50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Modernism

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

Men Without Women

Welcome back class.

I haven’t read a lot of Ernest Hemingway’s work—he is well-known for novels like For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, both of which I haven’t read yet. I have read several of his short stories and only one of his novels: The Sun Also Rises. So when I saw Hemingway’s name on the 50-books list, I wasn’t surprised. But when I saw the book of his that was chosen—his short story collection Men Without Women—I was baffled, because I’d never heard of it before.

I typically refer to Hemingway as an author I don’t like, though I can understand why his works are studied and praised. But if I’m honest, Hemingway intimidates me like no other author. His stories are deceptively plain, and a fast reader will breeze past all of the subtleties of his work in search of the story. On the surface, his stories are almost boring; but in the smallest of details he hides the things that make his stories great. This can make a novel like The Sun Also Rises exhausting, because if you read too quickly, you can fly through the whole book having learned nothing at all. But in a four-page short story, once you reach the end and wonder exactly what happened, you have more of an opportunity to go back to the beginning and find what you missed—the small detail that changed everything.

That’s what I discovered with Men Without Women, and I enjoyed reading it much more than I thought I would. I won’t say it was my favorite read, or even close, but I earned something out of it. That’s more than I could have hoped for.


Charles McGraw and William Conrad in a 1946 adaptation of Hemingway’s story “The Killers”

It’s much harder to review a collection of short stories, because there are no broad strokes. Some stories stand out compared to others—“Ten Indians”, the story of a boy’s first heartbreak, is one I’d read before in high school, and things jumped out at me much more this time than 6 years ago. I’ve noticed the story “The Killers” has been turned into a movie several times, and I know why—the story is about two men taking hostages in a restaurant waiting to kill a man on arrival, and so many details are left out that it’s only natural for a variety of filmmakers to fill in the gaps.

Most of the stories are under ten pages, but two of the stories are closer to 30 pages: “The Undefeated,” which opens the book, is a story about an aging bullfighter proving his worth in a new era of the sport; and “Fifty Grand,” taking up the exact middle of the book, is the story of a boxer who fixes his own match to get a payout. I think both of these stories function as a foundation for the other stories—Hemingway’s method of building an interconnecting structure between stories that are otherwise isolated.

Two stories are hardly stories at all, which fits right in with the modernist writings of the era. “Today is Friday” is a script, following a group of Roman soldiers on Good Friday after Jesus is executed, and the cherry on top is that these soldiers speak in colloquial, Hemingway English. Then there’s “Banal Story,” which is either a nonfiction piece or a stream-of-consciousness experiment that lays out storytelling rules and then breaks them, and it ends by throwing in a cameo appearance from the protagonist of “The Undefeated,” dying in a hospital after his bullfighting days are over.


Author Ernest Hemingway

No one story is my favorite, nor would I call any the most shocking or most powerful. Hemingway’s balance as a writer is strong, and from that balance comes the common theme: even though there are technically women in several stories, each story focuses on men separately from women, or Hemingway’s trademark obsession with masculinity.

Hemingway’s stories are about athletes and soldiers (in a time before it was common for women to be either); his stories are about husbands and bachelors, and about boys becoming men; his stories are maybe even about sexuality and its unspeakable deviations; and more than anything, his stories are about how internally, men rarely if ever admit to themselves that there’s something going on under the surface of their stoic, frozen masculinity. Hemingway finds clever and creative ways for his stories to celebrate the masculinity he upheld until his dying day, while also subverting it in the details of those stories, and through that lens, it’s no wonder that Hemingway made the list.

And that explains, too, how Men Without Women made the list over his novels. Hemingway’s novels might have gained more popularity than his short stories over the years, but they are no less masterpieces. What better way to capture Hemingway’s perfect understanding of men, internally, culturally, and broadly, than to include a collection of stories diverse enough to do what a novel can’t?

So even though it had its faults, and it certainly isn’t my favorite, Men Without Women has left a mark where I didn’t imagine it could. Masculinity is not the kind of content I want to focus on; we live in an age of toxic masculinity, where culturally, men are often deservedly—I’ll say it again, DESERVEDLY—the bad guy. Hemingway seems to have known all the sides of masculinity, toxicity included, but he praised it’s healthy parts as well and took masculinity as the social force it is, warts and all. The result is a collection of good stories that I recommend.


There is one other thing I picked up from Hemingway about writing, and it’s one of my favorite metaphors. A good story will act like an iceberg—icebergs hide a silent majority of their mass under water, and less than half of its mass is all that can be seen. A good story shows only a small portion of its content—the rest is hidden under the surface, and though you can’t always see it, the rest of the story is absolutely hiding there, waiting to be discovered.

Next up is Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, just as much a masculinity-infused novel. And just like Hemingway, I have my problems with it, but it’s so well written I can forgive what I don’t like. It’s hard to pull off such an epic story in a mental ward, and Kesey manages just fine.

But more on that next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Metamorphosis

Good morning, class.

I’ve made it clear that my favorite eras of literature are modernism and postmodernism, mostly because they break the rules. I’m not a natural rule breaker in real life, but I love rule-breaking when it comes to literature—I want my novels weird, thought-provoking, discomforting, and rebellious. That’s why my favorite novels from the list include Ulysses and The Great Gatsby, and that’s why I think novels like To the LighthouseAs I Lay Dying, and All the King’s Men should be included on the list of books everyone should read before they die. The same goes for the German novel The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, one of the weirdest and most challenging novels I’ve ever read.


The plot is half of what makes The Metamorphosis good—Gregor Samsa, an average man trying to support his parents and younger sister, wakes up one morning to discover he has transformed into a giant bug. There’s no explanation, no meaning (no rules) . . . just the terrible event itself is enough to propel the story forward. Gregor’s first impulses are to think about his job and how he will continue to support his family, and how to adjust to this sudden ailment. He doesn’t give himself time to think about much else—he doesn’t have time to waste.

Gregor can’t communicate with his family (or his employer), and the members of the Samsa family are all forced to adjust to Gregor’s metamorphosis, too. This includes feeding Gregor, who now only likes rotten things like spoiled meat or old fruit. Cleaning becomes quite an issue, because Gregor can no longer clean his room in his current state; Gregor’s sister Grete becomes accustomed to cleaning while he hides under the bed, worried about scaring her by showing himself. Of course, the hardest adjustments involve the family getting by without Gregor working. Mr. Samsa’s old age and Mrs. Samsa’s asthma are obstacles to overcome in order to get jobs, while Grete at 17 years old can only do so much.

The story doesn’t waver from this approach. The Metamorphosis is the most absurd family drama ever written, about how a family deals with the weight of their dutiful Gregor’s untimely transformation. Any truly fantasy narrative would capitalize on the strangeness of the fantasy, but instead, Kafka makes his story about the regular struggles of everyday life—just with an added wrinkle. Few novels can pull this off well, so for that alone, The Metamorphosis deserves to be on the list.

(Side note: the use of fantasy elements combined with the mundane realities of life is a literary technique called magical realism. Most fantasy stories are about escape—fantasy as a way to abandon the struggles of everyday life—and magical realism is the exact opposite. Magical realism happens when you are magically transformed into a bug and still have to pay your bills, for instance. It’s an amazing storytelling sub-genre and is one of the hallmarks of modern and postmodern literature.)


Author Franz Kafka

The other half of what makes The Metamorphosis so good is how Kafka manages to take an absurdly mundane plot to show intimate and vulnerable truths about humanity and loneliness. Gregor’s transformation and the events that follow are sometimes funny and sometimes horrifying; Kafka toes the line between those extremes in order to convince us how sad Gregor’s story is. His transformation may or may not have stripped him of his humanity, as he simultaneously thinks with the instincts of a bug and with the care and concern of a brother and son. Without the ability to communicate, he suffers alone and watches his family suffer, too. It’s not much of a spoiler to see that The Metamorphosis has barely a shred of a happy ending.

So, The Metamorphosis becomes this concoction of strange and boring, with a dash of depressing. No, it’s not a delightful story, but it never set out to be and never needs to be. Instead, The Metamorphosis is a story born out of a very human place about a seemingly inhuman creature, and it’s absolutely worth reading by everyone.


Next time, we’ll jump into my experience of reading Ernest Hemingway’s short story collection, Men Without Women. I’ll discuss my complicated experiences with Hemingway, as well as what I liked and didn’t like about his short stories—I can only promise you that I’m biased, and that my next lecture won’t be so typical.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Secret Agent

Author Joseph Conrad

Hello again class.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad is something of an espionage thriller—it’s not James Bond, though. It’s more mundane than your average blockbuster hit. On the surface, anyway.

Before I started The Secret Agent, the professor assigning it hooked me by saying that Conrad’s novel predicted acts of terrorism like the 9/11 attack, almost one hundred years beforehand. That’s not exactly true—not in the way I expected. But the way the book follows a terrorist attack out of sequence (the suicide bombing of an observatory, linked to a group of radical anarchists) makes that fictional event thematically linked to the events of 9/11. The novel’s approach to radicalism, government, corruption, and ideology paints the portrait of an act of terrorism in a modern world. That’s a world we’re familiar with now—not only because of 9/11, but because of the normalcy of violence done by terrorists with easy-to-buy weapons and misguided ideologies. Conrad didn’t predict 9/11 itself, but he predicted the world in which it happened.


The Secret Agent takes place in the late 1800’s (right before the era of modernism in literature began to pick up speed). In it, we follow the agent Adolf Verloc, stationed in London on behalf of a foreign government. He owns a pornographic shop and lives with his wife and her family, and on the side he participates in an illegal anarchist group and reports back to his own government on their actions.

Just as we start to understand this setup, the novel jumps forward and backward in time. A set of characters begin solving the mystery behind the bombing at the observatory, marveling at the horror and “beauty” of it each in their own way. Then we go back to solve the mystery ourselves, and the twist is surprising enough for a novel like this, especially of it’s time.


Part of what makes The Secret Agent special is it’s treatment of time. The movement back and forth outside of chronology was not a standard like it is in today’s film and TV—it was an experimental way to tell this story to its greatest benefit, not done for thrills (not only for thrills, at least). The same thing happens when Conrad’s characters focus on the nature of the explosion, and the people who experienced it—the moment it happened must have lasted an eternity, while the eternity of life breezes by in a moment. Conrad’s point seems to be that time isn’t as stable a structure as we like to imagine—time is in flux, and our misguided perceptions of time only widen the discrepancies between perception and reality.

The characters of The Secret Agent are trapped in this revolving plot, fated to the doom of this explosion and its aftermath. There’s a sense that the explosion is relived when we jump back in time, and the memory of it helps us to do that. In that way, it’s related to the 9/11 attacks. While those directly affected by it suffered so much more, we all deal with a kind of global trauma from that day. Through our memories of the event we relive the experience, and those moments get played out again as if for an eternity. One second is not equal to another—the handful of seconds on that day, when billions of lives changed, had more of a cost than most of the insignificant seconds that make up the day-to-day.


What really makes the novel work is Conrad’s writing, which is difficult and beautiful. His total understanding of his characters and the political action they take are matched by his style. That style may not be for everyone, but for those willing to put in the time and effort, it’s incredibly rewarding. That same style earned Conrad plenty of acclaim with his novel Heart of Darkness, and we’ll go into more detail when that blog post comes along.

As for The Secret Agent . . . while it sounds like it’s inclined to glorify terrorism, I can assure you it doesn’t. The Secret Agent has lasted so long because it shows terrorism for what it is: misguided violence with unbelievable consequences, even beyond the lives lost. Conrad uses ideas like this to criticize radical thinking as well as government inefficiency, both of which our world still suffers from as much as acts of terrorism. It’s worth reading because of its continued relevancy, and that’s why it should have made the list.


