50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Humanity (page 1 of 4)

“Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base? He appeared at one time a mere scion of the evil principle and at another as all that can be conceived of noble and godlike. To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being; to be base and vicious, as many on record have been, appeared the lowest degradation, a condition more abject than that of the blind mole or harmless worm.”

—from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“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

“If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.”

—from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Off-Topic: Similarities Among the 50 Books

Hello again, class.

I’m nearing the end of this blog, with only a handful of books left from the list to finish. I’ve been thinking about why certain books were chosen, and about the list overall—how the list itself affects the way someone reads the books on it. Like when I read Moby-Dick at the same time as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Men Without Women—my thoughts about themes like insanity and masculinity felt more well-rounded.

There’s something to be said for my approach . . . I imagine most people who attempt something like reading all 50 of these books do so more casually. They might add the books to some catch-all reading list and get around to it when they can, maybe jump into Ulysses as a book club or a personal reading challenge . . . and in a bookstore one day, they happen upon one of the obscure ones, like Birdsong or The Quiet American, and they buy it, only to get around to it months or even years later, remembering why they bought it in the first place. Not me—I made this list and this blog my personal mission. With any luck, I’ll have finished all 50 books in under three years, with a blog to show for it.

In reading all 50 of these books in as short a time as I could manage, I tightened the experience. It cost me in some places—reading Anna Karenina on a budgeted schedule made it hard to appreciate it in the small moments, and flying through Hamlet, even in reading it a third time, dangerously hindered my understanding of Shakespeare. But even so, I gained something as well: a greater understanding of the list itself. Most people would have read one of the books every so often, but I’ve read the list in one swift motion.

And as you, dear students, potentially read the list in its totality like I did (or like I’m doing), you might find the similarities I found. Thematic callbacks, cultural foreshadowing, opposing arguments, storytelling trends . . . every book on the list has these qualities in common. And no matter what book you pick up from the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, you’ll likely see these qualities pop up yourself.


The Theme of Humanity

That’s right—you’ll notice that every author on this list is a human.

Humanity as a theme is broader than people tend to give it credit for—it covers everything. All stories are human stories, and any story that claims otherwise is fiction or even fantasy told from human perspective. As a species we have defined ourselves and are constantly redefining ourselves with every story ever told, and the 50-books list reflects that.

There are fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings or The Wind in the Willows, involving nonhuman characters doing very human things. Romantic stories like Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights tell stories of romantic love . . . passionate, practical, destructive, all-consuming, redeeming love, defining one of the most human experiences we know. War stories like Birdsong or The War of the Worlds (as well as a true account of wartime, The Diary of Anne Frank), portray some of the darkest moments human history has to offer—inhumanity at its strongest. Stories relying heavily on religion like Life of Pi or The Divine Comedy tell stories about God in human contexts, and humanity’s contrast to God is so stark and vast that it could be the overarching theme of the Bible itself.

It makes sense that every work on the list has something to say, even if unintentionally, about the great human story we’re all a part of. The 50-Books list is a best-of compilation of Walt Whitman’s line of poetry—from “O Me! O Life!”, Whitman says “the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” The list is 50 different contributions to the powerful play of life from the greatest writers of all time.


A Western Perspective

Not all of the similarities are good—and this one happens to point out some intrinsic bias on the list. There are some exceptions, but 4 times out of 5, if you pick up a book from this list you’ll be reading stories by English-speaking, first world authors.

For instance, there seem to be no Asian authors on this list, despite there being several great Asian authors like Lu Xun or Asian-American authors like Amy Tan who could have been featured. This is made worse by the fact that Caucasian writer Arthur Golden makes an appearance on the list for telling a Japanese story, Memoirs of a Geisha. It’s a great story, which unfortunately is still a Western story and a weak form of representation for a huge percentage of the world population.

Another point of contention is the Bible being featured on the list—it is the only religious text featured. The Bible itself is not a Western text; its origins are Hebrew and Middle Eastern, and it is a remarkable reflection of oral tradition and culture from a definitely not-Western history. But the Bible, like Christianity, has first-world connotations; Western cultures have a history of forcing Christianity on others, and the Bible can be and has been used as a tool to do so.

I don’t condemn the inclusion of the Bible on the list, because it has had such a huge cultural impact on stories across the globe that it’s worth reading for that reason alone. But what if another religious text was featured to balance things out? Including the Quran on the list, as an example, would have shed light on Islamic beliefs and reflected the culture of a different people—a small step in undoing social biases and bridging cultural divides, a step that this list does not take.

This doesn’t mean “don’t read from this list, it’s biased and overrated”—if that’s what I meant I would have stopped this blog a long time ago. It just means “take this list with a grain of salt.” Like all things, this list has its flaws, and it should not be treated as a sacred end-all-be-all to your personal library.


Modern Literature

I have a theory here—one that I already brought up on my post about Modernism and Postmodernism, so I won’t go into too much detail. Basically, I think that modern literature is the focal point (or maybe tipping point?) that all other literature revolves around. The modern era is the first half of the 20th Century, defined by world wars, technology, psychology, shifting morality, financial crisis, and all the art that resulted from it. I think modern literature is that which lends focus to the chaos of our world, specifically the chaos of the 20th Century, and all literature before that time is a part of the long journey building up to it.

Every book on the list (arguably) falls into this category. Older stories like Gulliver’s Travels and Don Quixote foreshadow the changing literary landscape, while novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick are prefaces to 20th Century literature. Novels from the actual time period like UlyssesThe Great Gatsby, and Men Without Women each deal with the chaos head-on—grapple with it, challenge it, fear it, and attempt to make art out of it. Novels after that period are postmodern reactions to the chaos, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, and more contemporary novels like Life of Pi or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are more like celebrations of the chaos that make the world and the people in it more interesting.

The list is a series of historical milestones, looking forward and backward to find truth in the chaos, or to at least accept the chaos as the truth. Questions posed by stories of the past are answered by stories of the present (though they answer with more questions). Each of these stories questions convention and force us to think in a modern way, and that change of perspective is everything in a good story.


How to Tell a Story

Every story on the list has a meta-storytelling approach. Or, put a different way, every story on the list is aware of itself as a story, and is all the better for it.

Most stories stop at telling a story, plain and simple. There’s nothing wrong with that; stories make the world go ’round, just as they are. But the best ones seem to reflect on themselves, challenge themselves to be better (almost like people—the best stories are the ones that are almost alive, and they can comfort, frighten, challenge, and improve us like other people can).

This usually pops up in small ways, like when a story is told in a different form. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, which means it’s told entirely in letters—a simple method that upends the entire dynamic of the story. All eighteen chapters of Ulysses are each in a different form—a play, a series of newspaper articles, a romance novel, a catechism, and so on. Even the Bible is told in several forms—law books, poetry, parables, letters, and gospels, all with different authors, audiences, and intentions. To play with the form of a story is to find out how to tell a story in a better way.

More often than not, a book from the list will include stories within stories as a reflection on their own storytelling. Don Quixote and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are a series of overlapping episodes and several mini-stories, told in the context of the overall story. The Canterbury Tales is a set of stories within stories within stories, all within one big story. Hamlet features its famous play-within-a-play, a common and effective Shakespeare move. Moby-Dick is filled with textbook-like interludes, almost anti-stories, with enough aesthetic merit to not feel out of place.

A lot of the authors on the list write stories about authors and storytellers, who tell stories of their own and reflect the authors’ personal narratives. Stories like The Divine Comedy and Money: A Suicide Note feature the authors themselves (Dante Alighieri and Martin Amis, respectively) as major characters. Gulliver’s Travels and The Way We Live Now feature fictional authors that the real author can use to criticize or shed light on other real life authors. Life of Pi and Memoirs of a Geisha are both disguised as works based on a true story, which gives their fictional main characters a kind of authoritative power and reorients the kind of story they are telling.

In every case, it’s about story. These are all books written for the purpose of advancing what a story can do, and what a story can be. These are all books written by people who not only know how to tell a story, but who are dedicated to telling lasting stories, and that’s why they each made the list in the first place.


I expect the remaining books on the list to have these same qualities—and I expect a lot of the great books I’ll read down the road will be similar. I know I won’t enjoy every book previously vetted by a master list like this (as we’ve seen with MoneyA Bend in the RiverHuckleberry Finn, etc.); but even for the books I don’t enjoy, I’ve developed a few tricks up my sleeve to see if a story is objectively good. Being able to tell the difference between a story you don’t like and a story that’s bad is a pretty useful skill.

I’m finishing up Rebecca—I’ll leave the discussion for next time. Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Money: A Suicide Note

Good morning, class.

So . . . I’ll just come right out and say it: Money: A Suicide Note is one of my least favorite books of all time.

To read Martin Amis’ Money is to be met with a tour de force of alcoholism, drugs, addiction, rape, sexism, homophobia, manipulation, and toxic behavior the likes of which no one should have to endure. Money is a kaleidoscopic perspective on humanity’s fast and entertaining decay, due almost entirely to the concept of money and its poisonous fumes.

I will admit, there are parts I liked, or at least appreciated. And in theory, the book is a perfect criticism of celebrity lifestyle and capitalism. Money points out our inherent cultural flaw, our need for, dependence on, addiction to money—better than most books I’ve read on the subject. I have no doubt that that’s why this novel made the list.

But the details—the characters, plot, symbols, words—made me sick. It was crass and disgusting. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had known what I was getting into (before seeing the list, I had never heard of Money before, so I went in cold); after all, I’ve seen movies and read books that aim to be offensive, and the best ones, like Money, have a clear and even moral purpose, like criticizing cultural flaws. Still, I’ve never enjoyed reading a book less, and I won’t get that time back.


But the least I can do is tell you who these unlikable characters are, and a bit about what they do that’s so unlikable. The narrator is a man named John Self, a conceited, sadistic, out-of-control addict attempting to adapt his story into a movie. He is surrounded by celebrities that are as self-absorbed as he is, as money-addicted and as morally bankrupt too. He spends his days in constant cycles of prostitutes, alcohol, smoking, and mindless purchases, and all the while he experiences a ceaseless and vulgar inner monologue that is as carefully crafted as it is offensive.

John Self reminds me a lot of Holden Caulfield, the main character and narrator of The Catcher in the Rye. Caulfield is similarly problematic, with his intrusive and offensive thoughts filling up most of the novel; but I liked reading The Catcher in the Rye, and I know exactly why it was better. Caulfield was an angsty teenager, dealing with a lot of personal issues in the way a teenager might—lashing out at adults, behaving irrationally, refusing to face his issues head-on, etc. Even so, ultimately The Catcher in the Rye is about a search for happiness, and Holden’s care for younger children (and their untainted innocence) expresses that. Our focus on a an unlikable narrator becomes our focus on a teenager in crisis and on society’s mistreatment of children.

But Money doesn’t do that. John Self is a grown man, and spends a lot of time blaming his equally terrible father for his own mistakes, despite having the ability to change his ways. He has broad generalizations about the world and its mechanisms, and everything he says is questionable or flat-out immoral. He despises people that are different from him and he despises himself. He crosses the line from offensive to unforgivable far too often, in ways I don’t care to repeat. And unfortunately, he is on every page.


Author Martin Amis

Now, there are things that I like. For instance, its clear that Martin Amis knows what he’s doing—John Self’s diatribes are despicable, but well-written. The clever word choice and puns, the perfectly captured voice of John Self, the balance of the whole story from beginning to end . . . Amis is a craftsman.

Amis also happens to write himself into his own novel—a fun meta twist that uses “character-Martin-Amis” to help show what “writer-Martin-Amis” is trying to do. He gets to poke fun at his own pretentiousness and explain his actions for creating a character like John Self—it’s his way of putting all of the poison of fame and fortune into one tragic character, destroyed inside and out by the way we live now. The episodes with “character-Martin-Amis” stood out as Money‘s most creative and intriguing moments.

And yet, for all its technical brilliance, I can’t stand the novel’s content. Money‘s plot is weak, spending more time creatively caving in on itself than telling a story, which I could live with, except that whatever story is left is detestable. The thinness of the plot is paired with disgusting scene after disgusting scene—an endless episodic bombardment of debasement and degradation. I didn’t enjoy it and I’m glad it’s over now.


With that out of the way, I can look forward to the remaining books on the 50-books-list. I can’t guarantee I’ll enjoy what stories are left, but it’s a safe bet that Money is going to remain at the top of my I-hated-this-book list for quite some time, if not forever.

Next up, I’m finishing The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope—a novel that, so far, I have enjoyed. That’s more than I can say for some books.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

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

“It seemed to Jack that if an ordinary human being, his own son, no one particular, could have this purity of mind, then perhaps, the isolated deeds of virtue at which people marveled in later life were not really isolated at all; perhaps they were the natural continuation of the innocent goodness that all people brought into the world at their birth. If this was true, then his fellow-human beings were not the rough, flawed creatures that most of them supposed. Their failings were not innate, but were the result of where they had gone wrong or been coarsened by their experiences; in their hearts they remained perfectible.”

—from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

“At first he thought the war could be fought and concluded swiftly in a traditional way. Then he watched the machine gunners pouring bullets into the lines of advancing German infantry as though there was no longer any value accorded to a mere human life. He saw half his platoon die under the shells of the enemy’s opening bombardment. He grew used to the sight and smell of torn human flesh. He watched the men harden to the mechanical slaughter. There seemed to him a great breach of nature which no one had the power to stop.”

—from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

“This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.”

—from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

“None of these men would admit that what they saw and what they did were beyond the boundaries of human behavior. You would not believe, Jack thought, that the fellow with his cap pushed back, joking with his friend at the window of the butcher’s shop, had seen his other mate dying in a shell-hole, gas frothing in his lungs. No one told; and Jack too joined the unspoken conspiracy that all was well, that no natural order had been violated.”

—from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

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