50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Reading

The Final Review

We’re at the end, class!

I’m not dying, or anything. But I promised myself at the beginning of this that I wouldn’t push this blog too far. I wouldn’t let it be one of those blogs that posted a lot at once, tapered off into a few posts a year, and died out from age or boredom. (If anyone thinks to look back at the posting dates of each one of my posts, you’ll notice a remarkable consistency.)

Which means there’s a finale to this saga. I read and reviewed the 50 Books to Read Before You Die, according to a bookmark. Just a few final remarks, and that’s all, folks.

I liked most of them. I loved many of them. There were a few I couldn’t stand, and I’m getting rid of those (to leave room on my bookshelf for better books). They all left an impression . . . they all gave me something to think about, something to chew on. Reading each one gave me a world to explore or a new perspective to consider. That’s what books are for.

Several of them gave me clues about how to be a better writer. This list is full to the brim of storytelling techniques, fascinating characters, and hilarious puns. I think all the great storytellers and artists copy from the greats, and this list featured some of the greatest stories of all time—so I’ve got a storytelling repertoire that will continue to inspire before I expire.

I keep coming back to why I chose to do this, and there’s one very obvious answer. I’d just graduated college. I loved college, and more importantly, I loved going to class. I love reading books and then talking about them. We just read this amazing chapter in this book I love, I can’t miss class! The professor’s going to break it apart, show me the little pieces that I missed—then I’ll love it even more!! That’s me. So what’s a man to do after graduation, when there are no more classes, no more professors, no more books and discussions? He starts a blog, of course.

I did this because I’d done nothing but read the assigned reading for the past four years. I wanted to dare myself into reading “literature” on my own. This was my way of making a real life class for myself, a series of self-assigned readings that any professor of a grade-A-geek would be proud of. And I did it for myself—not to show off my limited knowledge to people that know me, but to make myself better as a reader, writer, and storyteller, through the magic of the internet.

But I don’t stoop to think that this almost-three-year task made me a better person. I didn’t expect it would, because a better reader/writer/storyteller is not a better person. (If that sounds like too obvious a statement, I can assure you, that’s something I had to learn, and it’s something several fully grown adults still don’t know.)

It’s like the difference between living and reading about living. Some writers will tell you that the story is all that matters, but that only applies to stories, not to life. Stories serve many purposes—relief, connection, understanding, entertainment, discovery, motivation—but the one thing a story can’t do is replace living. Stories are reflections of life, and so is everything from history to art, from the greatest movie ever to a good joke. The reflections take us where we cannot go, far and wide around the Earth, back in time and forward to the future, and life still waits for us when we return.

No, this didn’t make me a better person. I learned a lot, though. If I use all I learned to not only tell better stories, but live a better life, then I’ll become a better person, I hope. That’s why the blogging is done, at least for now—I’m done with this chapter of my life-book, and if I stick around for too long, I might not get to the rest.

So keep reading. Then go live with what you learned.

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Definitive Ranking of All 50 Books

Good morning, class.

I love making lists. Ever since I started this blog I’ve been anxious to put the list of “50 Books to Read Before You Die” in order, from least favorite all the way up to favorite. I had to read them all first—so here’s a three-years-long dream coming true. I’ve read Every. Single. One.

To be honest, I paid more attention to the very least favorite and the top ten. The middle-ranked books got organized with a little less scrutiny. But I really can’t stand Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note so it’s at the bottom. I wish I could unread it.

50.Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis
49.On the Road by Jack Kerouac
48.A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
47.Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
46.The Quiet American by Graham Greene
45.The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
44.The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
43.Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
42.The Stranger by Albert Camus
41.Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
40.Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
39.The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
38.The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
37.A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
36.The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
35.The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
34.The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
33.A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
32.Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
31.Lord of the Flies by William Golding
30.Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
29.The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
28.Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
27.Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
26.The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
25.Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway
24.Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
23.The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
22.Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
21.Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
20.Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
19.Hamlet by William Shakespeare
18.Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
17.1984 by George Orwell
16.The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien
15.One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
14.Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
13.The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
12.The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
11.Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
10.The Color Purple by Alice Walker
9.Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
8.The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Timeby Mark Haddon
7.His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
6.The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
5.The Bible by Various
4.Life of Pi by Yann Martel
3.To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
2.Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling
1.Ulysses by James Joyce

Yes, of course Ulysses is my top pick. I know it’s certainly not everyone’s favorite, I know it’s one of my several biases . . . but I love it anyway.

After writing this list out, I looked back at some of my older posts—looks like I condemned ranking books a few times, making my list here a bit hypocritical. Well, maybe a person can’t compare one book to another in a hierarchical system like this . . . I may pick Ulysses as my favorite, but I can’t just pick it up and read it for fun the same way I can with a Harry Potter book. And, to be fair, while I picked Ulysses for the way it changed my perspective as a reader, and for the way it portrayed love and humanity, it’s not like Harry Potter didn’t do that for me first.

If I have a point, I guess it’s that a book’s meaning to you as a reader will constantly change—and that there are as many books as there are people, and as many complicated feelings about stories as there are relationships.

I’ve got one more blog post planned—I want to share some of my personal reflections about reading all 50 books. Then you can all graduate from Prof. Jeffrey’s class.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Favorite Authors

Welcome back class.

I think every self-respecting avid reader has a list of their favorite authors at the ready. Sometimes, when you’re wandering aimlessly through the used bookstore, knowing full well that you don’t have enough money to buy all the books you want, the only lifeline you can cling to is the recognition of a familiar author’s name.

So today, I thought I’d share with you my short list of favorite authors. I only had one rule when picking out each name—I have to have read more than one of their books. As much as I’d love to include Harper Lee because of To Kill a Mockingbird or Yann Martel because of Life of Pi, I only know that I like one of their books. The list below weeds out any potential one-hit wonders.

Click the links to see my blog posts on each book. The list is alphabetical to avoid bias, in case any of them stumble across this blog one day.

And without further ado, my list of favorite authors!

James Joyce

Books I’ve Read: DublinersA Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses

I know I’m in the minority here. Most people find James Joyce’s stuff tedious, deliberately confusing, and needlessly weird (though Dubliners is a notable exception—it appeals to a wider audience, so if Joyce makes you uncomfortable, start with Dubliners). But for me, Joyce is a huge inspiration. His experimental style and meaningful stories have changed the way I read and write. I was lucky enough to have read his books in a helpful environment, which made it possible to understand his approach and intent while also encouraging me to discover things in his books for myself. If I see his name on the cover, I’m reading it, whatever it is.

Stephen King

Books I’ve Read: CarrieThe Shining, and On Writing

I don’t imagine Stephen King and James Joyce have much in common, but I love King for the same reason I love Joyce—he has inspired me and changed the way I read and write. Whenever I notice myself using an adverb, I think of King’s unadulterated hatred of adverbs. To him, they are a sign that the writer is afraid of being unclear . . . so they throw in the adverb to assert feelings on the reader, leaving little room for interpretation and chipping away at a story’s power.

But I didn’t just discover word choice with King—I discovered that story matters above all. Through both Carrie and The Shining, King crafted strange characters and supernatural worlds all in service of a good story. I’ve only read three books off of his loaded bookshelf, and I plan on reading more. Joyce may keep me in the clouds with his complexities, but King grounds me in a way that few authors ever have, and that’s been important to my journey as a writer.

Lois Lowry

Books I’ve Read: The Giver and Number the Stars

Lois Lowry is one of those young adult authors that prepare young readers for more mature reading. Both of the books I’ve read by her were assigned reading in middle school, and both of them left a bigger impact on me than most books from that time in my life. The Giver was an excellent piece of science fiction that prepared me for books on the 50-books list like 1984 and Brave New World; and Number the Stars portrayed the lives of children in the Holocaust, and left me empowered to be the kind of hero the protagonist chose to be.

These two books are serious dramas with emotional drive, and they are as meaningful for preteens and teenagers as they are for adults. Lowry’s stories aren’t watered-down—they are intelligent and moving. That can be hard to find in the ocean of literature for kids, and Lowry is one of those lifelines to cling to.

Gregory Maguire

Books I’ve Read: WickedSon of a Witch, and A Lion Among Men

I’ve been won over by Gregory Maguire. The first book I read by him, Wicked (which is nothing like the Broadway musical), allowed me to make the big transition between young adult books and books for adults. Maguire took the realm of a children’s fantasy series and made something serious, dark, clever, and unfiltered. And it all started with a simple concept—an attempt to understand the strange and evil Wicked Witch of the West.

I’ve read some (not all) of the sequels to Wicked, each of which have been met with mixed reactions by the same people that loved the original. I haven’t had the same reactions—I was just as moved and awe-struck with these stories of Oz-based characters beyond the Wicked Witch, and I will continue to read books by Maguire because of that. I’m excited to finish the rest of the Wicked series and I’m excited to see how special his other fantasy-oriented stories turn out.

Lemony Snicket

Books I’ve Read: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Books 1-7

This one almost doesn’t count—Lemony Snicket is the figment of the author’s imagination, through which he tells several of his stories. But I’ve never read any books by the real Daniel Handler, only those by his fictional persona Lemony Snicket, and I absolutely love Snicket’s writing. I’ve read some of his shorter works in addition, but I know Lemony Snicket mostly through his most popular series, A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Both the Netflix adaptation and the movie adaptation have their good qualities, but the books surpass them through the uniqueness of Snicket’s writing—something that cannot be described, only experienced. Snicket’s constant insistence that the reader should read something else more pleasant, his capacity for descriptive tirades and misguided definitions of large vocabulary words, his distinct brand of somber empathy . . . all of these quirks converge to portray the unfortunate lives of the Baudelaire children. To top it all off, it’s for kids—I know of no other books that portray the unpleasantries of life for kids as well as these books do, and Lemony Snicket is one of my favorite writers for that reason alone.

And that’s my list! Feel free to share you’re list with me. In the meantime, I’m finishing up Don Quixote next, and I look forward to telling you what I learned!

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘I possessed nearly 5000 volumes in my library at Rome, but after reading them over many times, I found out that with 150 well-chosen books a man possesses a complete analysis of all human knowledge, or at least all that is either useful or desirable to be acquainted with. I devoted three years of my life to reading and studying these volumes, till I knew them nearly by heart; so that since I have been in prison, a very slight effort of memory has enabled me to recall their contents as readily as though the pages were open before me.'”

—from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

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

Off-Topic: My Want-To-Read List

Happy almost-Halloween, class!

Let me be honest with you. I’m only 23 years old. 23 years is not enough time to read all of the best books ever written, no matter what the other 23-year-olds tell you. I’ve read a lot of ’em, but my Want-To-Read List is longer than my Already-Read List.

All of those posts I’ve made about books that are missing from the list are my way of filling in the gaps of the list itself; but then there are those amazing books that I haven’t read yet. You’ve probably heard of them too—they pop up on lists and blog posts, or in English classes for all ages. You may have even read some of them yourself, but I’ve never gotten around to them.

So below is a list of the literary greats I’ve heard about. Some were recommended to me by friends or teachers (or both), and others have been praised by critics for decades. Some are centuries old, and others barely a decade young. It’s a rather arbitrarily made list, but they’re all books I’ll be excited to finish one day.

If you’ve read any of them, feel free to tell me why you think they’re great! And if I need to add to my list, tell me what I’m missing. If your recommendations are flowing, I may begin reading something new sooner rather than later. 

  1. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  2. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
  3. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
  4. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  5. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  6. Atonement by Ian McEwan
  7. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  8. Blindness by José Saramago
  9. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  10. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
  11. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  12. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  13. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  14. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  15. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
  16. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  17. Emma by Jane Austen
  18. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  19. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
  20. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  21. The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe
  22. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  23. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  24. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  25. The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  26. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  27. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  28. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
  29. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  30. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  31. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  32. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  33. Madame Bovary by Gustave Floubert
  34. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  35. Midnight’s Children by Salmon Rushdie
  36. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
  37. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  38. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  39. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  40. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  41. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  42. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  43. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
  44. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  45. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brian
  46. The Time Quintet by Madeleine L’Engle
  47. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  48. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  49. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
  50. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

“The intimacy, thus commenced, grew rapidly, though it encountered temporary interruptions. Earnshaw was not to be civilized with a wish; and my young lady was no philosopher, and no paragon of patience; but both their minds tending to the same point—one loving and desiring to esteem, and the other loving and desiring to be esteemed—they contrived in the end to reach it.”

—from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

“Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’s moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills to Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow—anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night. Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

—from To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee