I had never even heard of A Passage to India before seeing it on the list, so I imagine most don’t know the story. In the fictional town of Chandrapore, the English Mr. Fielding and Indian Dr. Aziz befriend Mrs. Moore, who has come to visit her son Ronny, Chandrapore’s city magistrate. Mrs. Moore has brought her young friend Adela, who is potentially her son’s fiancee. This newly formed group decides to visit the Marabar Caves, and what happens there forces the subtle racial tensions within them to explode, affecting the entirety of Chandrapore.

In A Bend in the River and The Quiet American, the protagonists are limited by their own racism, which is shown as an ingrained trait as natural as our own desires. But the treatment of race in A Passage to India reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird—it shows racism as a disease. It infects many characters, but not all, and the ones who rise above such racism are punished by the society affected by the disease.

Specifically for A Passage to India, we move between the minds of each character and see their own struggles with race and racism. Characters like Mrs. Moore and Aziz have a poetic and compassionate view of the world, while Mrs. Moore’s own son thinks with bureaucracy and practicality, even with matters concerning marriage. Ronny views the Indian population as a group who needs governance, while Mrs. Moore believes her role in India is to show kindness to others. In each character, the topic of race—of psychology, humanity, and nationality, too—takes a subtly different form, and each character believes in their own version of racial truth.


E. M. Forster, author of A Passage to India. Portrait by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920.

The story itself can’t have much said about it—it’s well-balanced and careful, to the point that it’s forgettable. The strength in A Passage to India is E. M. Forster’s total understanding of society and of human nature.

I’m willing to bet that most white writers handle race and racism poorly. Forster shouldn’t be any different, but he is (though that opinion is from another white writer, so take that opinion with a grain of salt).  I think, in part, that his careful and compassionate management of race stems from understanding the nature of an outsider, which comes from being a minority himself—though the larger public didn’t know, Forster lived his life as a homosexual man. In England at the time, homosexuality was considered illegal activity, so Forster’s identity was a crime. He could easily imagine the loneliness and stress of being considered criminal by nature, much like the Indians in his novel tend to feel around the English.

Don’t get me wrong: race and sexual orientation compare very little, even in the larger scope of societal treatment. Forster’s hidden minority hardly matches the visibility of racial tension. But the feeling of being an outsider, even in a place one considers home, is something Forster likely knew very well—and it translates to the subtleties of A Passage to India. It feeds into the natural cynicism of the plot, highlighting the inability to rise above prejudice, but Forster handles that cynicism with more grace than most authors do. It made A Passage to India good.


Next up, I’m finishing the His Dark Materials Trilogy, which I’ve been reading for some time now. I won’t say much yet . . . except that I haven’t felt this good about a series since I read Harry Potter. But I’ll save the rest for later!

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

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

“Oh, what ridiculous resolutions men take when possessed with fear! It deprives them of the use of those means which reason offers for their relief.”

—from Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe