50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Race

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Hello again, class.

I have mixed feelings about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I’ve read it a lot, and I’ve hated it, loved it, misunderstood it, and been indifferent to it. I’ve thought of Mark Twain as a genius, and sometimes I’ve thought of him as a glorified hillbilly whose works we read for unknowable reasons. More often than not, I land on the idea of appreciating Huckleberry Finn from a distance, never quite sure what to make of it while knowing that it’s worth reading—that’s the mood for today.

If only reviewing books was a simple task.


The book opens with a notice, explaining that anyone attempting to find motive, moral, or plot in this story will be subsequently prosecuted, banished, or shot. From the opening page, this book flaunts narrative, which is a hole-in-one from where I’m standing. The story that follows is a series of funny and dramatic events with a few well-developed and desperate characters and a barrage of side-character kooks to keep things light and interesting. It’s meant to be a delightful adventure story, through and through.

Or is it? One of my issues reading Huckleberry Finn is also one of the things that has kept it popular in the century-and-then-some that came after—the story itself is more than it claims to be. No one narrative-identity sticks—it can never be limited to “adventure story.” The series of adventures do have some underlying meaning, even if the notice at the beginning tells the reader not to look for it.


But I’ve gotten ahead of myself—the only way this anti-narrative story even remotely works is because it has good characters. Huck is a boy in the American South, and he comes from an impoverished world with an abusive father. He views himself as a wrongdoer, or as trash, so he oscillates between wanting to do what’s right and giving up to do wrong. This puts him directly on the path of running away with an adult slave, Jim, whose relationship with Huck is tumultuous, subtle, carefree, and one of the strongest examples of friendship literature has to offer.

Twain’s portrayal of Jim is remarkable—we see all through Huck’s eyes, and Jim’s actions show him to be far more than Huck can imagine of a slave. Just like the story, Jim is more than he seems, and for all the stereotypes he seems to embody of a submissive and hard-working slave, he subtly flaunts those stereotypes in the story’s stiller, smaller moments. Twain wrote him as both a caricature and an honest deconstruction of slave characters—and Jim is one of the reasons Huckleberry Finn is still read today.


Author Samuel Clemens, a.k.a Mark Twain

Twain’s real writing strength is his humor. Throughout Huckleberry Finn, there are disguises, pranks, puns, hilarious literary references, bumbling idiots and smart people fooled beyond recognition. Two characters known as the king and the duke swindle money from people for a living, and comedy ensues. Huck’s profound misunderstanding of most situations leads to hilarious chaos. One extended joke about two feuding families references Romeo and Juliet constantly, and Twain’s version isn’t half as tragic (that’s what he’d have you believe, in any case). Huck even dresses up like a girl to get information from someone. It’s non-stop, and Twain is a master of hilarity.


I can’t deny, even though I clearly think it’s a good novel, that I can’t stand Huckleberry Finn. Part of it is the overuse of the n-word, but that’s a weak reason—I love To Kill a Mockingbird for the same “fault.” Part of it is that this boy’s adventures are so unlike my life that I have no frame of reference; there’s almost no way his running away with a slave matches any moment in my own narrative. But that’s a weak reason, too—I could say the same about so many books I’ve praised before, including Pride and PrejudiceBrave New WorldThe Color PurpleAs I Lay Dying, and To the Lighthouse.

It probably boils down to taste, and that’s the best answer you’ll get out of me. I’ll praise the genius of Huckleberry Finn while keeping my distance; there are several novels I’ll reread for pleasure, and this isn’t one of them. But I wholeheartedly agree that it’s one of the 50 books everyone should read before they die.

Next up, I’m finishing Moby-Dick—another story that is so unlike my own life that I have little to no frame of reference. But unlike with Huckleberry Finn, I very much enjoyed Moby-Dick even in spite of its flaws . . . but more on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

The Diary of Anne Frank

Hello again, class.

This isn’t a review or a critique of Anne Frank’s Diary—that’s not something I would consider appropriate for a book like this. The private journal entries of a teenager are a certain kind of sacred. There are parts about her Diary I don’t like, but they are a part of Anne Frank’s tragically cut-short life and deserve to be cherished.

The reason a book like this is published is not for something like literary merit or artistic value (though, miraculously, it has both anyway). The reason a book like this is published is to imprint the tragedies of history into the minds of as many people as possible, and to cherish the memory of a collective and personal loss. That also happens to be why it makes the list of 50 books to read before you die—not for the value of its content or structure, but for its universal need for recognition.


