50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Racism

Heart of Darkness

Hello again, class.

Heart of Darkness is controversial. It is a novella about Africa, written from the perspective of a European. It’s a story about the “lesser people” of Africa, the “civilized countries” attempting to conquer it, and the darkness men can succumb to in the attempt.

When I read it first, it was hard enough to simply follow the plot because it was so dense. The second time I read it, I felt as though I had conquered it myself—the fact that I could understand it was enough for me, and I dug no deeper into the racism and prejudice that was there. What I did notice, I excused with “it was a different time”, and that’s a sufficient defense for most art.

But I studied the novel a third time to write this post . . . the racism was much clearer than I remembered. Words like “savages” and “rudimentary souls” describe the people of a conquered continent, and scenes depict them worshiping a white man mad with power. Africa is shown as a backwards and evil land that corrupts the noble European cause—in the context of Heart of Darkness, that cause is stealing African ivory to sell back in Europe.

There’s no beating around the bush—racism is rampant throughout Heart of Darkness. My goal with this post is not to point out every racist moment in the story, though that’s a worthwhile cause. I think it’s more important to talk about why this book made the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, and whether or not the story’s racism had something to do with it. The reasons behind the story and it’s placement on the list may not be as important as the reasons we still read it today . . . maybe that makes all the difference.

Heart of Darkness opens with Marlow, a man with a story to tell about his time in Africa. He was sent there by a European company to investigate what happened to a man named Kurtz, one of the company officials. Marlow must journey into the heart of Africa in the hopes of finding Kurtz, and the further in he goes, the more “savage” things become.

Apocalypse Now (1979) is a Vietnam war drama adapted directly from Heart of Darkness. While the setting and time period have changed, the original characters and story points remain; Apocalypse Now is one of the most famous and most sincere adaptations of Heart of Darkness.

It’s not an adventure story, with epic battles or a heart-warming quest. It’s a disturbing journey, and we’re meant to hope Marlow turns back before it’s too late—in the same way that it’s too late for Kurtz, corrupted by the darkness of the environment. The longer these men stay in the heart of this dark land, the closer they are to reverting to savage ways—the ways of the African people.

This is the flaw in the story. To believe that civilized people are in danger of becoming savages by being around a continent full of savages, is to simultaneously demean a diverse group of people as uniformly savage (for differences of culture and skin color) and to antagonize that group of people as threats to one’s own standard of civilization. In Heart of Darkness, Africans are seen as slow-minded, low-born, and weak-spirited, and by some twisted logic they happen to have the ability to corrupt civilization elsewhere.

So why read Heart of Darkness? Easy: it’s written beautifully. I haven’t read a lot of Joseph Conrad’s work, but everything I’ve read by him has been just short of magical. It may be dense, but Conrad’s writing is unmatched. Knowing that English is not his first language (it’s his third language) makes it clear that he was a master in his craft. His words deserve to be read, and Heart of Darkness is some of his strongest writing.

Author Joseph Conrad

The problem, of course, is the content. If his other novels are written just as well, and are less problematic, wouldn’t those be better choices for the list? The controversy surrounding the novel (similar to the controversies of Huckleberry Finn) have made Heart of Darkness more famous, so that’s something—as if Heart of Darkness is the “gateway” to Conrad’s other works.

But if we’re to look at Heart of Darkness just as it is—if we focus on the story, rather than how it’s told or what it means—we get a pretty good idea of the evils of colonialism. Instead of reading Heart of Darkness and chalking up the apparent racism as byproducts of a “different time,” we can study the racism of the past—in all the glory of Conrad’s beautiful prose—to understand the racism of the present. The best way to read Heart of Darkness is as a historical artifact—appreciation with a grain of salt—and in that form, it deserves to make the list.

Next up is the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I didn’t like reading it in high school, but I went in prejudiced against it—it didn’t match the Frankenstein myth of a reanimated corpse-turned-zombie, and it lost all its cool-factor. I hope I read it this time with more open-mindedness. But more on that next time.

Until then,

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

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

To Kill a Mockingbird

Good morning, class.

I am officially halfway through the list! And To Kill a Mockingbird is an incredible book to cherish the milestone.

Written by Harper Lee and published in 1960, in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement, To Kill a Mockingbird is a racially-charged courtroom drama taking place in a small Alabama town. Scout Finch tells the story of her childhood in the mid-1930s, as her single father Atticus defends a black man charged with the rape of a young white woman. Through Scout, we see the intricacies of Maycomb, Alabama—its strange population, funny traditions, overbearing weather, and painful secrets.

I can’t count all of the reasons To Kill a Mockingbird made the list of books to read before you die. First of all, Harper Lee’s writing is amazing—it rises and falls like the musical twang of Southern culture. The narrative can fool you into thinking it’s random, but it is beautifully structured. Every word is in keeping with the story, the location, the characters . . . the novel feels divine.

Scout and her older brother Jem experience the town of Maycomb as children, which proves both funny and heartbreaking. Their innocence gives them the full spectrum of emotion when it comes to misunderstanding the world of Maycomb—tradition baffles them, racism makes them weep, and adults are the oddest creatures imaginable. Scout in particular has trouble with the entire idea of becoming a “lady,” preferring her overalls and the simpler company of boys to the overly complicated world of tea-time conversation—to hilarious results.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

But they would be ordinary children without Atticus. While Lee’s newest novel Go Set a Watchman might show a darker version of the character, this Atticus Finch is one of the greatest literary heroes ever written. His moral compass and passion for social justice in the South is combined with his understanding for children and his empathy for victims. Scout and Jem would follow Atticus to the ends of the Earth if he’d let them—he spends most of the novel teaching them respect, explaining injustice, comforting their very real fears, and guiding their moral development, despite opposition he faces at every turn.

The plot is mostly driven by the trial of Tom Robinson, the man accused of rape. Atticus takes the case to try and make change in their town, and realistically, he is met with both opposition and support, temporarily upsetting the fragile dynamics of Maycomb. At one point Atticus compares the case to the Civil War—but, as he explains, “‘This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends.'”

The trial is viewed from Scout’s perspective, but in little ways, Lee helps Scout see the events from the perspective of the black population in Maycomb—for example, as the kids sneak into the trial, they arrive in the segregated black seating area, where most of Atticus’ supporters sit. A similar scene occurs when Scout and Jem are invited to a black church, and for the first time they experience a new culture from across the train tracks. I think it’s safe to say that this novel is written mostly to a white audience, but for a clear reason—Lee writes to those with the power and privilege to make change, who choose to wait for justice to come instead of act. Slowly, through the novel, it feels like every character either fulfills or rejects Lee’s demand for justice.

Author Harper Lee with friend and author Truman Capote

That being said, Tom Robinson’s trial takes up only some of the action—it’s almost a secondary plot. The children spend most of their imagination and conversation on Boo Radley, the mysterious, legendary ghost-like figure that inhabits a house down the street. Scout and Jem also spend their summertime with Dill, a boy based on Harper Lee’s real-life friend, fellow author Truman Capote. During the rest of the year, school-time politics take up their day, including condemnable teachers and bullies with racial slurs all within a complicated and questionable Alabama school system. To Scout and Jem, Maycomb is their entire world.

It all bends towards Lee’s message, which is as simple (and yet, as complex) as the novel in full. Things like racism and hatred are hidden in the confines of the heart . . . possibly in the hearts of all people, everywhere. With enough steam to back them, things like racism and hatred have the power to bust out and destroy lives. To destroy a life—or in the words of the novel, to kill a mockingbird, which does nothing but make music—is a sin. 

And that’s book #25! Next up is Lord of the Flies by William Golding—like To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s one of those books that everyone else read in high school, but somehow I never did. Therefore, I’ve heard only bad things about it, and I’m ready for it to redeem its bad reputation from the scourge of high school students.

Until then, remember: it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it—whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.’

Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. ‘There’s nothing more sickening to me that a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves—it’s all adding up and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in you children’s time.'”

—from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

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