50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Literature

The Final Review

We’re at the end, class!

I’m not dying, or anything. But I promised myself at the beginning of this that I wouldn’t push this blog too far. I wouldn’t let it be one of those blogs that posted a lot at once, tapered off into a few posts a year, and died out from age or boredom. (If anyone thinks to look back at the posting dates of each one of my posts, you’ll notice a remarkable consistency.)

Which means there’s a finale to this saga. I read and reviewed the 50 Books to Read Before You Die, according to a bookmark. Just a few final remarks, and that’s all, folks.

I liked most of them. I loved many of them. There were a few I couldn’t stand, and I’m getting rid of those (to leave room on my bookshelf for better books). They all left an impression . . . they all gave me something to think about, something to chew on. Reading each one gave me a world to explore or a new perspective to consider. That’s what books are for.

Several of them gave me clues about how to be a better writer. This list is full to the brim of storytelling techniques, fascinating characters, and hilarious puns. I think all the great storytellers and artists copy from the greats, and this list featured some of the greatest stories of all time—so I’ve got a storytelling repertoire that will continue to inspire before I expire.

I keep coming back to why I chose to do this, and there’s one very obvious answer. I’d just graduated college. I loved college, and more importantly, I loved going to class. I love reading books and then talking about them. We just read this amazing chapter in this book I love, I can’t miss class! The professor’s going to break it apart, show me the little pieces that I missed—then I’ll love it even more!! That’s me. So what’s a man to do after graduation, when there are no more classes, no more professors, no more books and discussions? He starts a blog, of course.

I did this because I’d done nothing but read the assigned reading for the past four years. I wanted to dare myself into reading “literature” on my own. This was my way of making a real life class for myself, a series of self-assigned readings that any professor of a grade-A-geek would be proud of. And I did it for myself—not to show off my limited knowledge to people that know me, but to make myself better as a reader, writer, and storyteller, through the magic of the internet.

But I don’t stoop to think that this almost-three-year task made me a better person. I didn’t expect it would, because a better reader/writer/storyteller is not a better person. (If that sounds like too obvious a statement, I can assure you, that’s something I had to learn, and it’s something several fully grown adults still don’t know.)

It’s like the difference between living and reading about living. Some writers will tell you that the story is all that matters, but that only applies to stories, not to life. Stories serve many purposes—relief, connection, understanding, entertainment, discovery, motivation—but the one thing a story can’t do is replace living. Stories are reflections of life, and so is everything from history to art, from the greatest movie ever to a good joke. The reflections take us where we cannot go, far and wide around the Earth, back in time and forward to the future, and life still waits for us when we return.

No, this didn’t make me a better person. I learned a lot, though. If I use all I learned to not only tell better stories, but live a better life, then I’ll become a better person, I hope. That’s why the blogging is done, at least for now—I’m done with this chapter of my life-book, and if I stick around for too long, I might not get to the rest.

So keep reading. Then go live with what you learned.

Prof. Jeffrey

Don Quixote

Good morning, class.

I’ve been comparing Gulliver’s Travels (my other most recent read from the list) with Don Quixote, and I’ve come away with a broad conclusion on both. On my post about Gulliver’s Travels, I wrote that that Gulliver’s Travels is all a dark joke at society’s and humanity’s expense. If Gulliver’s Travels is literature’s dark joke, then Don Quixote is its lighthearted one—a series of recurring comedy sketches centered on a madman who thinks he’s a knight and the hopeless fool who tags along as his squire.

Despite that simple premise, Don Quixote is more complicated than that. The main character, whose name isn’t even Quixote, starts as an ordinary Spanish man with an ordinary life. But he reads a little too much about the knights of the age of chivalry, and starts to think he’s a knight himself, adopting the name Don Quixote. What follows is a carefully orchestrated parody of knighthood, romantic quests, and the world of literature.

Don Quixote charging at the windmills.

The relationship between Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza, reminds me a lot of the relationship between Frodo and Samwise in The Lord of the Rings—both relationships come from the same place: the knight/squire relationship of older works of literature like the King Arthur stories and Beowulf. But Quixote and Sancho don’t fit these roles so easily. Quixote acts like the noble knight he thinks he is, which usually just gets him into trouble; and Sancho is simply along for the ride, not half as dedicated as he imagines and too much of a buffoon to know any better. Comedy ensues.

There are several moments that stand out—the most famous one is likely the episode where Quixote attacks a set of windmills, thinking that they are a field of giants with large swinging arms, despite Sancho’s explanations of reality. The comedy tends to remain in this area, where Quixote misreads a common occurrence as a knightly adventure, and Sancho has little choice but to go along with it.

Portrait of Author Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1615)

Author Miguel de Cervantes has more than a touch of Shakespeare about him. The dialogue is witty, with double entendres that survive translation and clever twists that make the old feel new. The meta-jokes are hilarious additions that stand the test of time (about 400 years). What’s more, since Don Quixote is considered one of the earliest novels ever written, it’s clear that Don Quixote paved the way for an entire category of literature like nothing else before it—that’s fairly Shakespearean. Cervantes was one of the story-telling geniuses of his time, and his writing is one of the big reasons Don Quixote made the list.

That said, the experience of reading it wasn’t 100% enjoyable, if only because I had to trudge through it. It’s not easy to read, and I knew it wouldn’t be as I started—the same thing happens with Shakespeare. In reading Don Quixote, there was always so much happening within so many different layers of language that most of it passed me by. It takes a steadier mind than mine to dive headfirst into all that makes Don Quixote special, and as I’m someone who prides himself on his joy of reading, it doesn’t bode well for the poor soul who reads this thinking “well, it’s one of the 50 books I’m supposed to read before I die, so I guess I’ll try it.”

But that’s my mild complaint—that I didn’t feel smart enough to catch everything that happened. I’ve already explained in other posts that there are books that don’t belong on the list, but Don Quixote isn’t one of them. Don Quixote is hilarious, thoughtful, and a perfect example of good literature from its era, and that’s the best reason it made the list.

I’m jumping forward in time and reading Ernest Hemingway next—his collection of short stories, Men Without Women. I have a lot of thoughts on Hemingway, as well as this particular choice for the list (as opposed to his several other more famous novels), but I’ll save those thoughts for next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Favorite Authors

Welcome back class.

I think every self-respecting avid reader has a list of their favorite authors at the ready. Sometimes, when you’re wandering aimlessly through the used bookstore, knowing full well that you don’t have enough money to buy all the books you want, the only lifeline you can cling to is the recognition of a familiar author’s name.

So today, I thought I’d share with you my short list of favorite authors. I only had one rule when picking out each name—I have to have read more than one of their books. As much as I’d love to include Harper Lee because of To Kill a Mockingbird or Yann Martel because of Life of Pi, I only know that I like one of their books. The list below weeds out any potential one-hit wonders.

Click the links to see my blog posts on each book. The list is alphabetical to avoid bias, in case any of them stumble across this blog one day.

And without further ado, my list of favorite authors!

James Joyce

Books I’ve Read: DublinersA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses

I know I’m in the minority here. Most people find James Joyce’s stuff tedious, deliberately confusing, and needlessly weird (though Dubliners is a notable exception—it appeals to a wider audience, so if Joyce makes you uncomfortable, start with Dubliners). But for me, Joyce is a huge inspiration. His experimental style and meaningful stories have changed the way I read and write. I was lucky enough to have read his books in a helpful environment, which made it possible to understand his approach and intent while also encouraging me to discover things in his books for myself. If I see his name on the cover, I’m reading it, whatever it is.

Stephen King

Books I’ve Read: CarrieThe Shining, and On Writing

I don’t imagine Stephen King and James Joyce have much in common, but I love King for the same reason I love Joyce—he has inspired me and changed the way I read and write. Whenever I notice myself using an adverb, I think of King’s unadulterated hatred of adverbs. To him, they are a sign that the writer is afraid of being unclear . . . so they throw in the adverb to assert feelings on the reader, leaving little room for interpretation and chipping away at a story’s power.

But I didn’t just discover word choice with King—I discovered that story matters above all. Through both Carrie and The Shining, King crafted strange characters and supernatural worlds all in service of a good story. I’ve only read three books off of his loaded bookshelf, and I plan on reading more. Joyce may keep me in the clouds with his complexities, but King grounds me in a way that few authors ever have, and that’s been important to my journey as a writer.

Lois Lowry

Books I’ve Read: The Giver and Number the Stars

Lois Lowry is one of those young adult authors that prepare young readers for more mature reading. Both of the books I’ve read by her were assigned reading in middle school, and both of them left a bigger impact on me than most books from that time in my life. The Giver was an excellent piece of science fiction that prepared me for books on the 50-books list like 1984 and Brave New World; and Number the Stars portrayed the lives of children in the Holocaust, and left me empowered to be the kind of hero the protagonist chose to be.

These two books are serious dramas with emotional drive, and they are as meaningful for preteens and teenagers as they are for adults. Lowry’s stories aren’t watered-down—they are intelligent and moving. That can be hard to find in the ocean of literature for kids, and Lowry is one of those lifelines to cling to.

Gregory Maguire

Books I’ve Read: WickedSon of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men

I’ve been won over by Gregory Maguire. The first book I read by him, Wicked (which is nothing like the Broadway musical), allowed me to make the big transition between young adult books and books for adults. Maguire took the realm of a children’s fantasy series and made something serious, dark, clever, and unfiltered. And it all started with a simple concept—an attempt to understand the strange and evil Wicked Witch of the West.

I’ve read some (not all) of the sequels to Wicked, each of which have been met with mixed reactions by the same people that loved the original. I haven’t had the same reactions—I was just as moved and awe-struck with these stories of Oz-based characters beyond the Wicked Witch, and I will continue to read books by Maguire because of that. I’m excited to finish the rest of the Wicked series and I’m excited to see how special his other fantasy-oriented stories turn out.

Lemony Snicket

Books I’ve Read: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Books 1-7

This one almost doesn’t count—Lemony Snicket is the figment of the author’s imagination, through which he tells several of his stories. But I’ve never read any books by the real Daniel Handler, only those by his fictional persona Lemony Snicket, and I absolutely love Snicket’s writing. I’ve read some of his shorter works in addition, but I know Lemony Snicket mostly through his most popular series, A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Both the Netflix adaptation and the movie adaptation have their good qualities, but the books surpass them through the uniqueness of Snicket’s writing—something that cannot be described, only experienced. Snicket’s constant insistence that the reader should read something else more pleasant, his capacity for descriptive tirades and misguided definitions of large vocabulary words, his distinct brand of somber empathy . . . all of these quirks converge to portray the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaire children. To top it all off, it’s for kids—I know of no other books that portray the unpleasantries of life for kids as well as these books do, and Lemony Snicket is one of my favorite writers for that reason alone.

And that’s my list! Feel free to share you’re list with me. In the meantime, I’m finishing up Don Quixote next, and I look forward to telling you what I learned!

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Brave New World

Hello again, class.

I’m still a little surprised that I was able to read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in high school—at the time, it was the most sexually explicit required reading that had ever crossed my path. But I had a teacher who made it clear that this was an adult novel . . . it wouldn’t be fun or funny. It would be challenging and disturbing, and probably raise more questions than it could answer. In another teacher’s hands, I would have written this novel off as weird; but as I read it for his class, and as I reread it over the past few weeks, I realize that this book is one of the few that invited me to read more challenging stories, even if I didn’t like them.

And there are parts of Brave New World I don’t like, but the novel is special for that exact reason. You aren’t supposed to like it because it’s not entertainment . . . it’s a warning.

The society of Brave New World runs on a set of rules that everyone happily follows; for instance, solitary actions are as prohibited as possible, and in sexual terms, everyone belongs to everyone else. Extreme emotions have been all but eradicated with removal of the family unit, genetic modification, psychological conditioning, and a drug called soma. Without extreme emotions—passion, rage, fear, jealousy, misery—all that’s left is a mellow contentment. Between universal happiness and ideals like truth, beauty, or knowledge, the populace has overwhelmingly chosen happiness.

And that’s the setting for a rather depressing story, told from the perspective of a handful of individuals in a society where individuals shouldn’t exist. Bernard Marx is the catalyst for the plot—a man shorter than those he is genetically similar to, and therefore made an outsider. He is simple and somewhat shallow, but by being an outsider, he refuses to medicate himself for happiness and wishes society were different. His friend, Helmholtz Watson, is an outsider because of his affinity for poetry—the happiness of their society begins to wear itself thin for him, causing him to challenge social norms for the sake of the beauty of language.

Author Aldous Huxley

But the real outsider is John the Savage, a man born in one of the few Savage Reservations left that are not “civilized” like the rest of the world. His mother was a woman from civilization, but she became trapped visiting the reservation and was left there, unexpectedly pregnant with John. He grew up with a different skin color from everyone else in the reservation, so he had been an outsider his whole life—then the opportunity arose to visit civilization, as a scientific and social experiment. But he soon learns that the “brave new world” of civilization is terrible, where adults act like children, morality and freedom are all but stripped away, and humanity is weighed down under machines and medication.

Huxley’s novel portrays less of a dystopia and more of a parodied utopia; there’s a clear distinction. A dystopia is inherently bad, like 1984 or The Hunger Games, where it’s clear people are suffering due to humanity’s mistakes. But Brave New World actually represents a utopia—an almost unrealistically happy society, without war, poverty, famine, misery, or burden. The only person who cannot bear this society is John, who grew up apart from it.

1984 is about a regime holding power and using ideology, propaganda, and torture to subdue threats . . . humanity’s enemy is more powerful than ever, but it’s the same enemy: an upper class with all the power. Brave New World might even be scarier, because there is no enemy. Humanity simply gave up, surrendered to happiness. All the things we like to think make humanity good—art, morality, intelligence, curiosity, passion . . . all replaced by peace. A numbing, terrifying global peace.

Brave New World is a warning, but not like most dystopian novels, warning us against threats to society. It’s warning to us that if our everlasting search for happiness and comfort continue, we may gain peace, but we will lose what makes us human.

Nothing hits this point more at home than the many Shakespeare references throughout the novel. Shakespeare has been completely removed from this society, because his words are too beautiful and evocative. His stories of revenge, passion, tragedy, and love cause too much instability to the stable World State, so his works cannot be allowed to exist in society.

A Portrait of William Shakespeare

But in the reservation, John finds one of the last remaining copies of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, which he uses at a young age to learn how to read. His attraction to Lenina Crowne in the civilized world becomes reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, while his contemplation of suicide is mirrored in Hamlet‘s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Most importantly, the title of the book comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which John uses to describe civilization when he sees it for the first time: “O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in’t!”

And that, possibly more than anything else, it what makes this future so horrible. To have happiness, we have to get rid of Shakespeare . . . as well as any other good story, along with God and religion, scientific discovery, and anything else that doesn’t serve the greater purpose of providing comfort and stability for society. Welcome to the brave new world.

I honestly don’t like thinking about this. At least with 1984, I can see that abuse of power is something that has always happened and will continue to happen—the current state of the political world does nothing to convince me that that will ever change. But this . . . Huxley’s novel is simply messed up, and I can’t stand the possibility that humanity might surrender itself completely. This is scarier than any horror I can think of.

So I’m just going to move on to the next novel. Hopefully, students, you feel better about this than I do. I’ve got nothing.

Next up, I’m reading Wuthering Heights, another somewhat depressing story, but at least it comes with a better ending!

Until then, be careful with your happiness and beware the future.

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Modern and Postmodern Literature

Hello again, class.

We’ll have a bit of a history lesson today, and talk about literary periods. Historical context can redefine a piece of literature, and something that’s always helped me with reading older texts is understanding which period of history it came from. The Victorian Era, for example, was the era of Great Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria. I know little bits about Victorian society, belief systems, social stigmas . . . each one increasing my understanding of novels and poems of the time. It’s basic reading strategy any good blog professor should know.

My two favorite periods of literature are Modernism and Postmodernism (which are more like one 2-part period, but I didn’t write the textbooks). More than being the eras of some of my favorite works, I think the majority of the books on the 50-books list could fall in the categories of modern or postmodern literature. That alone makes it worth knowing what these categories mean and how they apply to novels on the list.

(Disclaimer: I am summing up entire textbooks worth of information into a blog post. It’s a LIMITED analysis.)

Modern writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby.”

Modern literature doesn’t actually mean “modern” like new or contemporary. It sort of meant that at the time, but that period is about a hundred years old by now. When people talk about modern literature, they’re usually referring to the first half of the 20th century, ending around the same time as the end of WWII. That period of history was, on a worldwide scale, sheer chaos.

Both World Wars, the Great Depression, political movements for women’s rights, the Harlem Renaissance, introduction of Freud’s theories, the roaring 20’s, advances in technology . . . these are fractions of the chaos of the time. Traditions were breaking down, becoming fragmented copies of the old world. Questions were asked about morality, society, sexuality, religion, government, the future—questions that were never considered before.

Modern Writer Ernest Hemingway, works including “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The art reflected the chaos. Novels like The Grapes of Wrath and As I Lay Dying were chaotic in the most complicated ways; they broke the rules of grammar and storytelling, and they sacrificed old traditions to make room for greater truths. Poems like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” broke the rules of poetry and removed the comfort of structure.

The dates are shifty for Modernism, so they are just as shifty for the sequel, Postmodernism. Ending with WWII and working through the Cold War and the later half of the 20th century, the Postmodern Era shares a lot of similarities to Modernism. The chaos of the 50s, 60s, and onward, the continuing breakdown of traditional values, the Vietnam and Korea conflicts, the birth of nuclear power, the Civil Rights movement . . . the chaos continued.

Postmodern poet Allen Ginsberg, author of “Howl.”

But one of the key differences was how the artists responded (which is why it gets a different name in the textbooks). The artists of the modern era were more afraid of the chaos, and the art was used to help them cope with it. But postmodern artists celebrated the chaos; they relished in the collapse of the old and the strangeness of the new.

Novels like The Catcher in the RyeThe Color Purpleand On the Road fall in the postmodern category. These writers took the previous generation’s fear and apprehension and transformed it into a movement that praised the breaking of tradition. Novels like these lived into the chaos of the time.

Postmodern author Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

But as I said, the reason I chose these two periods for today’s lesson is not just because they’re my favorite, but because they sum up most of the books on the 50-books list. Before the 20th Century, elements of modern and postmodern literature can be seen popping up among the best of literature. Novels like The Picture of Dorian Gray and Pride and Prejudice and even older pre-novel works like Hamlet and The Canterbury Tales have elements reflecting the chaos: the depths of psychology, the fear of advancing technology, the downfall of conventionality, the inherent wrongness in rules of morality and religion.

Personally, I think all of literature was leading toward the birth of modern works. Questions about race asked by Oroonoko and Robinson Crusoe are answered by literature from the Harlem Renaissance. The heavily structured language of the Victorian Era’s A Christmas Carol and The War of the Worlds led to the deconstruction of language in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Early women writers like Aphra Behn and Jane Austen opened the doors for modern and postmodern writers like Virginia Woolf and Alice Walker. There’s no Ulysses without Dante’s Divine Comedy.

That’s my theory, anyway. And I like it for the same reason I like Ulysses: the “everything-is-connected”-ness of it all. Granted, it’s not a very scholarly theory, but it puts the “story” in “history.”

As I finish up Ulysses, you’ll hear more of this theory—next week is the big one!

Until then, enjoy your week.

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Shining

Good morning, class.

The 50-books list doesn’t provide a lot in the realm of horror. Sure, there’s Frankenstein and Hamlet, which both at least count, and even my current book The War of the Worlds portrays the horror element of classic sci-fi. But still, I don’t see much that’s horror, first and foremost.

There could be a good reason for that . . . horror is usually low quality; cheap thrills, shallow characters, bad storytelling. But there are exceptions to the genre, and Stephen King proves that with The Shining—so much so that it deserves a place on the list of books you should read before you die.

The story: a small, struggling family watches over the Overlook Hotel through the winter, as supernatural forces try to tear them apart. The father’s alcoholism leaves him vulnerable to the violent spirits in the hotel, and he becomes monstrously abusive. His wife tries to protect their little boy, who just happens to have the ability to communicate with the spirits around them—an ability called shining.

It’s a bad situation . . . and bad becomes worse. They are trapped by the snowstorm in a maze of a building that is crawling with fear, paranoia, rage, and evil. Of course, with Stephen King as the writer, tension smothers every page.

King’s novels are not high literature, in my opinion . . . but this is more compliment than complaint. Of the handful that I’ve read, his novels don’t have that air of pretentiousness found in most English-class pieces of literature. He is an entertainer, and he performs really well with tools like horror and suspense.

Author Stephen King

He’s said that his ideas are situational; the what-ifs inspire the story. “What if . . . a family is trapped in a haunted hotel?” Everything stems from that. So his characters are like pawns in a chess game, and we wait to find out who wins, who is sacrificed, and who makes a narrow escape. One of the reasons King’s stories are so well-received is because his approach is both the key to successful suspense and the essence of storytelling: the question “what happens next?”

If there’s any reason The Shining shouldn’t be on the list, it’s because horror isn’t for everyone. I might agree, if it wasn’t an amazing novel. The Shining handles fear in a way that is important to experience—fear of people who we think love us; fear of people who are under something else’s control; fear of large and imposing forces, and conquering that fear not through blindness or ignorance, but through courage and accepting fear.

Because The Shining handles fear better than any other book I’ve ever read.

It is important to mention that the abusive father character is spending most of his time trying to write a novel, and meanwhile Stephen King has suffered from alcohol abuse. So King isn’t approaching these characters by glorifying a real social problem. In fact, he’s pouring out his soul. That might be the one common denominator between all great works of literature. Food for thought.

See you next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Great Women of Literature

Good morning, class.

It’s National Women’s History Month, and as usual, I’m celebrating through literature! Out of the many, I’ve picked my favorite female authors and poets who have changed the game (and just to be clear, it may be a national holiday, but my picks are global).

