50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Narrator (page 1 of 2)


Hello again, class.

Most of the novels on the list require a bit of work—especially the older ones. This 50-books library is the kind of selection that focuses on the great works, not the most entertaining ones. There’s entertainment in novels like Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet, but that’s not why you need to read them before you die—you need to read them because they do what no other piece of entertainment did before, and significantly changed what literature was and could be. In almost every book on the list, entertainment may be there, but it’s always secondary.

Rebecca is one of the exceptions to this trend—it seems to be entertainment first. It delights in its own extravagant writing and startling twists, and the story is melodramatic and absorbing. It’s not a happy story—it’s more like a nightmare, honestly—but it exists somewhere between a classy horror movie and a turbulent romance. It’s not great art—but it’s not simple, either. It plays with its plot for dramatic effect and was more engrossing than I could have predicted. Rebecca belongs on the list because of the simplest reason of all: it’s exciting and suspenseful, and it made its mark on literature and popular culture of the time.

With most of the novels from the list, I don’t worry much about spoilers—I couldn’t really “spoil” The Divine Comedy, if you know what I mean—but I have to be very careful about Rebecca. This is the story of a newly married woman, who is beginning a new life with her husband. One thing I appreciated early on: this woman goes unnamed for the entire novel. I can barely imagine how difficult that might have been for the author—her protagonist is referred to ambiguously for the opening chapters and, after marrying, is referred to by last name only: Mrs. de Winter. We never learn her first name or her maiden name, and all we know of her identity is in character traits, not details. She is a complete character, but one without identity.

Actors Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter in the movie adaptation of Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

This nameless woman marries a widower, Maxim de Winter, whose first wife is the eponymous Rebecca. Rebecca died before the narrator met Maxim, and Rebecca is some hideous unspoken secret in their new marriage. Nonetheless, they attempt to live happily in de Winter’s estate of Manderley, a large and beautiful house that is as much a character as the narrator—it’s given personality and even agency in what happens to the characters living there. The servants and guests at Manderley all seem to know something about Rebecca that they want to keep from the narrator, and because of that, Rebecca herself seems to haunt Manderley. She is around every corner, threatening to ruin the narrator’s marriage and life.

More than once, I wondered if this was a supernatural thriller—a literal haunting, with Rebecca’s spirit poisoning the house. While the narrator never sees the ghost of Rebecca walking down the halls, that seems to be the only difference between the haunting in Rebecca and something like Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. This story is the closest you can get to the supernatural while still existing in the real world.

Author Daphne du Maurier

And even though it’s not quite fantasy, either, it’s got a healthy dose of the unrealistic. Everything is hyper-characterized and played for drama or suspense, not to the point that it’s unnecessary, but entertaining for certain. It uses melodrama like it uses hints of the supernatural—instead of getting in the way of the story, they make the story fuller.

The author, Daphne du Maurier, seems to have gone to the Stephen King school of storytelling (or, rather, King went to the du Maurier school of storytelling). King believes that story matters above all. The best stories aren’t about character pieces or technical brilliance, but about telling the best story you can. Rebecca is the perfect example of an author telling the best story she can, and it’s such a good story that it earned its way onto the list of 50 books to read before you die.

Next up, I’m finishing Catch-22, which does exactly what Rebecca doesn’t—and to fantastic result. Catch-22 is almost an anti-story, with plot that folds in on itself and character-driven vignettes that refuse to bear a story. And yet, it’s every bit as thrilling as Rebecca, and infinitely funnier. Though I certainly loved RebeccaCatch-22 is more my speed—but let’s drive down that route next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

The Way We Live Now

Good morning, class.

Money: A Suicide Note and The Way We Live Now are a lot alike. Both are about greed and corruption, individually and globally. Both focus on terrible people—those who have decided on a certain lifestyle that hurts themselves and others. Both criticize the world and the poor choices people make to hold on to money or to get it by any means.

But I can’t stress this enough—I hated Money: A Suicide Note. For all it did to successfully criticize the corrupt and greedy world of the late 20th century, I couldn’t enjoy it and I couldn’t wait to be done with it. That wasn’t the case with The Way We Live Now, which wasn’t my favorite book of all time, but it was definitely more enjoyable. The Way We Live Now did for the 19th century what Martin Amis’ Money did for the 20th—portrayed a society that was as successful and wealthy as it was deplorable, with all the humor, darkness, and drama that comes with the territory.

Unlike with Money, which told everything from one biased perspective, The Way We Live Now is about the lives of a full cast of characters and shifts focus between different intersecting plots. A few main threads keep everything together and keep things moving, such as the love-life drama of Paul Montague (blatant Romeo and Juliet reference), the upcoming election for a seat in British Parliament, and the repeatedly disastrous behaviors of Sir Felix Carbury.

Author Anthony Trollope

Sir Felix is a spoiled son of reasonable wealth—except that he spends all his time and money gambling. His mother, too afraid of driving him away, enables him by giving him money she doesn’t have, despite what it does to her unmarried daughter, who is far less spoiled and yet far less appreciated. But Sir Felix’s spendthrift ways are nothing compared to his commitments to two different women, both of whom he cares very little for, except that they might be able to provide him with more wealth if he plays his cards right. He is the story’s source of carelessness and insincerity—the purest example of insatiable greed and the path it can lead one to.

But honestly, Sir Felix is redeemable, unlike the novel’s true villain—Augustus Melmotte, a man new to the area running for a seat in Parliament, and doing anything he can to get it. He is a typical political evil—a careful liar, a corporate-level thief, a two-faced celebrity, and a cultural phase that brings out the worst in people on a worldly scale. He steals and attempts to cover it up, abuses people close to him that would traditionally be loved ones, and refuses to accept anything that doesn’t go his way. Melmotte is a smiling, charming criminal, and is everything Sir Felix is but worse. Sir Felix is always just out of reach of being his better self, but Melmotte is nowhere near being redeemable.

Paul Montague’s story is the novel’s redemptive quality. His story is about his attempts to remain a good gentleman in the midst of his chaotic love-life—he no longer loves a woman he is intended for, and he loves someone that his closest friend hopes to marry. He makes some serious missteps, but his intentions are never unclear—he means to be a good person no matter what. He juggles his relationships to find the perfect balance, so that he can maintain his friendship, sincerely end his old engagement, and begin anew with the woman he cares for.

An illustration from The Way We Live Now, featuring Winifred Hurtle and Paul Montague

Then, the threads intersect—Montague’s love is Henrietta Carbury, Sir Felix’s sister; Sir Felix is in a threadbare relationship with Marie Melmotte, Augustus’ daughter, and Augustus disapproves of the relationship; Sir Felix is in an even more threadbare relationship with a girl named Ruby, who, after being kicked out of the house for being involved with Felix, finds herself in the same establishment as the woman Paul is trying to disengage with—an American woman named Winifred Hurtle; Melmotte, Paul, and Felix, as well as several other wealthy people, are involved on the governing board of a North American railway company. Every chapter is like a roll of the dice, and no one knows what social, political, or romantic disaster might happen next—and that does make it an exciting read.

Shifting from character to character is a strength—one that author Anthony Trollope uses to his advantage. Trollope sometimes writes from Paul’s perspective and shows Felix as deplorable as he seems, but then he writes from Felix’s perspective, without changing Felix’s actions or motivations, and makes him sympathetic (or we get to hear from the perspective of his mother or sister, to make things that much more complicated). This is a bolder move than it seems, especially for the time—the novel shows its age by having an overly helpful narrator, referring to us as the reader and guiding us on this journey. There’s some of that throughout the story—a balance between the traditional and the changing future, between the conservative and the progressive. It’s a story as time-tested as Shakespeare, and as experimental as Money.

And for all that, the reason it made the list is in the title—The Way We Live Now. This is a snapshot of English culture in the later half of the 19th century, an era more modern than it used to be and not as modern as today. Trollope’s goal was to point out how greed and corruption were plaguing English society, and with this novel, he does that with as much intrigue as balance. By focusing on that theme in its entirety, The Way We Live Now tackled a wide scope of ideas and truly reflected the world at the time, and with good writing to boot, it’s no wonder it made the list.

Next up, I’m working my way through Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier—another novel that serves as a snapshot of the era, the early 20th century. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“Call me Ishmael.”

—from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

—from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

“[McMurphy] sounds like he’s way above them, talking down, like he’s sailing fifty yards overhead, hollering at those below on the ground. He sounds big. I hear him coming down the hall, and he sounds big in the way he walks, and he sure don’t slide; he’s got iron on his heels and he rings it on the floor like horseshoes.”

—from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

“I been silent so long now it’s gonna roar out of me like floodwaters and you think the guy telling you this is ranting and raving my God; you think this is too horrible to have really happened, this is too awful to be the truth! But, please. It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”

—from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Memoirs of a Geisha

Welcome back, class.

In some ways, Memoirs of a Geisha was an easy book. I fell right into the story and was amazed by the character who told it. Arthur Golden’s novel was enjoyable the entire time, and I understand why it was instantly successful when first published just over 20 years ago.

Calling it “easy,” though, puts a bad spin on a novel that, at times, disturbed me so terribly that I had to put it down. The protagonist, Chiyo Sakamoto, renamed Sayuri Nitta when she becomes a geisha, is sold, abused, raped, and betrayed on what seems like a regular basis. The casual way she discusses her horrible life proves just how common her hardships were; the life of a geisha is clearly not an easy one.

Sayuri and Mameha in the film adaptation, Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Memoirs of a Geisha is one of those un-put-down-able books, written in such a careful style that the story sticks with you after you’ve finished it. Part rags-to-riches, part love triangle, part coming-of-age . . . it fulfills as much as it can in 400 pages. The hardships of geisha training and life are too numerous to describe in full, but Golden spares no gory detail. He let’s the elderly Sayuri tell the story in her own way, and it’s fascinating.

The rest of the characters that fill up her life—both as Chiyo the girl and Sayuri the geisha—are just as fascinating. There’s the vicious geisha Hatsumomo, the kind Chairman and his friend, the proud but generous Nobu, the impressive geisha Mameha that agrees to train Chiyo, the clumsy geisha-in-training named Pumpkin who is hopelessly manipulated by all around her, the money-obsessed Mother of the Nitta okiya . . . the list goes on, each character as interesting as the last. Through one narrator’s eyes, each character is given a fantastic life of their own, which is an amazing feat in itself.

And overall, Memoirs of a Geisha a story about destiny—how we can find it, if we can make our own, and discovering the consequences of avoiding it. Expensive kimonos, zodiac motifs, sexual favors, teahouse parties, and delicate reputations . . . all details guiding Sayuri toward a destiny she has little control over. The novel as a whole handles the theme of destiny in one of the more honest ways I’ve ever seen.

Memoirs opens with a fictional translator’s note—like Life of Pi, this entirely fictional story was advertised as based on real life. I’m not sure why Golden did this, except that it made things more interesting.

But his rich realism actually faced some backlash: Golden was criticized for misrepresenting Japanese culture and geisha life. Some of the sources I’ve found detailing this misrepresentation are here and here.

It’s clear Golden did his research, but when a white American author portrays another culture, the details seem to consistently get lost in the effort. If I knew more about Japan, the time period, and what Golden got wrong, I would be more upset about it, but I was too wrapped up in a quality story. In my opinion, the best thing for others who plan to read Memoirs is to do it with a grain of salt, and to do more research into the realities that Golden couldn’t grasp, which I plan to do. All I know for sure is that misrepresentation is dangerous, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Sayuri, portrayed by Ziyi Zhang in the film adaptation

I hate to leave this review on such a sour note, because the book was an incredible piece of literature . . . but it’s not okay to twist another culture into an image that fits your vision. People begin to make assumptions, claim things that aren’t true, and take for granted what one man wrote in a piece of fiction, all of which can hurt people. And it’s all from a lack of consideration.

I’ve written about this in my reviews of A Bend in the RiverThe Quiet American, and Robinson Crusoe. Here again, with Memoirs, a work of art is so renowned for the amazing things it’s done that people neglect to point out the negatives—the racial, political, cultural misrepresentations that affect real people. Memoirs is one of the few books on the list that I still liked, despite those misrepresentations, but I know that’s because I don’t understand what Golden did wrong. So until I know more, I’m siding with the people who felt those effects and made claims against Golden’s novel—better that than to dismiss them for speaking their truth.

Up next is Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I have a lot of thoughts . . . most of them not in favor. I’ve never read it before and I absolutely should’ve had my own literary professional on call while I read it, but I’ve been arrogantly reading it straight through without help. To see the consequences, check in next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

The War of the Worlds

Hello again, class.

The War of the Worlds already had a lot going for it when I picked it up—I love a good story about aliens. For all of the novel’s pitfalls, it makes up for it by being one of the earliest science fiction novels ever written, inspiring sci-fi for years to come.

The narrator details the horror of aliens attacking Earth—the Heat-Rays, the giant tripods, the freakish shapes of the creatures themselves, the death, the chaos, the destruction of towns and homes . . . it’s all portrayed as graphically as a Victorian-Era novel can be. The narrator spends most of his time trying to get back to his wife, who may be dead already, and his journey shows him the diversity of both the Martians’ attacks and the chaotic human response.

Don’t get me wrong—The War of the Worlds is a little dated. It’s well over a hundred years old, and sounds too much like Charles Dickens describing aliens and battle, which is jarring. Parts of the novel stumble over themselves, like when the narrator tells the story of what happened to his brother. Any modern writer wouldn’t bother explaining why two people are telling the story, but that’s too complicated for H. G. Wells’ audience—Wells’ is very careful in making his narrator explain the leap in the story.

And, of course, the science is more than outdated . . . it’s plain wrong. Your science lesson for today: no Martians like the ones described live on Mars. The science is beyond fringe, and the theory of intelligent life on any planet in our solar system is just shy of impossible. It’s an interesting thought, but we all know the idea of aliens on Mars is closer to fantasy than sci-fi.

Movie Poster for The War of the Worlds (1953)

That doesn’t make The War of the Worlds bad . . . just dated. One of the strongest scenes, occurring over several chapters, involves the narrator trapped in a house with a panic-stricken man who keeps talking about the end of the world. He’s too loud, threatening to give away their position, and the narrator fights him to keep him quiet. The narrator kills him in the process. Wells isn’t just adding to the drama, here; this character’s loss of rational thought is a natural human response, and so is his murder by the narrator’s hands.

Wells is providing a pure account of the story, and letting the scientific, ethical, and horrific implications speak for themselves within each reader—leaving us only with a well-told story. All the best sci-fi/fantasy stories do this; they give us the story purely, and let us debate over scientific and moral hypotheticals. These are the kinds of stories that stand the test of time.

Author H. G. Wells

Like any good sci-fi novel, The War of the Worlds speaks through metaphors—aliens in stories are never just aliens. For Wells, a British man at the height of the British empire, the aliens are a distant unconquered people, with the power to vanquish Britsh forces. Wells is showing us that Britain’s treatment of smaller kingdoms and weaker people will come back to haunt them. The Martians treat humans as mercilessly as the British treated, for example, people of African nations.

It is a little too “white man’s burden;” the fear of the Martians can feel a little like fear of the “other-ness” of minority groups and foreign people. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it’s worth noting how dated a philosophy it is. Even so, it seems to be a message of mercy, which is always good to read.

Next up, I’m jumping forward to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—dropping the science fiction for a little more 1950s American grit. It’s not my cup of tea, but I’m always surprised by a good book—I’ll let you know what I find.

Until next week,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: Oroonoko

Hello again, class.

Depiction of the 1776 performance of Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave

After reading Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe—and heavily criticizing its racism—I wondered if it was a worthy candidate for the 50-books list at all. For many reasons, I think it isn’t one of the books everyone has to read before they die, despite its importance. There are better books out there—the one I have in mind, in fact, treats the subject of race with more respect and accomplished the feat 30 years before Robinson Crusoe graced the page.

Oroonoko: or, the Royal Slave, written by Aphra Behn in the late 17th century, has a similar style to Robinson Crusoe, but tells a stronger (and very different) story. Oroonoko is a royal man from an African tribe, who was sold into slavery and thrown into the world of “civilization.” He defends his love, Imoinda, both in Africa and in this new environment, and when he tries to lead a rebellion, he is captured and brutally executed . . . one of the most distressing and terrifying executions I’ve seen from any story.

It can be hard to read, but it deserves to be on the list.

Historically speaking, Oroonoko is one of the earliest English novels, and one of the first novels ever to advocate against slavery. Aphra Behn is one of the earliest well-known female writers, and while Oroonoko was only considered a literary masterpiece long after Behn was gone, it paved the way for feminism, anti-slavery, and political treatment of minorities.

Author Aphra Behn

But the story of Oroonoko is more about power in the face of slavery. Oroonoko has power within himself—maybe it stems from his royalty, or from his ownership of self, regardless of those that claim to own him. His power challenges his enslavement. He remains true to himself after everything that happens to him, no matter how his owners and torturers attack him. They can’t access his inner power.

That’s his freedom. He is free despite what they do to his body, to his people, to the ones he loves. For all he suffers, he never loses what gives him his power: himself.

As important as this plot is, it’s only the beginning. Aphra Behn’s writing is subtle and ingenious. The use of the narrator is complex for its time, and the political messages are far ahead of the game. It is a powerful and moving novel.

Author Virginia Woolf has said that Behn, who spoke her mind bravely, is the reason so many women since then have been able to do the same. That alone grants Oroonoko a spot on the list of books we should all read before we die.

I’m still reading A Bend in the River—which could have learned a bit from Oroonoko, but I’ll hold back judgement until I’ve finished it. I like it more than Robinson Crusoe, for whatever that’s worth. We’ll see what happens.

Until next week,

Prof. Jeffrey

Robinson Crusoe

Welcome back, class.

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

Author Daniel Defoe

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

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

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

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

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

Artist rendering of Crusoe’s shipwreck

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

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

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

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

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

Prof. Jeffrey

« Older posts