50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Religion


Good morning, class.

I’ve made it to the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There are parts I like and parts I don’t like, but one thing continues to stand out to me: Frankenstein is considered by many as the birthplace of science fiction. The genre has a reputation for being male-dominated—as though Star Wars and Jurassic Park are only meant for men—and yet, science fiction seems to be established by a woman. It’s a reputation perpetuated by sexism and confounded by Frankenstein‘s very existence.

The blueprint of the story is well-known, even though the details have been undone and remade over two centuries of reinvention. An ordinary man, Victor Frankenstein, sets himself to the extraordinary task of creating life, and in a way, conquering death. He becomes a now-stereotypical mad scientist, unrivaled in determination and unthinking of consequences; and his creation is much more monstrous than he anticipated. The monster, sympathetic as he is, rampages through Frankenstein’s life until a devastating climax, and we readers are meant to learn our lesson: mindless ambition, even for the right reasons, can cause serious harm.

The original story is much more literary than it’s several reimaginings. It’s framed in a handful of narratives and allows for different perspectives on morality, fault, religion, and science. Most importantly, the monster himself is a fleshed-out character—thinking, learning, and speaking monologues on par with Frankenstein himself. It may not be realistic, but it’s the key to understanding who this creature is, what he wants, and why he acts the way he does.

The monster may be terrifying, but he is equally a victim of humanity’s abuse and hatred. It’s made very clear that the monster’s villainy exists because he has known nothing but misery—he was never loved, and that makes him as evil as he is. He is rejected and feared by all, and to defend himself, he quickly learns to fight back against those who mean him harm. He learns the ways of violence and revenge to survive, and the blame is traced back directly to his creator.

It’s a fantastic story, and a revolutionary concept. But it isn’t my taste—it drags on quite a bit, with Frankenstein’s inner turmoil egregiously taking up most of the story. The middle of the story—about 7 chapters—is told from the monster’s perspective, and while I appreciate the narrative need for this section, it’s just so tedious. I want the storytelling approach to be different, so it’s hard to enjoy the book, even with so much to like.

Author Mary Shelley

But after all this, there so much it does that redefines science fiction. My favorite interpretation of Frankenstein portrays Victor as a sexist (and knowing that Mary Shelley’s mother is Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, this holds up well). Victor’s approach to creating life removed any female presence, as though in his eyes, creating life should be a male enterprise. The resulting monster is one made without female influence, and it’s Victor’s manly actions that continue to antagonize the creature, the consequences of which are irreparable. With Frankenstein, Shelley defined sexism through a male lens (as a story told by a man) and she proved that the simple act of excluding women results in disaster.

It’s clear why Frankenstein makes the 50-books list. It’s Gothic literature at its core, and science fiction before science fiction existed. It’s a story that stood the test of time and continues to affect its genre. And no matter my taste, it is a good story—one worth reading at least once.

That’s 50 books! This blog is nearing its end, and I’ve got to more posts to write—my definitive ranking of all 50 books, from least favorite to favorite, and one final review of my experience as a whole. And that’ll be it!

Thanks for reading,

Prof. Jeffrey

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

—from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

“‘What doubt can you have of the Creator when you behold His creation?’ the priest went on in the rapid customary jargon. ‘Who has decked the heavenly firmament with its lights? Who has clothed the earth in its beauty? How explain it without the creator?’ he said, looking inquiringly at Levin.”

—from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

His Dark Materials Trilogy

Hello again, class.

I started The Golden Compass, the first book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, months ago. Within a few chapters, though I barely knew the characters or the world Pullman had built, his writing drew me in—in a way that hasn’t happened with me since I read Harry Potter. Pullman’s teenage fiction novels are written like poetry.

I finished The Amber Spyglass, the third book in the trilogy, a few days ago. The series as a whole is controversial, intoxicating, and jaw-dropping in all the ways sci-fi and fantasy should be—it completely surpassed my expectations. I can think of hundreds of reasons why this book series made the list.

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

The story follows Lyra Belacqua, a young girl with a propensity for lying and storytelling. She lives in a world a lot like ours, with a few key differences—one being that every person is born with a daemon, a spirit-like animal that acts as a conscience. Lyra, with her daemon Pantalaimon and her friend Will Parry, gets caught up in a peculiar adventure, involving a kingdom of armored bears, a clan of witches hundreds of years old, a mystical truth-telling compass, a series of otherworldly portals, and a cast of characters with dangerous and obscure motives.

For all the plot over three heart-pounding novels—The Golden CompassThe Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass—Pullman never forgets the carefully structured theme of innocence in the face of corruption. Of all the enemies Lyra faces, the corrupt Church is probably the most intimidating. The Church of Pullman’s universe is overbearing, manipulative, and full of subservient agents who will do anything in the name of the Authority.

But for Pullman, it wasn’t enough to point out the corruption of religious institutions—his novels attempt to reveal corruption in the existence of God. He writes about the ongoing battle of humanity, between those who humbly submit to a greater power and those who seek wisdom and refute oppression. His novels point out the inherent immorality of a Kingdom of Heaven, like the immorality of any dictatorship in the modern age. The overarching plot of the trilogy goes so far as to use Christian theology (and mythology) to dismantle the Christian story of God—portraying God as the villain of humanity’s ongoing battle.

Naturally, the His Dark Materials Trilogy was met with controversy. Pullman’s story isn’t just atheistic (which can be controversial by nature)—it is also mature, saturated in sci-fi violence, and marketed for a younger audience. It’s probably still banned across the globe.

The trilogy makes a strong case for atheism, which was hard for me to read, but also helpful in my understanding of life outside of religion. I grew up with religion in my life, and I’ve come to accept those that don’t have religion in theirs—it’s simply not for everyone, and that’s a hard lesson to learn. I started reading The Golden Compass with something like a religious bias, and it made me read everything Pullman wrote with a grain of salt.

Author Philip Pullman

That doesn’t stop me from agreeing with most, if not all, of Pullman’s criticisms of the corrupt church he is familiar with. Religion has a history of abuse that cannot be dismissed, and those that choose to live with religion must always be aware of the power, and therefore the corruption, that religious institutions have a tendency toward. Aware of that corruption, Pullman pushes back against religious institutions through these novels—through literature, popular culture, and the education of young minds. Children will eventually have to make their own theological decisions in the real world, and books like the His Dark Materials trilogy can be a healthy part of making those decisions.

Like I said, these books were hard to read at times (I work at a church, for crying out loud!) but it certainly helped that these books were well written. It always impresses me when books have strong messages delivered by strong characters, and a fantastic fantasy world to back up big ideas. For a novel to work, all of the separate puzzle pieces have to fit together well, and the completed puzzle has to leave an impression. These three novels did both.

My next read is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, and I’m diving into this one cold. I can only hope it’s good!

Have a good week!

Prof. Jeffrey

Life of Pi

Happy New Year, class!

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It tells the story of a teenage Indian boy named Pi, who is trapped on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a small group of animals, including an adult Bengal tiger. This is his story of survival—he is forced to train the tiger, using his father’s zookeeper knowledge, while also surviving isolation, hunger, infection, and the terrors of the open ocean. If this was all it was, it would still be a unique and remarkable story…but of course, there’s more to it.

Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi

The author’s note claims that this is “a story that will make you believe in God.” It’s a tall order, and I think Martel accomplishes this—his philosophy is that belief comes down to the story people choose, which is as important as the facts themselves.

He makes this happen through Pi, an amazingly original character. This is a boy who fell in love with religion at first sight; he compares his own obsession with God and faith to his older brother’s obsession with sports and music. He was raised Hindu from his mother, while his father shunned religion politely; he eventually found Christianity and Islam as well, and actively practiced an interfaith religion for all of his life.

Clip from the movie adaptation of Life of Pi

What Pi loves most about religion are the stories. The overflowing number of gods and deities in Hinduism, the overarching prologue and tale of Jesus as Christ, the beautiful imagery and faith of Islam…these keep him going throughout his struggles. More importantly, his faith is the heart of the story. Pi is so overflowing with love, with worship and belief, that it pours off of the pages. His journey with belief has more of an impact on his life than his ordeal on the Pacific.

That being said, Pi’s ordeal is terrifying, graphic, and even hilarious at times. The tiger—named Richard Parker, in a strange origin story—is as much a character as Pi, and their journey toward communicating with each other is a roller coaster. Richard Parker can never be trusted, and though there are moments that indicate he is more than an animal, Pi is constantly reminded of Richard Parker’s natural instincts. Any moment of weakness from Pi could mean death…for both of them.

Hidden in this captivating plot is that common English class theme, “man vs. nature.” Richard Parker is a force of nature, and Pi has to learn that over and over again—that Richard Parker is not his friend and cannot understand love. Martel’s point with this distinction is the same point he makes about religion and belief toward the stories we choose. Human beings have the capacity to understand religion, to love, to wish for order out of chaos. Animals have only their instincts—no faith, no order, no love.

Clip from the movie adaptation of Life of Pi

It’s not a popular distinction—no one wants to think their dog or cat doesn’t love them. Pets understand dependency, fear, want, and certainly happiness, but not something as complex as love. That’s why we take them and care for them as pets, and why we place them in the safety of zoos and do what we think is best for them. The responsibility of caring for animals is, morally speaking (and religiously speaking, in a way), a human obligation. To understand this is to sense the overwhelming spectrum of emotions this novel provides.

I love this book. It means so much to me. It is original, inspiring, and powerful. I can’t capture it all in a blog post, so I recommend reading it. Yann Martel is an amazing author, and he has created an amazing work of fiction.

Up next, I’m currently reading and finishing The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. I’m not really enjoying it yet…it has it’s moments, sure, but can be a bit much. We’ll see what happens. Thanks for coming to class, and again, happy New Year!

Prof. Jeffrey

The Bible

bible-textGood morning class.

Today’s lesson is pretty serious—the Bible is arguably the most important text in human history, so I’ll begin with a kind of disclaimer:

Just like with Hamlet last week, I can’t possibly talk about everything that the Bible entails. Even worse, I can’t actually state a fact on the Bible without saying something potentially offensive. Everyone has their own experience with religion, some more positive than others, and even having the Bible on the “50 Books to Read Before You Die” list is debatable. There are people who hate it, people who are inspired by it, people who avoid it entirely, and people who use, misuse, and abuse it everyday.

With that in mind, I have two goals. 1) I’m going to talk about how the Bible has impacted me and my life (without bearing too much of my soul), and 2) I’m going to explain why I think you should read the Bible before you die. My hope is that I portray the Bible with not-too-much bias, and that you, students, are able to read this post with an open mind.

When I set out to read the Bible in its entirety, it was to improve my knowledge of the religious beliefs I had been practicing my entire life. I was in my senior year of high school when I started, and I read small sections of the Bible everyday throughout college. It was often difficult to continue, but I accomplished the task and am very glad that I did.

…But the Bible can be profoundly boring and profoundly outdated. Not only are the lists of names, endless instructions, and intricate details for tabernacles tedious…these are often followed by passages that forbid women to speak in church, condemn homosexuality, and encourage slavery, murder, and war. These passages make a significant portion of the Bible difficult to read.

An illustration of Naomi and Ruth, from the book of Ruth (Old Testament)

An illustration of Naomi and Ruth, from the Book of Ruth (Old Testament)

For me, these passages are admissible because of historical and cultural context. It’s certainly worth mentioning that the Bible is the oldest text on the 50-books list—it’s a collection of documents passed down orally, eventually written down, and translated multiple times over the course of thousands of years. Add to this that the authors were men in hugely male-dominated societies, and you should arrive at one obvious conclusion: the Bible is flawed.

The Bible is also incredibly beautiful. It doesn’t take a belief in God to see that many of the Psalms are moving works of poetry, or that Jesus’ parables are deep and layered metaphors. I really enjoyed reading and rereading these moments, where religion joined song and meaning. I am an English major, after all.

But the moments I enjoyed most were specifically for religious reasons—mostly, the passages that refer to love. My ideas of love come from the Bible, because most of the books I’ve read involve the kind of love that comes from the Bible (such as the Harry Potter series, which is more about love than anything else). Love that is powerful, sweeping, gentle, emotional, forgiving, and never-ending…it’s found in some of my favorite Bible passages.

As I studied each passage, I flinched at the offensive moments, almost nodded off at the boring moments, and happily praised the beautiful moments. As a practicing, active Christian, it means a lot to me that I don’t actively practice every instruction or belief in the Bible. It also means a lot to me that Biblical interpretations mean just as much to me as the text itself—it is a translation, after all, and I don’t mean to learn Hebrew any time soon.

The Nativity Scene

The Nativity Scene

I view the Bible as a complicated guide for living life. It is helpful, even with its prejudices, when it is read for spiritual growth or information. When it’s used as a tool for power or manipulation, it can easily become abusive, and this happens daily. My beliefs aren’t too complicated here—when I think of evil, I don’t think of a horned devil or a fiery hell; I think of the capacity for evil within human beings. I think evil is hatred and segregation. People who use the Bible to oppress or suppress others are falling prey to their own evil capacity. Parts of the Bible fall into this category—I use these passages for information (i.e., to understand the culture of the time), but these passages have very little, or nothing at all, to do with my religious practice.

On the other hand, the Bible is also worth looking at simply because it’s referenced in every book on the 50-books list. Even the ones I haven’t read yet—I’m willing to bet they each use it as inspiration. In the history of English literature, nothing has made a bigger impact than the Bible. Looking more closely at the Bible has its own benefits, but it’s also the key to understanding some of the greatest literary masterpieces from the past thousand years.

A close up of Michelangelo's painting on the Sistine Chapel

A close up of Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel

But for me, it’s about the journey of love. Connection, family, honesty, communion, trust, forgiveness, communication, acceptance, sacrifice, faith, pain…it’s all love in different ways. That’s the “point” of the Bible.

I’ve already started reading my next novel: The Catcher in the Rye. It actually has a lot in common with Hamlet, with the focus on a vengeful, misguided youth, so it seemed like a logical leap—granted, it’s a leap forward hundreds of years and across the Atlantic…

More on that next week!

Prof. Jeffrey