I’m still working through Gulliver’s Travels again, and it’s special in its own way. If I had to choose, something like The Secret Agent would be on the list instead of Gulliver’s Travels, but I know which one has affected the world of literature more. The Secret Agent has had little impact beyond it’s own area of literature, but Gulliver’s Travels has a uniqueness that has affected everything after it. More on that next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

Anna Karenina

Hello again, class.

The first thing you notice about Anna Karenina is how long it is. Hopefully, the second thing you notice is how short the chapters are—all of them, two or three pages a pop. It’s really easy to read a chapter a day, and most chapters pick up in the exact spot where you left off last—that’s why, for the past 15 books I’ve written about for this blog, I’ve been reading Anna Karenina on the side. It’s hardly made a dent in my time, even though it took several months to read.

I’ve heard that Anna Karenina is the best novel ever written. Though my vote for that spot is still Ulysses, I can see why Tolstoy’s novel is preferable—Anna Karenina uses a large cast of characters and their diverse inner thoughts to tell the kind of story you can’t look away from, where passion leads to terrible decisions and societal systems punish everyone, without regard to right or wrong. For that, Anna Karenina makes the list of books to read before you die.


Actress Greta Garbo as Anna in one of the several movie adaptations of Anna Karenina.

The novel follows two major stories that intersect and branch out from each other. One story is focused on Anna, a married woman who falls in love with another man and begins an affair, setting in motion the events of the novel. The other story focuses on the landowner Konstantin Levin and his relationship and eventual marriage with the noble Katerina (Kitty). It’s almost like reading two different novels, except for the moments when one story affects the other.

In Anna’s story, her life falls apart almost immediately—once she meets Alexis Vronsky, the man who becomes her lover, her marriage collapses like wet paper. Her attachments to her extended family, her love for her son, her standing in Russian society . . . all are kindling for the fire that consumes her life. Levin’s story is more traditional—he pines for Kitty, learns to live without her, happily regains his relationship with her, and, once married to her, begins the life expected of a husband. But the subtleties of his story reveal contradictions ingrained in marital expectations.

If the entire novel could be boiled down into one thought, that’s it: Anna Karenina is about the flaws of marriage, and in other systems that society puts so much importance on. More than anything, Tolstoy seems determined to point out how complicated and convoluted the ideas and expectations of marriage are, and to condemn it as part of the problem.


Author Leo Tolstoy

The novel is praised for realism, but be warned: I don’t mean present day realism, I mean 1800’s realism (which means that Tolstoy doesn’t linger on the gory details, but they’re still there). Anna Karenina has that same quality that Modernism abides by—the need to break down traditions and widely held values for the sake of shifty truths. Tolstoy does this in a way that shows off every character and their uniquely flawed perspectives, warts and all. No one character has a complete picture of the events, so it’s up to the reader to decide what the truth is, despite any one character’s beliefs or morals.

Tolstoy’s determination makes Anna Karenina challenging and important. It doesn’t hold back anything—that’s the kind of realism it brands itself with, which works to the novel’s credit.


Next up, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Of what I’ve read so far, there could be several comparisons between the protagonist Esther and Tolstoy’s Anna—I can’t share more detail without spoiling either novel, but suffice it to say that mental illness in women is misrepresented in most literature, and that what Tolstoy didn’t get right in Anna Karenina is sure to be corrected by Plath’s personal experience. I don’t look forward to a happy ending with The Bell Jar. And that’s okay.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: To the Lighthouse

Welcome back, class.

I’ll start with the concerning fact that Virginia Woolf doesn’t have a single work on the list. And, to follow up: out of 50 titles on the list, ten are composed by women. So today is about Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse.

Virginia Woolf is one of those hallmark authors who stand out by reputation alone, regardless of sex as a qualifier, while still being one of the clearer representatives of feminism known in literature. The fact that she has no novel on the 50-books list highlights the fact that so many other women are left off of it, too.

So either the creators of this list actually tried and failed to find an appropriate amount of female authors, which hints at incompetence (hence, my Missing From the List posts); or, even worse, they deliberately chose all books by male authors and decided in retrospect to throw a bone toward diversity, and the female authors they did choose are featured simply to meet a diversity quotient (and that’s just considering female authors—for authors of racial and other minorities, you’ll have to hear this rant in a separate post).

Either way, the misogyny is strong with this one.


After such a rant, though, I have to admit I’ve only read one of Woolf’s works—but it was really good! To the Lighthouse is a beautiful work of modernist fiction that is special not because of the story, but because of its meaning and the way it’s told. For more on what modernism is, look at my previous post on it.

The Isle of Skye, where the action of To the Lighthouse takes place.

The novel is separated into three parts. Part 1, “The Window,” takes place on one evening in 1910, while the Ramsay family visits their vacation home on the Isle of Skye. We meet the characters and understand their complicated dynamics. Then there’s part 2, “Time Passes,” which is a fluid and ambiguous portrayal of ten years of time, encompassing World War I and the deaths of many major characters in the family. Finally, part 3, “The Lighthouse,” takes place on another evening in 1920, when the family returns to their vacation home as almost completely new people.

The story’s strength is it’s symbolism. The lighthouse represents an unreachable goal, and the terrible weather is the natural world that attacks and hinders humanity’s endeavors. The link between the two evenings, separated by ten years of time, is portrayed through the painting one character works on for those ten years, incomplete without the passage of time—just like the novel itself, incomplete without the strangeness of part 2, loosely stringing together the beginning and the end of Woolf’s novel. Through such symbolism, To the Lighthouse is careful, artistic, experimental, and wonderfully strange, and belongs on the list simply because of what it’s able to do.


Something I tend to forget about modernism is its obsession with time. Novelists from this period liked to portray the unreliability of time by reorganizing chronological order, speeding up and slowing down the story, and confusing a single moment with an eternity. Virginia Woolf fit right in with these modernists—entire chapters in parts 1 and 3 of To the Lighthouse take place in seconds, while part 2 speeds through ten years in no time at all. The action of parts 1 and 3 is also mostly internal, letting stream-of-consciousness explain characters and their motivations—something modernism all but invented.

Which brings me to a complicated point. In a lot of ways, this novel reminds me of Ulysses—need I remind you, one of my favorite novels ever. To the Lighthouse may never match Ulysses in my eyes, but it comes closer than most novels because it does everything Ulysses does (challenges convention, scrambles time, uses stream-of-consciousness to tell a better story, etc.), to the point that if I wanted someone to try Ulysses, I might have them read To the Lighthouse first.

And if To the Lighthouse accomplishes what Ulysses does, and it’s easier on the brain to boot, maybe To the Lighthouse should be on the list INSTEAD of Ulysses (which hurts me to write, I assure you). I’m noticing that there are works on the list that shouldn’t be read—studied or made aware of, absolutely, but not “cozy-up-with-on-the-couch” read. The BibleThe Divine ComedyThe Canterbury Tales, and Ulysses are each books on the list that make more sense as references and less sense as cover-to-cover reading challenges.

Author Virginia Woolf

On a list called “50 Books to Read Before You Die,” there should be books that readers can gain something from. Books like Ulysses fly a little to close to the sun for readers to enjoy, whereas a book like To the Lighthouse (while in no way an easy novel) allows readers the chance to fly as well.


To bring it back to feminism, and the lack of it featured on the list, here’s a post I made back in March (National Women’s History Month) on the great women writers I know.

Part of the reason To the Lighthouse should be on the list, even in place of Ulysses, is because it’s more accessible. But more importantly, Virginia Woolf’s lifetime statement on behalf of female authors allows To the Lighthouse to have something Ulysses only hopes to have: the voice of the female artist. This is more than the idea of a diversity quotient. This is about representation of female authors, and how statements of all kinds—novels, plays, poems, paintings, stories—when represented mostly by one kind of person, are incomplete statements.


I am still reading A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, another representative of modernism and of a minority—but more on that next class.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Ulysses

Good morning, class.

I’m not hiding my bias here . . . this is one of my favorite novels ever. I’ve read all 700 rambling pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses twice—once with the reassurance of a college classroom, and a second time “for fun.” I’ve mentioned it in almost half of the 100+ posts I’ve written for this blog (I recommend revisiting two of them: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Modern Literature; the review might help).

But I’m in the minority here. Most people who try Ulysses find it meandering and over-complicated. Even those that do like it tend to appreciate it from a distance, for how it changed history or defined a literary movement, but they don’t like to read it. I’m in the minority because I like experiencing the scope of the story, the empathy created by the characters, the literary connections, the “everything-is-connected”-ness of the details . . . I like it for exactly what it is, and not many people would say the same.

But, students, if I can show you why it made the 50-books list at all, maybe you can see why I like Ulysses so much.


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

The story takes place in Dublin, Ireland, over the course of one day: Thursday, June 16, 1904. Leopold Bloom, our “hero,” is a Jewish advertising agent roaming the streets of Dublin, and his internal monologue narrates the story in messy fragments. His thoughts wander over (among other things) the child he lost 11 years ago, his father’s suicide, and the affair that his wife, Molly, is currently having with another man.

Meanwhile, Stephen Dedalus (protagonist of the prequel, Portrait of the Artist) deals with his mother’s recent passing, his unbearable alcoholic father, and his cynical disdain for just about EVERYTHING (he’s a little nauseating). He roams Dublin’s streets as well, and he and Bloom spend most of the day almost meeting, until they run into each other in the last few chapters like destiny—a father longing for a missing son, and a son wishing for a better father.

James Joyce, author of Ulysses (1922)

And then, without giving too much away, the novel ends by giving Molly Bloom a voice of her own—the final chapter is her epic monologue reaching beyond the confines of the single day. She rambles through cataclysmic run-on sentences on sex, love, marriage, memory, and femininity, and fondly remembers the day when she agreed to marry Leopold.


There are too many literary references to count, but the most important ones are about The Odyssey by Homer. Bloom is Odysseus, journeying from his home and back (boiling down 20 years into one day), trying to return to his “son” (Stephen/Telemachus) and his wife (Molly/Penelope). The terrifying Cyclops becomes the bigot spouting his beliefs in the bar, while the visit to the underworld becomes a funeral, and the entrancing witch Circe takes the form of a prostitute in a brothel.

These Odyssey references, where the name Ulysses comes from, give the novel it’s epic-ness. The length of this one day is impressive, so filled with detail that it overflows at the seams, and it still doesn’t capture every single moment of the day. The ancient has been updated to match advances in technology and societal evolution, but it still meets the same archetypes it’s known for.

Most importantly, Bloom is a modern Odysseus—less a warrior, more a gentle soul. He is kind to animals, has a love for science, and empathizes with Molly’s extramarital desires. Unlike most men, he knows he doesn’t own her, and that she could be suffering just as much as he is over their long-lost child. He leaves only room in his heart for compassion, making him more of a hero than anyone else in the story . . . because a modern hero isn’t someone physically strong, but rather someone who performs simple acts of kindness.

Statue of James Joyce in Dublin, Ireland

So, even though there are literary reasons why Ulysses is a masterpiece, it’s Bloom’s compassion and empathy, found throughout the novel, that make this book good. It may be hard to see under the complicated language and plot, but this novel has more love on any one page than most novels can show in a hundred. Joyce handles grief, prejudice, hope, sex, depression, death, longing, wonder, and life, all with a deep and profound love.


Sometimes, it surprises me how I’m in the minority in liking this book, and then I flip through its pages and remember—this novel is HARD to read. It’s an experience that nothing can replace, and for that reason it belongs on the list, but it is not a book you just pick up and read!

If you are going to try it, and you don’t have a literary professional standing nearby at all times, you might try reading a guidebook along with it—I recommend Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living by Declan Kiberd. It’s pretty focused on understanding the intentions behind the novel, and it helped me find the love within Ulysses. I also recommend any and all online resources—a summary won’t replace the novel, but it will help you understand what on earth is happening.

I may be a 23-year old blogger, but I think I understand Ulysses, so feel free to ask me questions after class (a.k.a. in the comments below). I absolutely didn’t cover everything here, but I’ve got plenty more to say on this subject if you want to know more. Seriously, ask me questions—all I want to do is talk about Ulysses all day.


Now that I’ve finished Ulysses, I’ve started reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Whenever I tell people this, they stare, like reading Ulysses and Jane Eyre outside of school isn’t normal behavior. It seems perfectly normal to me.

Anyway, I’ll see you for class next week.

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: As I Lay Dying

Good morning, class,

Whenever I think of American authors from the early 20th Century, three come to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner (there are more, but it takes a few more seconds for them to kick in—I wasn’t there, you see). I have my preferences among the three of them, but in my mind, the three are equals.

Well, the constructors of the 50-books list did not consult me before choosing books. Fitzgerald’s widely-known The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s lesser-known Men Without Women feature prominently on the list, but Faulkner doesn’t appear at all. Today, I will be remedying that oversight.


Yoknapatawpha County, Faulkner’s fictional Southern landscape

As I Lay Dying is the kind of novel that needs to be studied with a guide waiting nearby. It’s also the kind of novel that needs to be read at least twice to be fully appreciated. (Maybe there is a good reason it didn’t make the list.) Even so, it’s one of the most groundbreaking novels I’ve ever read.

The story is about the Bundren family honoring their deceased mother’s wishes: to be buried in a distant town. Being a poor Southern family in the 1920s, accomplishing the task is difficult. The journey takes many days, and the family survives many perilous events—a dangerous river crossing, a barn burning, violence between each other—until it becomes less and less meaningful to bury the body at all. By the end, secrets are revealed, siblings betray each other, and any semblance of happiness seems more distant than ever.

But the way it’s told is the novel’s genius: each chapter specifies a different character as the narrator, and they each tell the story in a different way. Darl, the second oldest sibling, has the most chapters and seems to be the best storyteller, with his own biases. Cash, the oldest, has a practical and structured mind, and tells his chapters plainly—one chapter of his is a list explaining how he made his mother’s coffin. Vardaman, the youngest, uses short, choppy sentences and leaves out key things he can’t understand. The rest of the family and several other characters get their own chapters, too, throwing out any stability we can have in the facts.

Even Addie, the mother, gets her own chapter—after her death. She reveals which of her children is not her husband’s, and expresses her struggles with marriage and motherhood. It’s her ideas about language that tell us WHY the novel is so complicated: “That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at…He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack” (Faulkner).


William Faulkner, author

For me, this novel defines the unreliable narrator. Everyone is looking at the same events and recounting a different story. Addie’s words are the least reliable of all—she’s either out of the order of events, coming back from the past to tell her story, or she’s aware of the struggles of life only from within her own rotting body, closed off from life by the coffin her son built. Even then, she is the key to understanding the problem in their family: they can’t communicate. They are all trapped in their silent thoughts and failing words.

Many of the novels I’ve read from the 50-books list have similarly unreliable narrators—The Canterbury TalesThe Color Purple, and The Catcher in the Rye, to name a few. It’s one of the best concepts in literature, to know that the person telling you the story can’t be trusted. It tips the hierarchy…if even the person telling the story can’t be trusted, what can we rely on? If there’s no stability in the story, it begs questions about every detail. Those questions get closer to the truth than statements ever do.

As I Lay Dying does this really well. Maybe too well…and that’s why it didn’t make the list.


As usual, tell me what you think—what novels should be added to the list? What book should every person read before they die? Come, broaden our horizons. What else is class for?

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey