50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Life of Pi

Off-Topic: Favorite Characters From the List (so far)

Good morning class.

Now that I’m over halfway through the 50-books list, I’ve seen quite a set of characters that stand out. So I’ve chosen my favorites of the bunch. Characters that shock me, make me wonder, thrill me to the bone, terrify me, make me weep, show me how to be myself . . . they’re all here, in alphabetical order (by last name, because after all, this is a class).

  • Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials Trilogy

I’m almost cheating here—I’ve only finished books one and two of this trilogy, The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife (blog post pending). But those two books have been enough to show me how amazing this 12-year old girl is. She can lie through her teeth without second guessing herself, fooling every adult enemy that crosses her path, and she is fierce, determined, and brave in every dangerous situation she approaches. She isn’t perfect, though, and her sense of morality is far too black and white (at least at first) to help her make difficult choices. But even when she takes things too far, I can’t help but admire her no-holds-barred heroism against more competent enemies and her unending kindness toward her friends.

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

With the way I gush about Ulysses, I’m sure this entry doesn’t surprise any of you. As much as I would have liked to have chosen the rambling and coarse Molly Bloom or the moody and literary Stephen Dedalus, my favorite character from Ulysses is the thoughtful, scientific, compassionate Leopold Bloom. He loves animals, embraces his feminine side, and changes the world by acts of kindness. He is a hero—not an ancient hero of physical strength and battle-readiness, but a modern hero of artistic subtlety and active love. The world would be a lot better with men like this.

Christopher is the most unique character from any novel I’ve read—not because of his autism, but because of the way his autism is portrayed. We don’t look at him from the outside . . . we look at the rest of the world through his eyes. He shows us how life is like prime numbers, and how animals somehow speak a universal language, and how love is a very tricky thing to define. His life can be difficult to watch, especially when his disability puts his safety in jeopardy, but his story is an amazing one that wouldn’t be half as great without him.

Most people who look at The Great Gatsby would be more impressed by Jay Gatsby himself . . . but every time I read this novel I am more and more enamored by Daisy Buchanan. As the love Gatsby is always chasing, and as a close family member of the narrator, she is almost entirely painted in a positive light, and it makes it that much harder to see how terrible she is. She is far too wrapped up in her own rich lifestyle, cares nothing for her daughter, and eventually stoops to murder to punish her husband for his affair, while the murder ultimately gets pinned on Gatsby. But I end up sympathetic to her, for reasons I can’t explain—she is pushed around by the men in her life who care more about their own passions, and she is trapped by the money she married into. I rarely feel so much anger, pain, curiosity, and pity toward a single character.

First Lines and an Illustration

Holden is another character I don’t really like—that is, if I met him in person, I would be near him for long. But reading about him is one of the more incredible experiences I’ve had reading a novel, because he is a force to be reckoned with. One never knows what he’ll say next, or what he’ll think in his twisted mind, forcing himself to be an outsider surrounded by “phonies.” But it’s not simply interesting to read his story—his angst is far too relatable, and his compassion (which he does a good job of hiding from readers) is far too powerful. Holden is a scary mirror to look into, but he’s also a touching and comforting hero on the search for happiness like we all are.

Again, most people would probably say Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, is their favorite character from this novel; there’s nothing wrong with that, because Atticus is perfect. Even a little too perfect. Scout, on the other hand, is a beautiful mess. She loves reading and hates school, gets in fights to defend her father, and always finds interesting ways to get into trouble. I love watching her transform from a free-spirited, sometimes bratty little girl into someone older . . . not quite an adult, but still someone who gains one of the most mature qualities a person can have: empathy. Her childhood is honest and hilarious to witness, making her easily one of my favorite characters from any novel.

Samwise Gamgee, portrayed by actor Sean Astin in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Among all the serious and somber heroes from this trilogy, Samwise is the goofy friend and sidekick, and it makes him stand out. But if he was only a fool, he would be no different from Merry and Pippin, who are just as goofy; but Samwise is more than that. Samwise is loyal to Frodo and, in his own comic way, wiser than everyone they meet on their journey. As much as what he does makes me laugh, he does just as much that warms my heart and makes me cheer. Every fantasy story I’ve read or watched since The Lord of the Rings has needed a hero like Frodo and a friend like Sam, or it couldn’t even compare, and I think that says a lot about Samwise himself.

Emma Watson as Hermione Granger

Speaking of other fantasy stories, I’ll always have a place in my heart for Harry Potter, and I think Harry himself is an amazing hero to lead the series—on par with Frodo. Harry has Ron in the same way Frodo has Samwise, but more importantly, Harry has Hermione. She is brilliant, supportive, and headstrong in their small group of friends. It wasn’t until I grew up and reread the series that I realized how much Hermione did for her friends, and how important she was to the series—not just for the plot, but for feminism and its reputation in fantasy. I can trace my current feminist beliefs back to my first encounters with Hermione, her toughness, her cleverness, and her emotional arc over seven amazing books.

And last but not least is a unique character from a peculiar story. Pi of Life of Pi is hard to describe—he is a heavily religious 16 year-old boy from India, who has an incredible love for stories. It’s possible that his love of stories is what drives him to create a fiction about being trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger, after his entire family dies on a sinking ship in the Pacific. There is no proof that the story is false, though the much more believable story is that he survived without taming a tiger alone on the open sea, so the adult Pi telling this story asks the audacious question: which is the better story? And it’s those that pick the story with the tiger that are the real believers, the real story-tellers, who live a more fulfilled life. For that, Pi’s story is one of my favorites, and Pi is one of my favorite characters because of it.

And that’s my list! I’m still reading Brave New World, so show up for class next time to hear my thoughts.

Until then, enjoy your week!

Prof. Jeffrey

Robinson Crusoe

Welcome back, class.

An open-ended question for you: have you ever read a book that tells a story rather than shows it? Maybe it feels like it’s missing something? It lists plot and characters like a neatly organized budget, and maybe it uses beautiful language and is organized perfectly, but you finish it having expected something more than the author telling you exactly what happened?

Author Daniel Defoe

If you have, there’s a chance you might have preferred that—a book that gives you exactly what you ordered, and nothing more. You don’t want to be thrown off guard by emotions you weren’t prepared for. You want to be entertained, plain and simple. And yet, if you’re anything like me, you know full well that these are the books you forget you ever read.

Robinson Crusoe isn’t that bad. It’s not forgettable, at least. It’s a cast-away story, about a man stranded and forced to survive. Crusoe spends almost three decades on this island, and with all the appropriate twists and turns necessary for an exciting plot, Daniel Defoe captured a good story.

But it tells the story, rather than shows it, and I couldn’t enjoy it for that. Everything is there—themes, emotions, motifs, mystery, an adventurous ending, a really strong character and a timeless plot. But there’s this fundamental thing missing . . . a personality from the narrator. From such a well-known and acclaimed story, I expected at least that.

When it comes to novels like this, I like to think the reason it’s so praised is for what it has inspired. I’ve already noticed two very clear Robinson Crusoe references in other well-known novels, both on the 50-books list. My next novel, A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul (which I’ve already started), studies the “savagery” of the African continent in the same way that Crusoe assumes the same savagery of other races. James Joyce’s Ulysses, which boils down the twenty-year journey of The Odyssey into a day, subtly does the same thing with Robinson Crusoe’s thirty-year journey (and, not accidentally, gives Robinson Crusoe what it’s missing).

But the true successor to Robinson Crusoe is Life of Pi, which I wrote about a few months back. Pi’s journey is shorter, and yet filled with more personal detail in any one chapter than all of Robinson Crusoe. Even the spiritual elements of Robinson Crusoe are dwarfed by Life of Pi, which captures greater religious diversity and uses spirituality to support the story. With Life of Pi and with many other works, Robinson Crusoe has been surpassed.

Artist rendering of Crusoe’s shipwreck

Then there is the problem of racial treatment. Defoe’s use (or overuse) of the word “savage” strikes many hurtful racial chords. The relationship he ends up building with one of these men encourages the all the negativity of colonialism and racial superiority in a positive light, and it is so difficult to read simply for that. It’s only forgivable in terms of historical context, and even then—considering the continuation of racial struggles today—forgiveness is not the feeling I jump to first.

So why read it, then? It’s simple: it’s one of the world’s oldest English novels. We can trace more than half of modern literature back to Robinson Crusoe. It’s not the best reason to pick up a new story, but it’s good enough for any avid reader.

Of course, I have a personal bias against it. I’m probably not alone. It’s likely I and others missed the point—my investment was stained by my own issues with it. Yours might not be.

The racial concerns will continue in A Bend in the River, for better or for worse. I’ll get back to you as I read. Though novels like these bring up political questions towards art. It’s easy to praise a novel despite its racism when, racially, it doesn’t affect you; on the other hand, it’s easy to be unforgiving when historical prejudice gets in the way of a good book. If only life was simple.

On that sort-of-sour note, I’ll see you in class next week.

Prof. Jeffrey

The Canterbury Tales

Good morning, class.

In college, back when I was a student (just like you!), I took a class called Chaucer and Medieval Literature—over half of our class time was dedicated to The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer only completed 22 of the “tales,” which is about one-fifth of the full-length compilation he planned to write. That class was hard enough as it was, so I can’t imagine it multiplied by five.

But I liked studying The Canterbury Tales (sometimes more than reading it). It’s intricate, boundary-breaking, and foundational for just about every major piece of literature after it. It’s actually comparable to the Bible—for all it’s culturally-insensitive flaws, it is one of the building blocks of modern literature.

Just make sure someone’s there to help you understand it, like a professor. A real professor. Not a blogger. And please, just avoid the Middle English if you know what’s good for you.

The Canterbury Tales is about a lot of stuff, but it’s mostly about telling stories. A group of pilgrims are journeying to Canterbury, and they tell each other stories to pass the time—whoever tells the best story wins the competition. It’s a little mundane, but the stories they tell are diverse and multifaceted. Many of the tales are crude, especially those that use rape as a comic plot device. It’s always hard to look past. But a handful of these stories are, simply put, good. My favorites are the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the Pardoner’s Tale, and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale is one of the most feminist things medieval literature has to offer—it even holds up well today. After a knight’s rape of a girl, his punishment is to go out and find what women want most. A woman he meets claims to know the answer, but he must give her something in return—he must marry her. He agrees, but instantly regrets it because of her age and poverty. But she proves to him what she claims women want: sovereignty—power over men, which men consistently have over women. She gives him a choice between two options, neither of which he wants, so he tells her to decide, which she wanted all along.

The Pardoner’s Tale is probably my favorite—when I read it in high school, I recognized it instantly as the inspiration for “The Tale of the Three Brothers” in the Harry Potter franchise. Three men set out to conquer Death, and they come across a treasure that they won’t share. They each end up killing each other out of greed, and Death takes each of them without hesitation.

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is probably the most genuinely enjoyable of the tales—it’s about a talking rooster who has a dream about his eminent death by a fox. He is convinced that it’s a sign, but his hen convinces him otherwise. He goes about his business, and when a fox actually does catch him, the rooster outsmarts the fox and escapes, making for a happy ending.

The Canterbury Pilgrims, Blake, William (1757 – 1827, English)

There are a lot of good high school English reasons to read The Canterbury Tales. Historical context, frame story, character study, themes and symbols…I can already see the unit plan. It’s just a good piece of literature to study.

But I like to think there’s a good reason to read it, in the same way one would read any other book on the 50-books list. As luck would have it, my previous book provides the answer—Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The climax of Life of Pi involves the choice between two stories, and which one is “better.” That’s the crux of the competition in The Canterbury Tales—choosing the best story.

This isn’t the kind of story you read on a Saturday curled up in a comfy chair…it’s the kind of story that you study and slave over. But it proves that big, important literature is on the same level as your comfy-chair-book. The Canterbury Tales is a big, epic-scale piece of literature about the importance of stories. Stories guide us and nurture us, and they reach out to us across time and space to give us meaning. There are many novels that can help you see that, but Geoffrey Chaucer made it happen first.

Up next, I’m trying The Color Purple by Alice Walker. I’ve never read it before, so I’m walking into it blind. It’s been a while since I’ve done that with a book, so I’m definitely excited!

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

Life of Pi

Happy New Year, class!

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It tells the story of a teenage Indian boy named Pi, who is trapped on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a small group of animals, including an adult Bengal tiger. This is his story of survival—he is forced to train the tiger, using his father’s zookeeper knowledge, while also surviving isolation, hunger, infection, and the terrors of the open ocean. If this was all it was, it would still be a unique and remarkable story…but of course, there’s more to it.

Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi

The author’s note claims that this is “a story that will make you believe in God.” It’s a tall order, and I think Martel accomplishes this—his philosophy is that belief comes down to the story people choose, which is as important as the facts themselves.

He makes this happen through Pi, an amazingly original character. This is a boy who fell in love with religion at first sight; he compares his own obsession with God and faith to his older brother’s obsession with sports and music. He was raised Hindu from his mother, while his father shunned religion politely; he eventually found Christianity and Islam as well, and actively practiced an interfaith religion for all of his life.

Clip from the movie adaptation of Life of Pi

What Pi loves most about religion are the stories. The overflowing number of gods and deities in Hinduism, the overarching prologue and tale of Jesus as Christ, the beautiful imagery and faith of Islam…these keep him going throughout his struggles. More importantly, his faith is the heart of the story. Pi is so overflowing with love, with worship and belief, that it pours off of the pages. His journey with belief has more of an impact on his life than his ordeal on the Pacific.

That being said, Pi’s ordeal is terrifying, graphic, and even hilarious at times. The tiger—named Richard Parker, in a strange origin story—is as much a character as Pi, and their journey toward communicating with each other is a roller coaster. Richard Parker can never be trusted, and though there are moments that indicate he is more than an animal, Pi is constantly reminded of Richard Parker’s natural instincts. Any moment of weakness from Pi could mean death…for both of them.

Hidden in this captivating plot is that common English class theme, “man vs. nature.” Richard Parker is a force of nature, and Pi has to learn that over and over again—that Richard Parker is not his friend and cannot understand love. Martel’s point with this distinction is the same point he makes about religion and belief toward the stories we choose. Human beings have the capacity to understand religion, to love, to wish for order out of chaos. Animals have only their instincts—no faith, no order, no love.

Clip from the movie adaptation of Life of Pi

It’s not a popular distinction—no one wants to think their dog or cat doesn’t love them. Pets understand dependency, fear, want, and certainly happiness, but not something as complex as love. That’s why we take them and care for them as pets, and why we place them in the safety of zoos and do what we think is best for them. The responsibility of caring for animals is, morally speaking (and religiously speaking, in a way), a human obligation. To understand this is to sense the overwhelming spectrum of emotions this novel provides.

I love this book. It means so much to me. It is original, inspiring, and powerful. I can’t capture it all in a blog post, so I recommend reading it. Yann Martel is an amazing author, and he has created an amazing work of fiction.

Up next, I’m currently reading and finishing The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. I’m not really enjoying it yet…it has it’s moments, sure, but can be a bit much. We’ll see what happens. Thanks for coming to class, and again, happy New Year!

Prof. Jeffrey

“The volume of things was confounding—the volume of air above me, the volume of water around and beneath me. I was half-moved, half-terrified. I felt like the sage Markandeya, who fell out of Vishnu’s mouth while Vishnu was sleeping and so beheld the entire universe, everything that there is. Before the sage could die of fright, Vishnu awoke and took him back into his mouth. For the first time I noticed—as I would notice repeatedly during my ordeal, between one throe of agony and the next—that my suffering was taking place in a grand setting. I saw my suffering for what it was, finite and insignificant, and I was still. My suffering did not fit anywhere, I realized. And I could accept this. It was alright.”

—from Life of Pi by Yann Martel

“Oncoming death is terrible enough, but worse still is oncoming death with time to spare, time in which all the happiness that was yours and all the happiness that might have been yours becomes clear to you. You see with utter lucidity all that you are losing. This sight brings on an oppressive sadness that no car about to hit you or water about to drown you can match. The feeling is truly unbearable.”

—from Life of Pi by Yann Martel

“But even animals that were bred in zoos and have never known the wild, that are perfectly adapted to their enclosures and feel no tension in the presence of humans, will have moments of excitement that push them to seek to escape. All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

—from Life of Pi by Yann Martel

“I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if he burst out from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted to doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

—from Life of Pi by Yann Martel