50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Love (page 1 of 4)

Frankenstein

Good morning, class.

I’ve made it to the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There are parts I like and parts I don’t like, but one thing continues to stand out to me: Frankenstein is considered by many as the birthplace of science fiction. The genre has a reputation for being male-dominated—as though Star Wars and Jurassic Park are only meant for men—and yet, science fiction seems to be established by a woman. It’s a reputation perpetuated by sexism and confounded by Frankenstein‘s very existence.


The blueprint of the story is well-known, even though the details have been undone and remade over two centuries of reinvention. An ordinary man, Victor Frankenstein, sets himself to the extraordinary task of creating life, and in a way, conquering death. He becomes a now-stereotypical mad scientist, unrivaled in determination and unthinking of consequences; and his creation is much more monstrous than he anticipated. The monster, sympathetic as he is, rampages through Frankenstein’s life until a devastating climax, and we readers are meant to learn our lesson: mindless ambition, even for the right reasons, can cause serious harm.

The original story is much more literary than it’s several reimaginings. It’s framed in a handful of narratives and allows for different perspectives on morality, fault, religion, and science. Most importantly, the monster himself is a fleshed-out character—thinking, learning, and speaking monologues on par with Frankenstein himself. It may not be realistic, but it’s the key to understanding who this creature is, what he wants, and why he acts the way he does.

The monster may be terrifying, but he is equally a victim of humanity’s abuse and hatred. It’s made very clear that the monster’s villainy exists because he has known nothing but misery—he was never loved, and that makes him as evil as he is. He is rejected and feared by all, and to defend himself, he quickly learns to fight back against those who mean him harm. He learns the ways of violence and revenge to survive, and the blame is traced back directly to his creator.


It’s a fantastic story, and a revolutionary concept. But it isn’t my taste—it drags on quite a bit, with Frankenstein’s inner turmoil egregiously taking up most of the story. The middle of the story—about 7 chapters—is told from the monster’s perspective, and while I appreciate the narrative need for this section, it’s just so tedious. I want the storytelling approach to be different, so it’s hard to enjoy the book, even with so much to like.

Author Mary Shelley

But after all this, there so much it does that redefines science fiction. My favorite interpretation of Frankenstein portrays Victor as a sexist (and knowing that Mary Shelley’s mother is Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, this holds up well). Victor’s approach to creating life removed any female presence, as though in his eyes, creating life should be a male enterprise. The resulting monster is one made without female influence, and it’s Victor’s manly actions that continue to antagonize the creature, the consequences of which are irreparable. With Frankenstein, Shelley defined sexism through a male lens (as a story told by a man) and she proved that the simple act of excluding women results in disaster.

It’s clear why Frankenstein makes the 50-books list. It’s Gothic literature at its core, and science fiction before science fiction existed. It’s a story that stood the test of time and continues to affect its genre. And no matter my taste, it is a good story—one worth reading at least once.


That’s 50 books! This blog is nearing its end, and I’ve got to more posts to write—my definitive ranking of all 50 books, from least favorite to favorite, and one final review of my experience as a whole. And that’ll be it!

Thanks for reading,

Prof. Jeffrey

I probably did love Maman, but that didn’t mean anything. At one time or another all normal people have wished their loved ones were dead.”

—from The Stranger by Albert Camus

Missing From the List: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Hello again, class.

At this point, I’ve picked more than 20 books that are “missing from the list”—books that I think deserve to be read as much as the “50 Books to Read Before You Die.” They all stand out for one reason or another . . . they all feature some crucial element not found on the original list. The Outsiders is hallmark young adult fiction, in a way that the other 50 books fails to deliver; The Shining is one of the best horror novels of all time, and horror in its own right is not as featured on the list as it should be; Citizen is one-of-a-kind, a cultural collage of racism in America; and there’s nothing in children’s literature quite like the works of Dr. Seuss.

Then there’s Cloud Atlas—a book that I chose to write about not because it had something crucial the list was missing . . . but because it mashes the best books on the list together. Cloud Atlas is not one book, but several—it’s a montage of genres throughout time that resonates more strongly as one piece. In a way, it’s its own library.

The full set of the 13 book series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, published from 1999-2006.

The same can be said of A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. This 13-book series is filled to the brim with cues from the greatest books of all time, so that each new character, plot device, or unfortunate event is the makings of Lemony Snicket’s personal, quirky library. From 1984 to Moby Dick, and from the poetry of T. S. Eliot to The Little Engine That Could, Lemony Snicket filled his books with other books and made something original: a modern literary canon for kids, as well as a part-time dictionary, a how-to manual, and a kind but constant reminder that the world is a treacherous place . . . and that knowledge, dedication, and empathy are the tools one needs to fight treachery.


I’m not sure that a synopsis is needed for a series this famous, but just in case . . . this is the miserable story of the Baudelaire children, who, after a fire in their home, become the Baudelaire orphans. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, each with their own talents and skills, are thrust into a world without the comforts of home and with only the memory of their parents, and they fall into the hands of Count Olaf, a villain who wants to steal the Baudelaire fortune. Time and again the Baudelaires escape his clutches, and time and again he catches up to them, making every chapter in their lives seem more unfortunate than the last.

The first book, titled The Bad Beginning (1999)

And no—it’s not a happy children’s story. The narrator makes that unbelievably obvious in every single installment, writing about how dreadful the lives of these children are and how you, dear reader, would be far better off not reading this story at all. That’s part of the genius of A Series of Unfortunate Events—author Daniel Handler, who created the fictional narrator Lemony Snicket, writes in a way that makes this tragic story absurdly interesting. I’ve said it before . . . it’s almost impossible to describe, it simply has to be experienced.


There are several reasons I think A Series of Unfortunate Events should be included on the list. For one thing, the series handles concepts like grief and sadness in ways that are perfect for children and teenagers, without compromising on those concepts to make them “child-friendly.” Evil exists, and Count Olaf represents it, but that evil has been in this world long before Count Olaf appeared and it will be here long after he’s gone. Facing evil takes love, like love for a sibling, love for those we’ve lost, and love for others in this world that are suffering, who need a volunteer to help them—and not simply a blind, thoughtless love, but a courageous, unconditional love of understanding and acceptance. That kind of love can be hard to find in a world of schisms and fires, but it’s our last hope against evil, and we must cling to it.

A symbol used throughout all 13 books, revealing many secrets for the Baudelaires. It most commonly appears as the sinister tattoo on Count Olaf’s ankle.

With that as the backbone of the story, what remains is an absurd world filled with poorly named reptiles, hypnotism, a pit of hungry lions, several angry mobs, a bad acting troupe, vicious leeches, a deadly fungus, and a secret organization filled with codes, disguises, weapons, and more mysteries than can be imagined. The story is ridiculous, often funny even, and stands out accordingly.

And for all that, there’s a reason it belongs on the list that’s special—the thing that makes this series special, not just among children’s literature but among all stories. It’s the same thing that makes Cloud Atlas special—A Series of Unfortunate Events is, among other things, a complicated concoction of the greatest moments of literature, and that blended result is something entirely different than what came before. It’s even a direct reflection of the 50-books list itself, taking the old stories and making them new. A Series of Unfortunate Events is a library all on its own, and this is a story that loves how a library can be a kind of sanctuary—a place that fosters curiosity, provides access to knowledge, and can be one of the last safe places in a dangerous world.


This blogger can testify that stories and books have always been a refuge. Stories can take you places you’ve never seen, reveal truths you’ve never imagined, and comfort you when you’ve never been lonelier. Lemony Snicket understands that better than most, and he understands that stories can give you the tools you need to go out into the world after you’ve set the book down. Even if this series isn’t for everybody, I can personally testify that it’s one of the forces of good in our treacherous world.

I’m not sure if I can say the same about Catch-22, which I’m still finishing up for next time. I’ve said already that it’s sort of an anti-story—and an anti-war story to boot. It’s experimental, and that’s always a plus in my readings. I think there’s a subtle reference to Catch-22 in A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I can’t be completely sure—emotionally, the two stories aren’t that far apart from each other, so it doesn’t surprise me. The horrors of war played for laughs in a comedy of the absurd would be the perfect inspiration for the Baudelaire’s ridiculously miserable lives.

Either way . . . more on Catch-22 next time. Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“Love is like any other luxury. You have no right to it unless you can afford it.”

—from The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Birdsong

Hello again, class.

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

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


Poster for the stage adaptation of Birdsong (2010)

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

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


Author Sebastian Faulks

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

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


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

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

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

—from Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Missing From the List: Romeo and Juliet

Welcome back, class.

I’ve been back and forth on this one—there have been times when I couldn’t stand this play. But no matter if I like it or not, this Romeo and Juliet really deserves to be read by everyone, if only for the lesson it teaches—don’t let yourself be carried away by the passions of youth. That’s absolutely why we all read it in high school: so that our English teachers could remind us not to throw our lives away on “young love” and hurt others in the process.

Thankfully, the story is more than that—it is Shakespeare, after all.


It’s a story old as time—two teenagers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, become instantly infatuated with each other at first sight, even though their families are involved in an ongoing feud. They decide to get married, and in a complicated plot to get their families to stop fighting, Romeo kills a man and is banished, Juliet pretends to die to get away from her family, Romeo thinks Juliet is really dead and kills himself, and Juliet kills herself shortly after. Tragedy abounds.

People like to call Romeo and Juliet the greatest love story of all time, but the main characters are senseless, hasty, and melodramatic in their so-called love. It is an infatuation between two teenagers, built on feelings alone—not dependability, companionship, compatibility, rationality, or forethought.

Shakespeare makes them sound much less one-dimensional than my analysis, so the story is much better than that. His writing throughout Romeo and Juliet is romantic and beautiful, which helped Romeo and Juliet stand the test of time. But I also bet Shakespeare new exactly how dumb his main characters were, as they took their own lives for each other for the sake of what looked like love, but was actually a crush.


A Portrait of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare also gives his main characters a little credit when it comes to their families, which are pure chaos. The Montagues and Capulets are little more than rival gangs (hence the adaptation with a twist, the musical West Side Story), and they give Romeo and Juliet little choice but to marry in secret. Even the Friar that marries them has an ulterior motive—to unite the families through this marriage, end the feud, and stop the constant violence in the streets. The lesson to learn from Romeo and Juliet isn’t just for the children, but for the rest of the Montagues and Capulets that let passion guide their hearts towards violence.

That lesson—don’t let passion carry you away, for the sake of love, violence, etc.—is important in its own right, but I’ll admit it can diminish the story too. It’s easy to talk about Romeo and Juliet now, having read it almost 10 years ago, but no matter how much I made fun of it or hated reading it, it was one of the first real tragedies I’d ever read. The two main characters are partly at fault for their fate, but so are their families. This is a story about two people who committed suicide when there were so many other options available . . . all because they had dedicated their lives to a person they had known for less than a week. It’s infuriating and depressing, and a careful reminder of how far our reckless hearts can force us to go. In some twisted, backwards, cynical way, I think that makes Romeo and Juliet required reading for everyone.


Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet (1996)

But if that’s not a good enough reason for you, I’ve got at least one more—Romeo and Juliet is everywhere. There are references to it in so many books, movies, TV shows, short stories, and poems that everyone deserves the chance to read it just to pick up on the subtleties of half of all art. Since teenagers with crushes is one of the most universal human stories in history, it’s applicable in every medium. On the list of the 50 Books alone, Romeo and Juliet is featured in one major form or another in Wuthering HeightsThe Great GatsbyBrave New WorldThe Way We Live NowHuckleberry Finn . . . just to name a few. Romeo and Juliet pervaded the cultural landscape and staked it’s claim on teenagers with feelings, and everything that came after is a reflection of the original Shakespeare.

All in all, I may not like Romeo and Juliet all that much, but that makes it no less important. It deserves to be on the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, and there are several books worth kicking off to make room.


I’m finishing up Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, which I’ll write about next. Romeo and Juliet may be a better “love story,” but Birdsong is, in its way, a better story about love. There isn’t as much warning against runaway passion, but Birdsong seems more dedicated to the idea of love bringing people together, even in ways society looks down upon. Had Romeo and Juliet been stronger characters, it’s possible their long lives would have looked like the tortured lovers’ lives of Birdsong—but I’m getting ahead of myself. More on Birdsong next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘A knight I am, and a knight I will die, if it be heaven’s goodwill. Some pass through the spacious field of proud ambition; others through that of servile and base flattery; others by the way of deceitful hypocrisy; and some by that of true religion: but I, by the influence of my star, take the narrow path of knight-errantry, for the exercise whereof I despise wealth, but not honour. I have redressed grievances, righted wrongs, chastised insolences, vanquished giants, and trampled upon hobgoblins: I am in love, but only because knights-errant must be so; and, being so, I am no vicious lover, but a chaste Platonic one. My intentions are always directed to virtuous ends, to do good to all, and to hurt none. Whether he, who means thus, acts thus, and lives in the practice of all this, deserves to be called a fool, let your grandeurs judge, most excellent duke and duchess.'”

—from Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Missing From the List: The Awakening

Welcome back class.

My impression is that most people don’t know what The Awakening by Kate Chopin is—I definitely didn’t when I read it for the first time for a college class. It’s a novella, 39 short chapters, focusing on a woman’s deterioration and transformation (a lot like The Bell Jar and Anna Kareninaprobably why it didn’t make the list, since it made less of an impact than two other well-known and similar novels).

But The Awakening sets itself apart—what looks like the deterioration of a character may actually be a kind of empowerment. Where Anna Karenina depicts a woman who succumbs to her own loneliness, and The Bell Jar features a woman who attempting to conquer depression, The Awakening focuses on a woman who, above all, breaks free. To the other characters in her life, it looks like hysteria or psychosis. But there may be something more to her predicament.


Protagonist Edna Pontellier is a caged woman—a mother and wife living at the turn-of-the-century in New Orleans. Her cage is her husband, her children, even her own mind’s tiredness . . . she is asleep, in more ways than one. A series of small emotional prods begin to “wake her up” and clue her in to the nature of her life, which she realizes she doesn’t want. Her happiness has been set aside for the sake of who she is supposed to be, but it’s never a life she wanted.

A woman in Edna’s life named Adèle helps her realize her caged-ness, which upends life for Mr. Pontellier and their children. She begins to abandon them and all other “obligations.” But she isn’t searching for her own happiness anymore—that’s too cheap a thing to sacrifice a family for, even one she doesn’t want. Edna abandons the things that she’s supposed to be tethered to by Nature’s command. Societal restraints, emotional attachments, marital vows, human instinct . . . she eventually abandons all of these attachments, even her body’s attachment to life. For Edna, this is what it means to be awake: to break free of the cage Nature has put us in.


There’s no doubt that The Awakening is controversial. It seems to champion suicidal behavior in a way that even The Bell Jar couldn’t boast of. Edna’s decision to abandon her children is sorrowful at best, deplorable at worst. Even seeing Edna’s actions as a kind of awakening is controversial—her choices easily indicate a disturbed mind.

Author Kate Chopin

Chopin keeps it complicated. If we as readers are to really believe Edna’s motivations as a true awakening of self, we have to attribute some sense to her actions. But I wouldn’t say Chopin’s goal is to get us to sympathize with Edna’s frame of mind—I think that Chopin’s goal in writing The Awakening was to make us question our motives as human beings, and to question the characteristics humanity lends itself to, like parenthood, desire, loyalty, and even love. What if love is some kind of evolutionary imperative that keeps the species alive? Are we trapped in a cage, like Edna, because of our “obligation” to emotions like love, or concepts like humanity?

To make people ask questions like that is enough reason to put The Awakening on the list of 50 books to read before you die—as it should have been.


I’m still finishing up The Diary of Anne Frank. It’s a complete leap from The Awakening—I’m getting a little whiplash thinking about both at once. Chopin’s fictional story lets me question the flaws in human nature, but Anne Frank’s story will restore my faith in it, even with the stakes she faced.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts on her story next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be. And if you don’t love me any more, it would be better and more honest to say so.'”

—from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

« Older posts