50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Politics (page 1 of 2)

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

“There was one man who thoroughly believed that the thing at the present moment most essentially necessary to England’s glory was the return of Mr. Melmotte for Westminster. This man was undoubtedly a very ignorant man. He knew nothing of any one political question which had vexed England for the last half century . . . had no preference whatever for one form of government over another, never having given his mind a moment’s trouble on the subject. He had not even reflected how a despotic monarch or a federal republic might affect himself, and possibly did not comprehend the meaning of those terms. But yet he was fully confident that England did demand and ought to demand that Mr. Melmotte should be returned for Westminster. This man was Mr. Melmotte himself.”

—from The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Gulliver’s Travels

Welcome back, class.

I like Gulliver’s Travels for being exactly what it is. It’s not my favorite, but I can’t help but enjoy the things that make it good. I enjoy it for the same reason I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays (and for the same reason I am currently enjoying Don Quixote, which I’ll write about soon)—the author, Jonathan Swift, takes his favorite ideas from a huge body of literature before him and makes those ideas his own in Gulliver’s Travels, which has enough flare, depth, humor, and meaning to have lasted hundreds of years.

On the surface, Gulliver’s Travels is the simple story of Lemuel Gulliver, who goes on four loosely connected adventures in his lifetime to the far reaches of the undiscovered world. He goes first to Lilliput, where he meets a nation of people mere inches tall, then to Brobdingnag where he meets a nation of giants ten times his size. His third journey involves a set of smaller adventures, notably his visit to the airborn island of Laputa. His last adventure is to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a culture of knowledgeable horses that teach him their ways.

Lemuel Gulliver on the island of Lilliput.

Ask any English teacher and they’ll tell you—Gulliver’s Travels is satire at heart. It uses the surface story of a man on a series of impossible adventures to point more than a few obvious fingers at politics, society, and humanity. I usually associate Gulliver’s Travels with The Colbert Report, if only because they accomplish the same thing in very different ways. Both use humor, absurdity, and criticism to make bold statements about the world, forcing readers and viewers to use a greater degree of logic.

Gulliver’s Travels made the list because it clearly embraces the use of satire to great success, and it did so in a way never before seen in its time. This is of course debatable—several works before Gulliver’s Travels have used satire, such as any number of Shakespeare’s works and Don Quixote. But nothing seems to have left an impression like Jonathan Swift—the entirety of Gulliver’s Travels is a dark joke, and you, gentle reader, are likely the butt of it.

Author Jonathan Swift

Swift at some point discovered that satire is one of the best forms of shaming people and calling for radical change while still being art. Somehow, in the reality we live in, the thoughts spoken meaningfully can get lost in the clutter of everyone speaking at once, but saying the exact opposite of what we mean while being facetious enough to get our point across makes people shut up and listen. In the meaninglessness of Swift’s fantasy worlds is where we can find meaning.

But Swift wasn’t entirely meaningless—a lot of passages, especially from his fourth adventure, are honest and sincere. As Swift’s narrator, Gulliver is more than a finger for pointed critically at society. We see these adventures take a serious toll on his life and directly affect his view of his family. In speaking with the Houyhnhnms (probably some of my favorite passages), he confronts some of the uglier parts of humanity and changes irreversibly.

And yet, for the most part, Gulliver is the kind of character that functions as a blank slate—a way for Swift to paint a picture of the world as he sees it, with the flare of fantasy for good measure. Gulliver’s flaws as a character help us see what Swift intends, and Swift intends a lot. His relentlessness towards society’s mass imperfections have enough detail to fill a history class, and yet are broad enough to apply to the flaws of several societies centuries later. Gulliver’s Travels is not my favorite, but it’s a work of genius everyone should get to know.

Up next is Don Quixote! I’m enjoying it so far and I’m excited to write about it.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue; whether it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire; what is the best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red, or gray; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean; with many more. Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long a continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.”

—from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

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

Missing From the List: Citizen

Happy Black History Month!

I’ve recalibrated my view of Black History Month in recent years. Growing up, my privilege helped me see it as the month to remember the difficulties African Americans used to face. This is mostly the same today—it’s the “used to” that’s changed. What I see now is that the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement were both monumental eras in American history that changed how our laws and leadership treated black lives, and we have yet to solve the issue of racism separately from the law—i.e., the racism within the hearts and minds of American citizens. Nothing helped me understand that more than Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric

Citizen: An American Lyric has a perfect excuse for not making the list: it was composed after the list was. Nonetheless, since it’s publication only three years ago, I believe it’s one of the books everyone needs to read before they die.

Citizen is a collage—a hodgepodge of pictures, personal accounts, and nonfiction written like poetry. It’s also a wide variety of perspectives on racism in modern America. Mostly what you’ll find is Rankine’s unique take on moments of racism, where she describes the context to “you” the reader, putting you in the place of the slighted and ignored. She paints the figurative portraits of the man no one will sit next to, the woman listening to complaints about affirmative action as if she’s to blame, and the child ignored and knocked over by a white man.

Reading Citizen is an experience—or, rather, it portrays the experience no one wants to have: the racism she and others have personally felt in a way that’s painfully relatable. She writes of the anger black men and women are stereotyped for, and of the collective sigh built up from all of the moments when racism stung her. More than anything, Rankine proves how different the black experience is from the white in America, with privilege clearly bending toward the white.

Still of Serena Williams at the 2011 U.S. Open in a match she famously lost. Rankine uses part II of Citizen to tell Williams’ story.

No one passage carries more weight than another, but particular attention should be given to the passage on Serena Williams, widely considered the best female tennis player of all time. Rankine delves into Williams’ history with the game of tennis, and the racism in Williams’ most famous matches—how the umpire, intentionally or unintentionally, used Williams’ skin color and stereotyped anger to penalize her in matches she was clearly winning. But whether Williams was winning or losing, her blackness is used against her, and there is no resolution to the racism she faces; the story ends with a white athlete mocking her looks and behavior, and it’s as if that’s the resolution the audience needed . . . the stereotyped image of the best tennis player of all time, minus her black skin.

The word “citizen” appears once in the entire book, toward the end—almost carrying the weight of the entire anthology of racism before it. It seems that, for black Americans, citizenship means moving on from racism . . . letting your feelings go, however attached you are to them (even if they are all you are), and ignoring the racism against you with as much force as white people are ignoring you. That’s how poisoned by racism citizenship has become—as poisoned as America itself. That hasn’t changed since the publication of Citizen—in fact, I would argue that American citizenship has continued to deteriorate from racism in spite of Rankine’s powerful work. Perhaps if more people read it, more people would see what African Americans are seeing.

It’s not easy to read—not only because it speaks to some difficult truths, but also because Rankine’s ambiguous stream-of-consciousness poetry leaves a lot to interpretation—but Citizen is important now. It portrays the difficult truths of nowRankine’s voice is one we need to hear so that we can change what the world looks like when we step out the door. She doesn’t make it easy because she doesn’t provide political answers to a political question—she only portrays the problem of racism, which she has no solution for. She provides the empathy needed to see injustice, not the tools to fight it, and it’s not fair of us to ask her for both. After all, we’re all citizens, too.

Above: The Slave Ship by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Below: A detail of a slave’s leg from The Slave Ship. Both images appear at the end of Citizen.

A few additional thoughts: In the realm of solving the problem of racism in America, I have no answers. I know brute force doesn’t work, and I know leaving everyone to their own devices doesn’t help much. My best guess is that education and love are the solution—both of which probably only work with the kind of empathy Rankine puts on her readers in Citizen.

Acknowledge your privilege, that’s another big step. Look in the mirror and see what society values—even if it’s a value from bad intentions—and use it to make the world better (not just for you). For starters, the fact that you can read this means you have enough privilege to go around. Reading Citizen is a good place to go next, in my opinion.

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: All the King’s Men

Tis’ the season, class.

All the King’s Men opens with an epigraph from the Purgatory section of The Divine Comedy (which I’m finishing soon)—it says “As long as hope maintains a thread of green.” For Dante, it’s in reference to the souls suffering in purgatory who have the chance at redemption, as long as they don’t lose hope. For the characters in All the King’s Men, it’s a sign for readers that we shouldn’t expect things to look remotely hopeful—but maybe we can find a thread of it somewhere in the corruption, pessimism, and political drama that makes up the story.

It’s not my usual kind of book, but it found a way onto my favorites shelf. I read it in high school, at a time when I thought politics was the muck of humanity, and All the King’s Men hit all the right buttons for me. Willie Stark, the focus of the story, is the populist politician running for governor in a Southern state. Jack Burden (with his not-subtle name) is the political journalist following his campaign, and he narrates the story bespecked with details of his life and Willie’s.

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark in the 1949 movie adaptation of All the King’s Men.

For those of you in the back, with confused looks on your faces, the term populist (as I understand it) is used for the politician who gains steam by catering to the “common man” and antagonizing everyone else. This usually makes me think of a political character from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou!—one of the most incredible comedies I’ve ever seen, by the way. The movie’s Depression-era politician brings a dwarf to his campaign rallies and shows him off while claiming to fight for the “little fella,” and that’s why you should vote for him (both characters are later revealed to be members of the KKK, and that about sums up my views on populism). Willie Stark is not far away from this picture. He bribes, badgers, and blackmails his way into political power, all the while smiling at the crowd, coming off even as likable.

When Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King’s Men, he based Stark off of real-life Louisiana governor Huey Long, who was controversial enough to be labeled as both a hero of the people and a dictator. While there are enough politicians in history that have earned that level of controversy, anyone paying attention knows that there are more than a few of them in power now—the kinds of politicians who are obviously two-faced, and have somehow convinced the majority of the public that they are good and wholesome. All the King’s Men is one of the novels I know that handle times of political controversy with clarity—the quality most lacking in such times—and that’s why Warren’s novel made an impression on me, and why it should be on the 50-books list.

Author Robert Penn Warren

And for all that, All the King’s Men simply a good book. The story is told out of chronological order, resembling an archaeological dig, burying down into the past and resurfacing to rewrite the present. Jack’s as unreliable as any narrator from a 20th century novel, and his flawed view of the truth makes the story that much more interesting. The rest of the cast of characters (making up the “king’s men” to Willie Stark as king) are meaningfully portrayed and unnervingly relatable, and they happen to tie into the plot well, too. And it’s got enough symbolism to occupy a literature class for a year.

So, by “good book,” I mean that All the King’s Men challenges the reader, questions universal truths, invests in creative characters, satisfies that literature itch I’m always scratching, and is overall a well-written and much-needed story. That’s just about all the criteria I need.

I don’t have a lot of politically-charged novels up my sleeve, and the ones that come to mind aren’t that praiseworthy, so I’ll have to branch out to that realm when I get the chance, if only to become more aware of what’s going on today. Hopefully I wasn’t too subtle when I talked about current two-faced politicians causing controversy—there’s a lot of disgusting behavior coming from world and local leaders these days. The more we understand, the better we’ll respond when those leaders do something despicable.

Just one of those many reasons to read outside your comfort zone. Food for thought.

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books

Good morning class.

The 50-books list has a handful of options marketed for children: i.e.,  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Harry Potter series. But I think it’s strange that there isn’t a single entry on the list by Dr. Seuss—a man whose work is synonymous with children’s literature.

Dr. Seuss’ picture books cover a wide range of topics marketed for all ages. In his quirky, made-up-rhymes, overused-exclamation-points way, he tackles environmentalism, prejudice, and politics alongside boredom, bullying, and loneliness, and it’s never dull. So I officially declare that at least one of Dr. Seuss’ works should be one of the 50 books you read before you die.

I’m too weak to claim one is better than the rest, so I chose my top 5!

1. Horton Hears a Who!

Statue of Thodor Seuss Geisel and his “Cat in the Hat” character.

Symbolically, the politics in this story are about involvement vs. isolationism—what happens when those with power intervene to help those without. Written in the 1950’s, this could easily be about WWII or the American-Korean conflict, criticizing Americans who wanted to stay out of international issues. Dr. Seuss rarely shied away from such controversial topics, even when writing for kids.

But even if that was Dr. Seuss’ intention, the messages for kids are more wholesome: all people are equal, even if they don’t have the power to say so; stick to your true beliefs, even if others make fun of you or hurt you for them; and every voice counts in times of trouble, so don’t be afraid to stand with others. This book is inspiring, and an emotional rollercoaster. Of course there’s a happy ending, but that doesn’t make it less stressful when the town of Whoville is moments away from being destroyed toward the end—I get chills reading it every time.

2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

I think it’s a stroke of genius from Dr. Seuss that the Grinch hates Christmas simply for the sake of hating Christmas. He hates the noise and the feasting and the singing—there’s no explanation, just that he hates it from the bottom of his too-small heart. It makes him instantly unlikable and easy to transform by the end.

And by the end, the message is clear—Christmas is more than decorations and gifts. Dr. Seuss doesn’t say what Christmas is beyond that, because that’s enough. Christmas may look flashy and bright, but what it actually is—the love and joy and peace-on-Earth that it stands for—is beyond words. Not many Christmas stories can relay that message well, and this is one of the few.

3. The Lorax

I tend to forget that “The Lorax” has a happy ending, because the death and decay caused by the greedy Once-ler’s business fills up so much of the story, and packs such a powerful punch, that the end just can’t match. Watching the bright and colorful land of the Lorax darken page by page, and seeing the devastating results of a rampaging business, has stuck with me more than the final scene, where the remorseful Once-ler passes a final Truffula seed to a stranger, who may be able to bring the forest back.

The environmental message is painful and foreboding (particularly, the whack of the final tree cut down and the Lorax’s final trace in his land, the word “UNLESS,” are both emotional battering rams). It’s a sad story, even with the happy ending, and most writers wouldn’t dare write such a story targeted at children—though the message probably means more to adults anyway, as they read this story to their children, their eyes forced open to the injustice toward the Earth. Because of this, I think “The Lorax” says more about Dr. Seuss than most of his books.

Author and Illustrator Theodor Seuss Geisel

4. The Sneetches

This is one of Dr. Seuss’s underrated masterpieces—I’ve only met a handful of people that recognize it. But I grew up with “The Sneetches,” and it’s themes of prejudice, greed, and classism are with me to this day.

The Sneetches are a divided people, the privileged identified by stars on their bellies, and the rest with no “stars upon thars.” Then along comes Sylvester McMonkey McBean with his star-adding machine, which can put stars on the Sneetches bellies and give them the world they could never have—all for three dollars each. But then, all the Sneetches are equal, which doesn’t sit well with the Sneetches born with their stars. So they go through McBean’s star-off machine, upsetting the rest of the Sneetches . . . well, chaos ensues.

The Sneetches learn their lesson, of course—a Sneetch is a Sneetch, star or no. It’s one of those lessons that people are still working on, and the Sneetches are a good model to study.

5. Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

In a previous post, I talked about this book as particularly special to me—like all of Dr. Seuss’ books, it has a way of speaking to the soul. It doesn’t have a big story or political message, but it’s full of hope and inspiration. Dr. Seuss tells the reader directly what they will face, both the good and the bad, as they grow up and move out into the wide weird world.

“Oh, the Places You’ll Go” doesn’t shy away from the pain, fear, and loneliness the world can cause (even if it’s in Dr. Seuss’ quirky way, it still means a lot). Coupled with the determination, success, and wonder the reader will meet, the good and the bad balance each other out, and make the message more meaningful. But it scales back at the end—the glamour and glory of all these possible new places boils down to an almost-blank page, leaving it to the reader to imagine what’s next. It’s a very hopeful message.

Even with these 5 favorites, I still feel like I’m missing several of Dr. Seuss’ greatest works—I probably forgot a few. Tell me your favorite Dr. Seuss picture book in the comments!

Next week, I’ll be writing about The Great Gatsby, so be prepared to discuss. It’s probably the easiest and most comfortable literature I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the most layered and complex stories I’ve ever come across. But more on that next time.

Have a good week!

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Hunger Games Trilogy

Hello again, class.

The youngest book on the 50 Books to Read Before You Die list is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, published in the summer of 2007. By that time the series was 10 years old, and it had already established a lasting impact on the world. The 50-books list, made in 2011, could see that impact and the quality of the novels, so the series was made required reading for everyone.

The Hunger Games Trilogy didn’t get the same advantage—the first installment was published in 2008, and the final installment in 2010, a year before the official list was released. If the list had been made later, I honestly believe this series would have been included. But, as always, let’s talk about why.

The story is popular enough by now, but for those who need the cliff notes: the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is a teenager swept up in the political slaughter of children disguised as an annual “game,” where 24 children are forced into an arena to fight against each other for their lives. The personal aspects of Katniss’s life get swept up, too; as soon as children are chosen for this sentence, they live entirely in the spotlight. From the opening chapters of the first novel, Katniss is being filmed and interviewed, giving the public every moment of the emotional roller coaster she’s experiencing.

That includes the intricate difficulties of the family she’s supporting, as well as the love triangle she so desperately wants no part of. And suddenly, her attitude, fashion sense, love life, and ability to survive become the absurd center of attention of an entire nation of oppressed people. How she reacts to her situation is a part of a larger political game she’s also forced to play, which is even more difficult to survive.

Katniss’s journey is only partially about her survival, and what she sacrifices to have it (her humanity, her future, her family). On that point, it’s a dystopian sci-fi action-thriller—interesting futuristic technology and fight sequences that rival war movies. I’d call it entertaining if it wasn’t so brutal, but we are talking about children fighting for their lives.

Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy

And that’s the problem—the teenagers killing each other is broadcast to the whole corrupt nation as entertainment. The Hunger Games trilogy is a scathing criticism of our society privileging and promoting violence as entertainment, with upfront proof that children always pay the price. The society Katniss lives in has such a skewed perspective that it doesn’t see violence and death for what it is: raw, painful, and terrifying. The same could be said of our world, with action movies and violent news stories filling up every void in our daily lives.

The series does have a lot in common with 1984—another reason it might not have made the list, being too similar to an already featured classic. But the fact that The Hunger Games is the teen-fiction version of a great sci-fi classic means it’s even more worthy of being on the list; it’s such a layered and accessible view of societal dangers that it should be required reading for everyone.

It’s especially worth mentioning that The Hunger Games has a strong female lead in an action-based book series. Even at the time of the first book’s release (and even today) that can be hard to find. I definitely believe our society privileges men in stories like this, and it’s good to see a figure like Katniss Everdeen flaunt our societal expectations. But Katniss isn’t a through-and-through warrior either—she’s a teenager with a very messed up life, making mistakes and not knowing who to trust in a world of liars and politicians. Many current novels still fail to treat female characters as well as this, so author Suzanne Collins deserves props.

As I continue to read Jane Eyre, treatment of female characters is on the front of my mind. I’m really impressed with Jane as a character so far—but I’ll update you next week, students.

Enjoy your week!

Prof. Jeffrey

The Quiet American

Welcome back, class.

I’ve reached maximum blog power here—Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is one of the handful of books on the 50-books list that I had not only never read, but had never heard of before. This is literature obscure enough to have never even appeared before a blogger professor like myself, with all of my years of expertise.

Greene’s protagonist, Thomas Fowler, is a British reporter stationed in Vietnam who swears not to get involved in the conflict; he’s only there to report. His friend, the “quiet American” Alden Pyle, has been murdered, and Fowler begins flashing back through their friendship. Their first meeting, their awkward love triangle with a woman named Phuong, their ideological differences . . . all popping up like a panorama of Pyle’s life against the backdrop of the Vietnam conflict.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. It was too political, too subtextual, too circuitous. Happens to the best of us—I appreciated all the novel did, but simply didn’t like reading it. I’ll still dole out one heck of a lecture.

I think the primary reason it made the list is also the most infamous reason—Greene’s 1950s novel predicted the outcome of American influence in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s. This is clearest in Greene’s portrayal of Alden Pyle: Pyle is young, morally motivated, and so inspired to help that he can’t see who he hurts (ladies and gentlemen, a summary of American politics). The novel heavily criticizes American intrusion in world affairs, however good the intentions may seem.

In fact, each of Greene’s main characters represent their countries. Fowler’s refusal to “take sides,” and his failure to do so, is a representation of British transition away from colonialism. Phuong’s representation of her country is laced with racism, as a silent and objectified victim; but her name, which means phoenix, implies an inner quality of resurrection against others imposing their will, much like Vietnam itself throughout the conflict.

The political predictions are not magic—they are a reaction to the World Wars. Fowler and Pyle’s father are called “isolationists,” referring to the United States’ hesitance to enter into any world conflicts. But after America’s efforts heavily influenced world events in the country’s favor, that belief began to die out. Intrusion into countries like Vietnam were ideological wars (which is why Fowler is disgusted with “mental concepts”). Greene was playing out what would keep happening if America made decisions on behalf of the rest of the world . . . and he was very right.

Politics, however, are not the way to my heart. My love is reserved for character arcs and themes.

We spend the entire story inside Fowler’s head. We get his long-standing death wish, his inability to believe in God (or anything that isn’t physical fact), his wayward morals on sex and marriage, and his confusing relationships with Pyle and Phuong. Only a few things tip off his bias, but the major one is his racism—every time he refers to the Vietnamese with the word “they,” superiority fills the air. His subtle comparison between Phuong and Pyle’s dog says more than enough.

But there is something to be said about Fowler’s bottled-up racism—he rarely, if ever, acts on it—in contrast with Pyle’s active infringement on Phuong’s life and the lives of the Vietnamese people. It’s disguised as kindness, but Pyle does more harm than good. Fowler, who holds back the harm he can cause, can’t stand Pyle’s destructiveness. Pyle’s death is caused by his own tendency for chaos and Fowler breaking his rule by taking a side.

That’s the real character arc, and the real reason to read the story: Fowler’s attempts, and his failure, to stay disengaged. He doesn’t like causing pain, and maybe by staying out of all conflicts no pain will be caused. But Pyle is the perfect catalyst for getting Fowler involved, precisely because of how much pain Pyle causes. Fowler makes a devastating choice, leading to Pyle’s death, and Fowler falls back into the story he’s worked so hard not to be a part of.

Like I said, I didn’t like reading it. But I can appreciate it. Now that, students—sincerely and unironically—is the KEY to passing English. Write that down in your notes.

Next up, I’m reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m a tad excited; this is one of those books that I wouldn’t ever read for fun, but I know I’ll enjoy it. It comes highly recommended by very cool people.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

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