50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Revenge

Frankenstein

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

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

The Count of Monte Cristo

Welcome back, class.

Reading The Count of Monte Cristo was a journey of several months, like my experience with Ulysses and The Divine Comedy. But length is no indicator of difficulty—while it was never “easy,” it was consistently accessible, unlike Ulysses and The Divine Comedy. There were things that I wasn’t expecting, and even things I didn’t like, but in general The Count of Monte Cristo was a classic that I’m proud to have read. I could read another Alexandre Dumas novel without hesitation (I’m looking at you, The Three Musketeers).


It starts with Edmond Dantès, who is unjustly imprisoned by men jealous of his success. In prison, an older man befriends him, teaches him the full spectrum of human knowledge, and reveals the hiding place of his inherited treasure. Dantès escapes and finds the treasure, buried on the island of Monte Cristo; using the money, he develops the disguise of the Count of Monte Cristo and uses it to exact revenge on those who destroyed his life.

Illustration of Edmond Dantès

That’s only the first couple hundred pages—about one-fifth of the story. The rest, while at times not nearly as exciting, is the painstakingly long course of events allowing the count to destroy his enemies. It’s not enough for him to take their lives or torture them; he concocts the exact punishment necessary for each enemy, without directly attacking them. There are bumps along the way, each one making it that much more exciting to see him successful, and so the novel spans decades to reach an almost perfect ending—but I won’t spoil it.


The strengths of The Count of Monte Cristo are not in great literary merit or symbolism, like most of the other books on the list. This is a plot- and character-driven story that’s meant to be entertaining, plain and simple. I spent most of my time reading it wondering what Dantès would do next, and to whom; I sympathized with him as much as I feared him. Dantès transforms from a kind soul to a vengeful spirit, and he is as intimidating as he is heroic—the terrible things he commits himself to doing are matched only by the commitment with which he does them. He becomes a legend, and that legend makes The Count of Monte Cristo worth reading.

Author Alexandre Dumas

Beyond that, it’s worth noting that Alexandre Dumas knows exactly how to delay the reader’s satisfaction. Some chapters begin with characters we’ve never met before, and while we sift through who they are and why we aren’t focusing on Dantès, we’ll suddenly realize that one of these characters is Dantès in disguise, subtly manipulating the scene to his own ends. Other times we focus on interesting subplots dragged out for dozens of chapters, only to see Dantès enact his revenge on these extra characters, years of his work successful in an instant. The novel is so long because Dumas teases it out for, if nothing else, dramatic effect. Even when things are confusing, they’re fresh and exciting too, because Dumas tells a good story in the best way.


Next up, I’ve been reading the similarly long novel Anna Karenina, also for several months. I don’t know how I gained the ability to read multiple novels at once, which I know baffles some people, but I absolutely love it. I couldn’t have enjoyed reading The Count of Monte Cristo for so long if I didn’t diversify things with other novels. Surviving college sometimes meant juggling four different novels from four different literature classes—it brings a smile to my face just thinking about it. I just love reading so much.

I’ll leave you with that thought.

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘I say it with some pride, Mercédès—God required me, and I lived. Examine the past and the present, and endeavor to pierce futurity, and then say whether I am not a Divine instrument. The most dreadful misfortunes, the most frightful sufferings, the abandonment of all those who loved me, the persecution of those who did not know me, formed the trials of my youth; when suddenly, from captivity, solitude, misery, I was restored to light and liberty, and became the possessor of a fortune so brilliant, so unbounded, so unheard-of, that I must have been blind not to be conscious that God had endowed me with it to work out his own great designs. From that time I viewed this fortune as confided to me for a particular purpose. Not a thought was given to a life which you once, Mercédès, had the power to render blissful,—not one hour of peaceful calm was mine, but I felt myself driven on like an exterminating angel. Like those adventurous captains about to embark on some enterprise full of danger, I laid in my provisions, I loaded my arms, I collected every means of attack and defence; I inured my body to the most violent exercises, my soul to the bitterest trials; I taught my arm to slay, my eyes to behold excruciating sufferings, and my mouth to smile at the most horrid spectacles. From good-natured, confiding, and forgiving, I became revengeful, cunning, and wicked, or rather immovable as fate. Then I launched out into the path that was opened to me; I overcame every obstacle and reached the goal. But woe to those who met me in my career.'”

—from The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas