50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Realism

Rebecca

Hello again, class.

Most of the novels on the list require a bit of work—especially the older ones. This 50-books library is the kind of selection that focuses on the great works, not the most entertaining ones. There’s entertainment in novels like Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet, but that’s not why you need to read them before you die—you need to read them because they do what no other piece of entertainment did before, and significantly changed what literature was and could be. In almost every book on the list, entertainment may be there, but it’s always secondary.

Rebecca is one of the exceptions to this trend—it seems to be entertainment first. It delights in its own extravagant writing and startling twists, and the story is melodramatic and absorbing. It’s not a happy story—it’s more like a nightmare, honestly—but it exists somewhere between a classy horror movie and a turbulent romance. It’s not great art—but it’s not simple, either. It plays with its plot for dramatic effect and was more engrossing than I could have predicted. Rebecca belongs on the list because of the simplest reason of all: it’s exciting and suspenseful, and it made its mark on literature and popular culture of the time.


With most of the novels from the list, I don’t worry much about spoilers—I couldn’t really “spoil” The Divine Comedy, if you know what I mean—but I have to be very careful about Rebecca. This is the story of a newly married woman, who is beginning a new life with her husband. One thing I appreciated early on: this woman goes unnamed for the entire novel. I can barely imagine how difficult that might have been for the author—her protagonist is referred to ambiguously for the opening chapters and, after marrying, is referred to by last name only: Mrs. de Winter. We never learn her first name or her maiden name, and all we know of her identity is in character traits, not details. She is a complete character, but one without identity.

Actors Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter in the movie adaptation of Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock

This nameless woman marries a widower, Maxim de Winter, whose first wife is the eponymous Rebecca. Rebecca died before the narrator met Maxim, and Rebecca is some hideous unspoken secret in their new marriage. Nonetheless, they attempt to live happily in de Winter’s estate of Manderley, a large and beautiful house that is as much a character as the narrator—it’s given personality and even agency in what happens to the characters living there. The servants and guests at Manderley all seem to know something about Rebecca that they want to keep from the narrator, and because of that, Rebecca herself seems to haunt Manderley. She is around every corner, threatening to ruin the narrator’s marriage and life.


More than once, I wondered if this was a supernatural thriller—a literal haunting, with Rebecca’s spirit poisoning the house. While the narrator never sees the ghost of Rebecca walking down the halls, that seems to be the only difference between the haunting in Rebecca and something like Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol. This story is the closest you can get to the supernatural while still existing in the real world.

Author Daphne du Maurier

And even though it’s not quite fantasy, either, it’s got a healthy dose of the unrealistic. Everything is hyper-characterized and played for drama or suspense, not to the point that it’s unnecessary, but entertaining for certain. It uses melodrama like it uses hints of the supernatural—instead of getting in the way of the story, they make the story fuller.

The author, Daphne du Maurier, seems to have gone to the Stephen King school of storytelling (or, rather, King went to the du Maurier school of storytelling). King believes that story matters above all. The best stories aren’t about character pieces or technical brilliance, but about telling the best story you can. Rebecca is the perfect example of an author telling the best story she can, and it’s such a good story that it earned its way onto the list of 50 books to read before you die.


Next up, I’m finishing Catch-22, which does exactly what Rebecca doesn’t—and to fantastic result. Catch-22 is almost an anti-story, with plot that folds in on itself and character-driven vignettes that refuse to bear a story. And yet, it’s every bit as thrilling as Rebecca, and infinitely funnier. Though I certainly loved RebeccaCatch-22 is more my speed—but let’s drive down that route next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Moby-Dick

Call me Prof. Jeffrey.

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

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

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


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

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


Author Herman Melville

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

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


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

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

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

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Anna Karenina

Hello again, class.

The first thing you notice about Anna Karenina is how long it is. Hopefully, the second thing you notice is how short the chapters are—all of them, two or three pages a pop. It’s really easy to read a chapter a day, and most chapters pick up in the exact spot where you left off last—that’s why, for the past 15 books I’ve written about for this blog, I’ve been reading Anna Karenina on the side. It’s hardly made a dent in my time, even though it took several months to read.

I’ve heard that Anna Karenina is the best novel ever written. Though my vote for that spot is still Ulysses, I can see why Tolstoy’s novel is preferable—Anna Karenina uses a large cast of characters and their diverse inner thoughts to tell the kind of story you can’t look away from, where passion leads to terrible decisions and societal systems punish everyone, without regard to right or wrong. For that, Anna Karenina makes the list of books to read before you die.


Actress Greta Garbo as Anna in one of the several movie adaptations of Anna Karenina.

The novel follows two major stories that intersect and branch out from each other. One story is focused on Anna, a married woman who falls in love with another man and begins an affair, setting in motion the events of the novel. The other story focuses on the landowner Konstantin Levin and his relationship and eventual marriage with the noble Katerina (Kitty). It’s almost like reading two different novels, except for the moments when one story affects the other.

In Anna’s story, her life falls apart almost immediately—once she meets Alexis Vronsky, the man who becomes her lover, her marriage collapses like wet paper. Her attachments to her extended family, her love for her son, her standing in Russian society . . . all are kindling for the fire that consumes her life. Levin’s story is more traditional—he pines for Kitty, learns to live without her, happily regains his relationship with her, and, once married to her, begins the life expected of a husband. But the subtleties of his story reveal contradictions ingrained in marital expectations.

If the entire novel could be boiled down into one thought, that’s it: Anna Karenina is about the flaws of marriage, and in other systems that society puts so much importance on. More than anything, Tolstoy seems determined to point out how complicated and convoluted the ideas and expectations of marriage are, and to condemn it as part of the problem.


Author Leo Tolstoy

The novel is praised for realism, but be warned: I don’t mean present day realism, I mean 1800’s realism (which means that Tolstoy doesn’t linger on the gory details, but they’re still there). Anna Karenina has that same quality that Modernism abides by—the need to break down traditions and widely held values for the sake of shifty truths. Tolstoy does this in a way that shows off every character and their uniquely flawed perspectives, warts and all. No one character has a complete picture of the events, so it’s up to the reader to decide what the truth is, despite any one character’s beliefs or morals.

Tolstoy’s determination makes Anna Karenina challenging and important. It doesn’t hold back anything—that’s the kind of realism it brands itself with, which works to the novel’s credit.


Next up, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Of what I’ve read so far, there could be several comparisons between the protagonist Esther and Tolstoy’s Anna—I can’t share more detail without spoiling either novel, but suffice it to say that mental illness in women is misrepresented in most literature, and that what Tolstoy didn’t get right in Anna Karenina is sure to be corrected by Plath’s personal experience. I don’t look forward to a happy ending with The Bell Jar. And that’s okay.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

Memoirs of a Geisha

Welcome back, class.

In some ways, Memoirs of a Geisha was an easy book. I fell right into the story and was amazed by the character who told it. Arthur Golden’s novel was enjoyable the entire time, and I understand why it was instantly successful when first published just over 20 years ago.

Calling it “easy,” though, puts a bad spin on a novel that, at times, disturbed me so terribly that I had to put it down. The protagonist, Chiyo Sakamoto, renamed Sayuri Nitta when she becomes a geisha, is sold, abused, raped, and betrayed on what seems like a regular basis. The casual way she discusses her horrible life proves just how common her hardships were; the life of a geisha is clearly not an easy one.


Sayuri and Mameha in the film adaptation, Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Memoirs of a Geisha is one of those un-put-down-able books, written in such a careful style that the story sticks with you after you’ve finished it. Part rags-to-riches, part love triangle, part coming-of-age . . . it fulfills as much as it can in 400 pages. The hardships of geisha training and life are too numerous to describe in full, but Golden spares no gory detail. He let’s the elderly Sayuri tell the story in her own way, and it’s fascinating.

The rest of the characters that fill up her life—both as Chiyo the girl and Sayuri the geisha—are just as fascinating. There’s the vicious geisha Hatsumomo, the kind Chairman and his friend, the proud but generous Nobu, the impressive geisha Mameha that agrees to train Chiyo, the clumsy geisha-in-training named Pumpkin who is hopelessly manipulated by all around her, the money-obsessed Mother of the Nitta okiya . . . the list goes on, each character as interesting as the last. Through one narrator’s eyes, each character is given a fantastic life of their own, which is an amazing feat in itself.

And overall, Memoirs of a Geisha a story about destiny—how we can find it, if we can make our own, and discovering the consequences of avoiding it. Expensive kimonos, zodiac motifs, sexual favors, teahouse parties, and delicate reputations . . . all details guiding Sayuri toward a destiny she has little control over. The novel as a whole handles the theme of destiny in one of the more honest ways I’ve ever seen.


Memoirs opens with a fictional translator’s note—like Life of Pi, this entirely fictional story was advertised as based on real life. I’m not sure why Golden did this, except that it made things more interesting.

But his rich realism actually faced some backlash: Golden was criticized for misrepresenting Japanese culture and geisha life. Some of the sources I’ve found detailing this misrepresentation are here and here.

It’s clear Golden did his research, but when a white American author portrays another culture, the details seem to consistently get lost in the effort. If I knew more about Japan, the time period, and what Golden got wrong, I would be more upset about it, but I was too wrapped up in a quality story. In my opinion, the best thing for others who plan to read Memoirs is to do it with a grain of salt, and to do more research into the realities that Golden couldn’t grasp, which I plan to do. All I know for sure is that misrepresentation is dangerous, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Sayuri, portrayed by Ziyi Zhang in the film adaptation

I hate to leave this review on such a sour note, because the book was an incredible piece of literature . . . but it’s not okay to twist another culture into an image that fits your vision. People begin to make assumptions, claim things that aren’t true, and take for granted what one man wrote in a piece of fiction, all of which can hurt people. And it’s all from a lack of consideration.

I’ve written about this in my reviews of A Bend in the RiverThe Quiet American, and Robinson Crusoe. Here again, with Memoirs, a work of art is so renowned for the amazing things it’s done that people neglect to point out the negatives—the racial, political, cultural misrepresentations that affect real people. Memoirs is one of the few books on the list that I still liked, despite those misrepresentations, but I know that’s because I don’t understand what Golden did wrong. So until I know more, I’m siding with the people who felt those effects and made claims against Golden’s novel—better that than to dismiss them for speaking their truth.


Up next is Dante’s The Divine Comedy. I have a lot of thoughts . . . most of them not in favor. I’ve never read it before and I absolutely should’ve had my own literary professional on call while I read it, but I’ve been arrogantly reading it straight through without help. To see the consequences, check in next time.

Prof. Jeffrey