50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Obsession

Moby-Dick

Call me Prof. Jeffrey.

Moby-Dick is one of the novels on the list that toes the line between too difficult for someone to enjoy and important enough to power through nonetheless. Most of the novels that fall into this trap are older works, like Dante’s Inferno or Don Quixote, both a bit too old and out-of-touch to enjoy outside of a class. Moby-Dick doesn’t do that though—its place in history recent enough that it doesn’t feel out-of-touch. Herman Melville actually makes plenty of genius moves with Moby-Dick that make it special even now, doing things that most novels today wouldn’t dare to do.

But it’s also a lot like James Joyce’s Ulysses—the novel is successfully doing so much that the end result is far too complicated. Of all the books on the list it’s probably most like The Count of Monte Cristo, in several ways—notably, both are tales of revenge where fate plays a big part. Melville makes sure to tell all sides of the epic tale he dreamed up, which makes the story thorough and way too long. It never fails to be interesting, though—I’ve learned more about whales and whaling than I ever wanted, and Melville did that without compromising on a story that was impressive to begin with.

Altogether, Moby-Dick seems near perfect; it may come off as long or tedious, but there’s no denying that all the pieces are in the right place for a story worth telling. That’s more than enough reason to read it before you die.


When I say I’ve learned plenty about whales, I mean it—the reason this novel is so long is because half of it is a textbook. The narrator, who calls himself Ishmael (and a questionable authority if there ever was one), spends most of his time making sure we understand exactly what our characters are facing . . . by describing any and all potentially necessary information about whales. He describes the body, behavior, history, and cultural impact of whales, along with details about whaling, oil, ocean life, the routines of the crew, and most importantly, the full description of Moby-Dick himself. As an example, one chapter is called “The Whiteness of the Whale,” which takes several pages to describe Moby-Dick’s rare white skin.

Reading Moby-Dick can be exhausting. Informative, too, but exhausting nonetheless. The monotony of the characters’ lives at sea is bleak and relentless, and the simplest action can be a reprieve from that monotony. In some chapters, nothing happens—except for a short essay on whales or whaling. These aren’t boring chapters—far from it. They are interesting and dynamic interjections, each one showing the reader something new about what’s to come or about the narrator’s mysterious inner thoughts. The takeaway is that these informative time-filler chapters—much like the book as a whole—are the essence of unconventional story-telling.


Author Herman Melville

The reason to pick up Moby-Dick off the shelf can be more easily found in two characters. One we already know—the questionable narrator, Ishmael, a passing soul in the larger narrative whose great purpose is to tell the story of the hunt for Moby-Dick. He lets us know early on that the whaling voyage is doomed, and he is the sole survivor of the ruined vessel. Because of Ishmael, most of the novel relies on concepts of fate and evil that are born from tragedy—every tension is in solving how the tragedy will happen, and every calm is subdued by the knowledge that disaster will strike soon enough.

Then there’s Captain Ahab—the obsessed, unstable, majestic, terrifying leader of the crew, most culpable in the ship’s demise and the resulting death of his crew. His arc is simple enough—Moby-Dick is responsible for Ahab losing his leg, and Ahab will sail to the ends of the earth and back on his quest of revenge to kill Moby-Dick for it. Ahab has a way of jumping off the page—he’s very human, malevolent, sarcastic, emotional, and liable to snap at any moment under the weight of his own obsession. Part of Melville’s genius is in making Ahab so many things at once that it’s hard to define him—he’s as complex as any realistic character, and just as much a legend as any character in the ancient epics of human history.


That being said, it’s just as hard to pin down what the novel really is, too. It isn’t a warning about obsession or revenge, though that seems to be an important idea. It’s definitely an epic, but it’s not a myth about an ancient legend—it’s about a whaling vessel, blown into epic proportions without losing an ounce of its careful realism (which is lacking in the myths of old). It’s not really an adventure story, though there’s adventure in it—along with too much foreboding and doom. More than a few chapters feature dramatizations or monologues, as though Melville is imitating Shakespeare. Parts of it even belong to comedy, or at least some kind of absurdism, such as it is—though it’s a bit hard to laugh knowing how it all ends.

One thing’s for sure: Moby-Dick is special. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, so I do question its inclusion on the list, but there’s something special enough about it that everyone should at least consider reading it. It’s not just one of those important works of art—it’s a good and thoughtful story. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Next up, I’m finishing up Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong—yet another I’d never heard of before starting the blog. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Wuthering Heights

Good morning, class.

It’s easy to see the similarities between Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and her sister Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. In both stories, the swampy moors of the English countryside set an atmosphere of oppressive weariness and longing. The romances tracked in both novels have drama seeping through the pages—lies, betrayal, terrible passion, and a man too mysterious to ever fully trust.

But I think it’s easier to talk about Jane Eyre, at least in terms of plot—our heroine Jane begins as an orphan, and we follow her journey into adulthood and into her romance with Mr. Rochester. Wuthering Heights is much murkier. Instead of any hero, we get a cluster of characters surrounding the villainous Heathcliff, one of the more disgusting characters I’ve ever read in a novel. He enters the narrative, destroys almost everything around him, and remains a mysterious stain on everyone’s happiness until the final pages of the novel, where a happy ending barely scrapes by from the debris in his wake. And so Wuthering Heights leaves its mark.


Heathcliff and Catherine, portrayed by Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights (1939)

The main narrative follows Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in a tortured romance. Heathcliff is brought back to the Wuthering Heights estate as a child by Mr. Earnshaw, where he meets the young Catherine and her brother Hindley. They grow up together, and Catherine and Heathcliff realize their attraction to each other, but obstacles get in the way. Heathcliff runs away, and Catherine decides to marry their neighbor Edgar Linton instead. When Heathcliff returns, he has enough money to enact revenge on those who kept him and Catherine apart.

Heathcliff swindles Wuthering Heights from Hindley (and from Hindley’s son Hareton) while marrying Edgar’s sister to punish both Edgar and Catherine. They each have children: Linton is Heathcliff’s son, and Catherine’s daughter is named Catherine (simply to confuse matters further). The elder Catherine dies while giving birth, and Heathcliff prays that her soul never rest—that she haunt him until he dies.

Fast-forward about 18 years, and Hareton, Catherine, and Linton have all grown up. They are the product of tortured love, revenge, and heartbreak, with Heathcliff the only surviving member of the first generation. Without giving too much away, the three of them try to right the wrongs of the past and revolt against Heathcliff’s tyranny—to be what their parents couldn’t be.


Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939)

Heathcliff is the reason to read Wuthering HeightsI called him one of the more disgusting characters I’d ever read in a novel, and that’s because there so much villainous life breathed into him by Emily Brontë that he’s stood the test of time. His origins are unknown—both his heritage and his means of getting money—and hatred seems to come easier to him than love.

His relationship with Catherine is simply a mess. They seem to enjoy each other in childhood, both a little more unkempt and uncontrollable than most children. As outsiders they grow fond of each other. But in adulthood they punish each other as signs of love. They wrap up the Lintons into their mess and ruin the Lintons’ happiness—Edgar is in a loveless marriage and must compete with Heathcliff’s rage, while his sister Isabella is tricked into marrying Heathcliff who cares nothing for her.

After Catherine’s death, Heathcliff regularly digs up Catherine’s corpse and cries over it. He is ultimately disgusted with his son Linton and forces him to marry the younger Catherine so that he can inherit Edgar’s estate. Without a doubt, Heathcliff is a nightmare. Characters speculate if he is some kind of demon or imp. He has no pity for the people he hurts and delights in suffering. His obsession with Catherine is only matched by her obsession with him, and the only real question about his motivations is whether or not their relationship does more damage than he himself does.

Emily Brontë

Is Brontë’s writing strong? Absolutely—ahead of its time, even. Is the story worth reading? I’d say so—the plot is intricate and chaotic, in the best way. But Heathcliff is what makes Wuthering Heights special, and he’s why it made the list.


I like to think there isn’t a moral to the story, but if there is one, it’s about a bad kind of love vs. a good kind. The bad kind of love is the one that destroys and poisons, that’s so passionate and full of emotion that it can’t survive. Then there’s a patient, practical love—one that doesn’t hurt, and yet still wins out against obstacle. The love between Heathcliff and Catherine is destructive, but maybe the next generation can share a better love, despite the effects of the the generation before.


Up next, I’m reading E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India—one of the few books on the list I’ve never heard of before. Let’s hope it’s good!

Prof. Jeffrey