These are in no order, and I’ve included their most notable works (and links to previous blog posts, if you want to hear more of my ramblings . . . enter at your own risk).

  1. Jane Austen: Pride and PrejudiceSense and SensibilityEmmaPersuasion
  2. J. K. Rowling: The Harry Potter Series
  3. Harper LeeTo Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman
  4. S. E. HintonThe Outsiders
  5. Lois LowryThe Giver and Number the Stars
  6. The Brontë SistersJane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  7. Alice WalkerThe Color Purple
  8. Emily Dickinson: various poetry
  9. Maya AngelouI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and various poetry
  10. Sylvia PlathThe Bell Jar and various poetry
  11. Claudia RankineCitizen: An American Lyric
  12. Mary ShelleyFrankenstein
  13. Elizabeth Bishop: various poetry
  14. Phillis Wheatley: various poetry
  15. Mary WollstonecraftA Vindication of the Rights of Women
  16. Virginia WoolfMrs. DallowayTo the Lighthouse, and A Room of One’s Own
  17. Aphra BehnOroonoko: or, the Royal Slave

We all know that this is the tip of the iceberg . . . none of these women were stopped by the male-dominated-ness of the world of literature, and neither were millions of others. So, small as it may be, consider this post an act of feminism.

Happy National Women’s History Month!

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Odyssey

Welcome back, students.

I’m starting something new today: I’ve studied the “50 Books to Read Before you Die” list often over the past few months, and it is my duty as a teacher to tell you that our textbook is flawed. I’m sure the people who made the list are wagging their fingers at me, but I can’t see them, because this is a blog. So I win this round.

There are quite a few selections missing from this list, and from now on, I will be dedicating class time now and again toward rectifying this wrong. I’ve read plenty of books that aren’t on the list, and they deserve the Prof. Jeffrey treatment. too. So let’s jump ship.

Sculpture of Odysseus

Sculpture of Odysseus

Speaking of ships, The Odyssey by Homer tells the story of the worst ocean vacation recorded in literary history. Everyone knows the story, probably from freshman English: Odysseus takes the long way home after defeating the Trojans, and he is stopped by virtually every single monster in Greek mythology.

I partly bring it up now because it has heavily influenced the “50 Books” list. I’m reading my ninth book for this blog, and so far, three of those books were retelling Odysseus’ story: Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe Catcher in the Rye, and currently, The Grapes of Wrath, each of which is a series of episodes about a hero on the quest for home, both figuratively and metaphorically. The Odyssey may not have invented the quest narrative, but its ideas on the hero’s quest have equally influenced novels like The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter Series. There are more retellings to come on the list—most obviously with James Joyce’s Ulysses, but also indirectly with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, among others.

Perhaps it didn’t make the list because it has more power as an influence than as a story on its own, but even that is a stretch. Not only is the poetry of the story remarkable, but Odysseus’ journey itself is stunning—he encounters sirens, a deadly Cyclops, sea monsters, Circe the witch, a band of suitors trying to take his wife and home, and near countless gods with their own agendas. Add on the fact that he antagonizes Poseidon, god of the sea, and then tries to sail home. Honestly, he was asking for it.

Painting of Odysseus, his son Telemachus, and his dog Argos

Painting of Odysseus, his son Telemachus, and his dog Argos

But his he-was-asking-for-it-ness, or what the experts call hubris or excessive pride, makes Odysseus vain, heroic, and oddly human all at once. Every character that seems inspired by him—in the above examples, that’s Alice, Holden Caulfield, Tom Joad, etc.—has that human oddness etched into their DNA. They each are reflections of “that man skilled in all ways of contending.” They each have that uncompromising, confident human spirit in the face of all obstacles.

Like I said, our textbook is flawed. The Odyssey is absolutely one of the books you should read before you die.

More books will have their day in my missing-from-the-list lectures; I’d like to get enough to make my own alternate list, but let’s take this one step at a time…

Your homework: take a moment to look at the list yourself. Are there any books you think are missing? What book(s) should people read before they die? Comment below, and if I’ve read it, it may become a class topic, with maybe a quick shout out to the person who posts it (fame is achievable, my friends).

If the month of November doesn’t kill me, then you can look forward to my post on The Grapes of Wrath.

See you next week!

Prof. Jeffrey

The Bible

bible-textGood morning class.

Today’s lesson is pretty serious—the Bible is arguably the most important text in human history, so I’ll begin with a kind of disclaimer:

Just like with Hamlet last week, I can’t possibly talk about everything that the Bible entails. Even worse, I can’t actually state a fact on the Bible without saying something potentially offensive. Everyone has their own experience with religion, some more positive than others, and even having the Bible on the “50 Books to Read Before You Die” list is debatable. There are people who hate it, people who are inspired by it, people who avoid it entirely, and people who use, misuse, and abuse it everyday.

With that in mind, I have two goals. 1) I’m going to talk about how the Bible has impacted me and my life (without bearing too much of my soul), and 2) I’m going to explain why I think you should read the Bible before you die. My hope is that I portray the Bible with not-too-much bias, and that you, students, are able to read this post with an open mind.

When I set out to read the Bible in its entirety, it was to improve my knowledge of the religious beliefs I had been practicing my entire life. I was in my senior year of high school when I started, and I read small sections of the Bible everyday throughout college. It was often difficult to continue, but I accomplished the task and am very glad that I did.

…But the Bible can be profoundly boring and profoundly outdated. Not only are the lists of names, endless instructions, and intricate details for tabernacles tedious…these are often followed by passages that forbid women to speak in church, condemn homosexuality, and encourage slavery, murder, and war. These passages make a significant portion of the Bible difficult to read.

An illustration of Naomi and Ruth, from the book of Ruth (Old Testament)

An illustration of Naomi and Ruth, from the Book of Ruth (Old Testament)

For me, these passages are admissible because of historical and cultural context. It’s certainly worth mentioning that the Bible is the oldest text on the 50-books list—it’s a collection of documents passed down orally, eventually written down, and translated multiple times over the course of thousands of years. Add to this that the authors were men in hugely male-dominated societies, and you should arrive at one obvious conclusion: the Bible is flawed.

The Bible is also incredibly beautiful. It doesn’t take a belief in God to see that many of the Psalms are moving works of poetry, or that Jesus’ parables are deep and layered metaphors. I really enjoyed reading and rereading these moments, where religion joined song and meaning. I am an English major, after all.

But the moments I enjoyed most were specifically for religious reasons—mostly, the passages that refer to love. My ideas of love come from the Bible, because most of the books I’ve read involve the kind of love that comes from the Bible (such as the Harry Potter series, which is more about love than anything else). Love that is powerful, sweeping, gentle, emotional, forgiving, and never-ending…it’s found in some of my favorite Bible passages.

As I studied each passage, I flinched at the offensive moments, almost nodded off at the boring moments, and happily praised the beautiful moments. As a practicing, active Christian, it means a lot to me that I don’t actively practice every instruction or belief in the Bible. It also means a lot to me that Biblical interpretations mean just as much to me as the text itself—it is a translation, after all, and I don’t mean to learn Hebrew any time soon.

The Nativity Scene

The Nativity Scene

I view the Bible as a complicated guide for living life. It is helpful, even with its prejudices, when it is read for spiritual growth or information. When it’s used as a tool for power or manipulation, it can easily become abusive, and this happens daily. My beliefs aren’t too complicated here—when I think of evil, I don’t think of a horned devil or a fiery hell; I think of the capacity for evil within human beings. I think evil is hatred and segregation. People who use the Bible to oppress or suppress others are falling prey to their own evil capacity. Parts of the Bible fall into this category—I use these passages for information (i.e., to understand the culture of the time), but these passages have very little, or nothing at all, to do with my religious practice.

On the other hand, the Bible is also worth looking at simply because it’s referenced in every book on the 50-books list. Even the ones I haven’t read yet—I’m willing to bet they each use it as inspiration. In the history of English literature, nothing has made a bigger impact than the Bible. Looking more closely at the Bible has its own benefits, but it’s also the key to understanding some of the greatest literary masterpieces from the past thousand years.

A close up of Michelangelo's painting on the Sistine Chapel

A close up of Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel

But for me, it’s about the journey of love. Connection, family, honesty, communion, trust, forgiveness, communication, acceptance, sacrifice, faith, pain…it’s all love in different ways. That’s the “point” of the Bible.

I’ve already started reading my next novel: The Catcher in the Rye. It actually has a lot in common with Hamlet, with the focus on a vengeful, misguided youth, so it seemed like a logical leap—granted, it’s a leap forward hundreds of years and across the Atlantic…

More on that next week!

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: What is “Literature,” Exactly?

Welcome back, class.

Today’s lecture might be profoundly interesting or dangerously boring; it depends on the level of pleasure you take in defining things.  I know that some of you couldn’t care less. I can see it in your eyes.

But for those of you staring unblinkingly, waiting with bated breath…have I got a treat for you!  You’re what the “academics” call “academics.”  Understanding theory and theoretical ideas actually interests you, and bonus points are in order if you like learning things that have no practical value in the working world whatsoever.  You’re my kind of people.

books-stock-photoA lot of my time in literature courses at college was spent asking the probing question, “What is literature?”  (We’ll get to WHY that’s an important question in a bit.) It seems like a simple enough question, but it always invokes a huge discussion that usually boils down to this: literature is art that uses words and language. It’s also described as a category of art—literature is always art but art is not always literature.

Some define it by examples: obvious ones like novels, plays, and poems, as well as more obscure examples like movies, blog posts (!), and essays. Even the most clinical or scientific documents can be told artfully, and can therefore be considered literature.  I know of a woman who wrote her dissertation claiming that kitchen recipes were a form of literature.

A T-Shirt Poem

A T-Shirt Poem

This leads me to one of my favorite claims: ANYTHING that uses words or text is literature.  A letter, an e-mail, a paycheck, a coffee mug, a T-shirt, a company logo, a video game, a poster, a political speech, a prescription label…all of it, literature!  So next time you have a surprise essay to write, and you’re stumped, argue that your T-shirt is a poem (at your own peril).

However, it’s worth mentioning that we don’t read tax reports like we read Shakespeare.  We don’t read stop signs like we read poetry, and we don’t read magic 8 balls like we read Harry Potter.  Something in our collective social standards distinguishes between high art and instruction manuals.  Some metaphorical blurry line exists out there between literature and other word-piles.

Or…maybe it’s all relative.  Literature is literature because someone somewhere says that it’s literature, and you can’t declare it non-literature because they have just as much a God-given right to name something literature as you do. Literature is in the eye of the beholder.

baby-reading-photoBut let’s bring it back down to something resembling sanity.  Why do we read?  Usually, to learn something.  When we read Shakespeare, we want to learn about the characters he’s created and the philosophy he’s trying to sell.  When we read a letter or e-mail, it’s to keep up correspondence and to understand their goal or message in sending their note.  When we read a magic 8 ball, we want a prediction, whether we believe it or not.

We read for the same reason we act at all—we want something.  We break the law of inertia and move against the stillness of the world because we, as human beings, have desires.  Maybe if a piece of art or text gives us something we desire, it “counts” as literature.

At this point, it might be easier to discuss literary characteristics than to try defining it head-on.  We can consider the books I’ve read for this class literature: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the RingsThe Picture of Dorian Gray, and currently, 1984.  Everything you learned in High School English is there—characters, plot, themes, setting, dialogue, and various other indications of literature.  Each one gives us something to take away and use…some kind of message or lasting idea, whether we want it or not.  Does that make each of these novels literature?  If a painting or sculpture can accomplish the same feat, is it literature as well?

bookshelf-illustrationI’ve tortured you enough.  There is no definite answer to this question, and asking it is more academic “fun” than it is accomplishing ANYTHING. And yet, my follow-up question still stands: why is a question like this important? Don’t worry, it’s a much easier question to answer.

Defining literature is a lot like defining art or music.  As soon as you start drawing lines in the sand between music and not-music, anyone can come along and claim otherwise. Example: random drum banging, screeching guitars, and uncensored swearing is as much music as Beethoven.  Music and literature are art, and though their actual definitions are reliable, they are subject to change.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

I’ve quoted Oscar Wilde in an earlier post, from his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray; he claims that the only purpose for something useless is that it is admired, and that “All art is quite useless.”  This isn’t bad PR for artists; it’s Wilde’s way of saying that art is supposed to affect the soul, and it has no other practical purpose.

So asking ourselves how to define something like literature is our way of defining what serves our soul, and that’s worth keeping an eye out for.  Traditionally, the kind of literature that affects us most is poetry, but we’ve been open to suggestions for the past couple thousand years.  The once low art form of film has risen to new heights in the realm of literature, and in a hundred years, stop signs and tax reports may surprise us.

Your homework: fight me.  Take something above that you disagree with and challenge my views.  Don’t be afraid to comment: you’re a human being with opinions, and it gets lonely around here otherwise.  How might you define literature differently? What’s something you consider literature that most others don’t?

(No one turned in homework for last week. I’m very disappointed, students.  I know professors who kick out their entire classes when such mutiny occurs. You are very fortunate to have a caring and merciful teacher like me.  In any case, the option for commenting is still open, for this post and the previous one.)

I’m continuing 1984, so expect a rousing political lecture next Wednesday!  Have a good week!

Prof. Jeffrey