There is very little of the major story within the Diary, because that story happens mostly before and after Anne Frank’s writings—the text itself fills in the details of a story that’s already in place. I’m not taking any chances here—since we live in a world of Neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, and “fake news,” I’m going to recap the moments in history that The Diary of Anne Frank is a concrete part of.

Anne’s story is about a Jewish family that goes into hiding because of the Nazi regime, a radical political party, spreading from Germany. The Nazis declared that Jewish people were responsible for German failures in WWI and were an inferior race, leading to the hunt for and capture of Jewish people. What started as a political movement became the systematic racial genocide known today as the Holocaust.

Otto Frank, Anne’s father (1968)

The Frank family hid in a small set of rooms behind a bookcase in a warehouse, along with four other individuals. They hid there successfully for two years, but before the end of WWII, the Franks were captured and sent to concentration camps. All but Anne’s father Otto died in these camps, and after regaining his freedom, he found the contents of his daughter’s diary. He decided to have the contents published.

The book serves as a reminder of the tragedy of the Holocaust and the very human lives lost to history, despite the inhumanity with which those lives were portrayed by the Nazi party.


Which brings us to the Diary. Anne gets the blank diary as a birthday present in 1942, and she begins writing her everyday thoughts and feelings. Not long after, the family goes into hiding—most of her writings are various forms of cabin fever from the perspective of a teenager, which is equal parts boring, frightening, and inspiring. Anne is an amazing writer and an insightful (though never unbiased) person. She seems to always write with a purpose and represents childhood and youth in her own way. Even when the entry is dull, the writing is not.

I review her writing (like I said I wouldn’t earlier) because it was purposefully well-written. She writes about being a writer and about a future in journalism, and the Diary has stood the test of time partly because she wrote so well. This diary was her chance to practice her craft, and her craft is worth reviewing. She writes about her feuds with those hiding with her, her desires for romance, her thoughts on humanity, her daily routine, and her fears and doubts. Reading her diary is watching her transform over the course of two years in hiding.


And then the Diary ends, unceremoniously. The inhabitants of the “Secret Annexe” (as it’s known in English) were captured in 1944, and the writings of a young girl were ignored and left behind. The nature of the book’s ending forces a return to the historical facts of the end of Anne’s life. You’re reading it knowing that eventually, she will die—and then the book ends as incompletely as her life. The ending reshapes the Diary back into a historical artifact, along with the reports of her life in the concentration camp and the details known of her death.

The Diary itself doesn’t tell the story of Anne’s life as much as it reflects the vignettes that make up her experience—that of a teenager in hiding (which is special enough). But the statistics of her life and death, while telling a story, are heartless. Anne’s humanity is more alive in her own writing, which gives a voice to the millions of victims of the Holocaust that could only tell stories with the statistics of their lives and deaths. The picture on the cover of The Diary of Anne Frank becomes the face of this period in history.

And as important as that is, it tends to limit all that the Diary can be. The reason to pick up the Diary and start reading is because it represents one of the darkest moments in human history, and the book itself has a tendency to belong to that part of history. But it isn’t as dark as that—this book is one of the bright spots in an era of horror. The reason to continue reading it, once you’ve picked it up, isn’t to remember the Holocaust or the death of a child. The reason to continue reading it is to witness the unabridged beauty of a young girl’s voice.


The time I have put in to reading these books and writing these posts can feel unnecessary at times. Some of the books I’ve trudged through have felt like a bit of a waste. But The Diary of Anne Frank is one of those that restored me—I read it once in seventh grade, and it left very little impact at the time, so I’ve been willing to chalk it up as nothing more than an important piece of history. But reading it again helped me realize what I missed, and how important was. I’m happy I read it, and I’m happier I read it a second time.

Next up, I’m jumping backwards to read Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. I’ve always liked the story for exactly what it is, even if it was never that special to me, but its effects can be seen everywhere in our society today. I’m excited about diving into it again.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Happy Holidays, class! Let’s talk about nonfiction.

The full title of the work is Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.

While the Bible depicts some historical events, the only nonfiction work on the entire 50-books list is The Diary of Anne Frank (which I will write more about in a future post). And though I think the nonfiction novel In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is missing from the list, too, I also believe so about the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass—for entirely different reasons. In Cold Blood is an unnerving look at humanity’s desire for witnessing a brutal and real crime. In some ways, Douglass’ Narrative is similar—Douglass shows the criminality of slavery that scarred his own life and American society as a whole. But it’s a redeeming tale, too, revealing the outcomes of perseverance against a system of oppression . . . one that Douglass defies with his very existence.


Douglass writes of his life growing up as a slave, the people who influenced him, and the realizations he came to in his hardships. He’s a traditional storyteller, which he was likely conscious of in order to attract a traditional audience—the kind of audience who needed to read his story, and to understand his humanity. His experiences can affect hearts and minds by their ever having been allowed to happen.

And while each of his experiences are both meaningful and inhumane, one stands out to me every time. The wife of his slaveowner begins to teach Douglass to read, until her husband stops her and tells her it’s illegal and will “spoil” the slave for life . . . meaning that reading tends to empower a slave beyond a slaveowner’s control. This is not only all the evidence Douglass’ story needs to prove his own humanity—that his intellect, as a human quality, cannot be denied—but this is also the passage that proves that reading can set a person free.

It makes me think of all those blissfully stupid inspirational posters in public schools about how knowledge is power and how reading can take you to the stars. It makes me think of the stress parents and teachers put on the importance of reading and learning. Our society’s idea that reading is everything came from stories like Douglass’ Narrative—where the kindness of a fellow soul and the strength of a human mind can conquer slavery, and where reading can change lives.


Douglass’ life also has enough historical significance that it should be read whether it’s good or not (it just so happens that it’s good writing as well). The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is an important historical milestone for the abolitionist movement of its time, which forever altered American history through the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern race issues we still struggle with today. Like similar nonfiction works, it should be required reading for everyone—it belongs on the list because it helped change the world.


As I continue to read Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, the fictional account of a geisha’s life in the first half of the 20th Century, I’m noticing similarities between it and Douglass’ Narrative, if only in the way the story is told. The attempt to reflect on one’s own life and tell as rounded a story as possible is something no one can completely achieve. Douglass’ story is, more often than not, about slavery, and not about himself. The picture he paints for us reveals the experiences that affected him more than it reveals his character. To describe yourself, using your own point of view, is one of those impossible things human beings always try and fail to do—which actually makes Douglass’ Narrative more meaningful and Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha more enjoyable.

More on that next class!

Prof. Jeffrey

A Passage to India

Hello again, class.

I would put E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India in the same boat as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River—a novel on cultural clash, with one nation invading another and a set of characters caught in the racial, international chaos. But where Greene and Naipaul are too cynical and become trapped by racist misrepresentations, Forster’s treatment of racial and cultural tension is careful and even kind, without being naive to its origins or consequences. For that, I enjoyed A Passage to India and highly recommend it.


A flag map of the British Raj, the British rule over India between 1858-1947. A Passage to India takes place in the 1920’s, during the period of the British Raj.

I had never even heard of A Passage to India before seeing it on the list, so I imagine most don’t know the story. In the fictional town of Chandrapore, the English Mr. Fielding and Indian Dr. Aziz befriend Mrs. Moore, who has come to visit her son Ronny, Chandrapore’s city magistrate. Mrs. Moore has brought her young friend Adela, who is potentially her son’s fiancee. This newly formed group decides to visit the Marabar Caves, and what happens there forces the subtle racial tensions within them to explode, affecting the entirety of Chandrapore.

In A Bend in the River and The Quiet American, the protagonists are limited by their own racism, which is shown as an ingrained trait as natural as our own desires. But the treatment of race in A Passage to India reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird—it shows racism as a disease. It infects many characters, but not all, and the ones who rise above such racism are punished by the society affected by the disease.

Specifically for A Passage to India, we move between the minds of each character and see their own struggles with race and racism. Characters like Mrs. Moore and Aziz have a poetic and compassionate view of the world, while Mrs. Moore’s own son thinks with bureaucracy and practicality, even with matters concerning marriage. Ronny views the Indian population as a group who needs governance, while Mrs. Moore believes her role in India is to show kindness to others. In each character, the topic of race—of psychology, humanity, and nationality, too—takes a subtly different form, and each character believes in their own version of racial truth.


E. M. Forster, author of A Passage to India. Portrait by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920.

The story itself can’t have much said about it—it’s well-balanced and careful, to the point that it’s forgettable. The strength in A Passage to India is E. M. Forster’s total understanding of society and of human nature.

I’m willing to bet that most white writers handle race and racism poorly. Forster shouldn’t be any different, but he is (though that opinion is from another white writer, so take that opinion with a grain of salt).  I think, in part, that his careful and compassionate management of race stems from understanding the nature of an outsider, which comes from being a minority himself—though the larger public didn’t know, Forster lived his life as a homosexual man. In England at the time, homosexuality was considered illegal activity, so Forster’s identity was a crime. He could easily imagine the loneliness and stress of being considered criminal by nature, much like the Indians in his novel tend to feel around the English.

Don’t get me wrong: race and sexual orientation compare very little, even in the larger scope of societal treatment. Forster’s hidden minority hardly matches the visibility of racial tension. But the feeling of being an outsider, even in a place one considers home, is something Forster likely knew very well—and it translates to the subtleties of A Passage to India. It feeds into the natural cynicism of the plot, highlighting the inability to rise above prejudice, but Forster handles that cynicism with more grace than most authors do. It made A Passage to India good.


Next up, I’m finishing the His Dark Materials Trilogy, which I’ve been reading for some time now. I won’t say much yet . . . except that I haven’t felt this good about a series since I read Harry Potter. But I’ll save the rest for later!

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

A Bend in the River

Another book finished! Welcome back, class.

V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River is a difficult novel. Stephen King once wrote that a person can write about anything, as long as they tell the truth (from his book On Writing). I could go out on a limb and say that every author on the 50-books list has done this—they’ve told their own truths. With A Bend in the River, Naipaul has told his ugly truths, and they were difficult to read—truths about racism, lost souls in postcolonial Africa, disregarded marriages, violence, and the decay of humanity.


The main character, Salim, is a shopkeeper in a small town on a central African river. He witnesses the chaos of an unnamed country around him: a rebellion against the old order, the establishment of a new order and a new leader, and its subsequent corruption and collapse. Meanwhile, Salim rotates through relationships with a series of characters, including an old family servant (whose loyalty decays like the country around them), a woman with whom he begins an abusive affair, and the son of one of his customers who rises through the country’s political ranks.

The characters all seem to be parts of a moving (or, rather, dying) machine. Sometimes, when a story does this well, the story and characters are given more meaning (I can’t say it enough—Ulysses is my favorite example of this). But A Bend in the River is more about meaninglessness . . . about being trapped in a dying system, unable to fix it and unable to escape. This is a place where hope becomes bitterness, narrated by a cynical man.


Salim’s cynical tone is the story’s greatest weakness. If it isn’t clear already, I didn’t enjoy reading the novel, and it’s mostly because of the philosophies and opinions of an unlikable narrator. Salim looks down on any dark-skinned people and acts violently towards the married woman he sleeps with. He seems to view this African country as better off under rule from Europe, as opposed to being allowed to exist on its own. He sounds always above everyone in his life.

At this point, I would usually claim that the narrator is unreliable, and that the author uses the narrator as an extra form of commentary. Even if that’s true, the artistic element is too subtle to be of any benefit. It’s hard to forgive any of these qualities because there’s no catch, no twist . . . Naipaul does nothing to show that he doesn’t mirror the negative qualities of his character, which makes me question any of the truths Naipaul claims to support.


And yet, for all that disgusts me, the tone is also the novel’s greatest strength. With Naipaul’s cynicism comes careful, brilliant writing. The content may be bleak, but the way it’s portrayed is mesmerizing, and it never shows any narrative cracks. If you need a reason to read it, it’s because A Bend in the River is one of those rare pieces of excellent writing—each word fits like a puzzle piece to a grand and beautiful image.

In the same way, I could compare it to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (which I’ve written about here), and lots of critics have compared it to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (blog post pending). If only the story didn’t feel so rotten at the core, I could see A Bend in the River being one of my favorite novels ever written.


Next, I’m reading The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. I’m happy to put A Bend in the River behind me.

I’ve noticed that I have a tolerance for novels I don’t like (at least well-written novels I don’t like). I think that means that for any book, the plot can involve anything and the characters can do anything, and as long as the author knows what makes a story worth telling, I can read it. Some people can’t do the same—an unlikable character or a goofy plot makes them put a book down in a heartbeat.

Some books help you figure out what kind of reader you actually are. They’re worth something for that, even if you don’t enjoy the experience.

On that note, I’ll see you 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