50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Rules

Missing From the List: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Hello again, class.

James Joyce’s Ulysses features prominently on the 50-books bookmark, for good reason (more on that another time). But what bothers me is that Ulysses is a sequel—one of the main characters, Stephen Dedalus, is the main character of Joyce’s original groundbreaking work A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I won’t have any of this reading-out-of-order nonsense, so Portrait of the Artist needs to be spoken for.

Granted, I’m not the first to admit that Ulysses is the better of the two. It has stronger characters and fewer sermons. But Ulysses wouldn’t have been possible without Portrait of the Artist. And since millions of books wouldn’t have been possible without Ulysses, I think Joyce’s first novel has earned a little spotlight.

Portrait of the Artist tells the coming-of-age story of Stephen Dedalus, a boy in late 19th century Ireland with a creative streak and a complicated life. We get to see him transform from a mystified little boy to a questioning teenager, and then to an adult making the terrifying decision to be himself, regardless of the consequences. He loses respect for his father, puts his family in financial struggle, rejects religion and Irish nationality . . . and doesn’t compromise.

The mastery of this novel is not the story—this is a story anyone could tell. What makes it masterful is it’s original style, which any reader encounters with the opening lines: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo . . .”

It’s confusing, that’s for sure. It causes quite the double-take.

Some of you know that this is called stream-of-consciousness, where the author takes the characters inner thoughts and dumps them on the page as they are. Most authors do this within the rules of grammar, but Joyce didn’t have time for rules. Just like Stephen’s struggle to be himself, despite the expectations around him, Joyce denied the expectations a novelist should follow.

These opening lines are the inner thoughts of Stephen as a child, with a glorified version of his father telling him a story. The “moocow” is the combination of the sound with the animal (imagine asking a child what noise a cow makes, and they answer “MOOOO;” in their mind, they don’t distinguish the noise from the animal . . . they are the same thing until they’re old enough to tell the difference). And without commas or periods, the run-on feels like a knowledge dump, which is how Joyce portrays the mind of a child—unbound by rules.

As Stephen grows up, his mind develops, and his thoughts become more structured. He uses a stronger vocabulary and a more refined grammar. Not that it makes his style much easier to follow—we are still inside the mind of a temperamental artist.

Which is why the title has that specific word artist. Stephen isn’t just anyone—his creative tendencies are a part of his core. He finds himself obsessed with the beauty of words, and his imagination is incredible as it unfolds (my favorite moment is when he is a boy: he thinks of different colors of roses and imagines a rose that’s green).

Stephen is a bit too angst-y to be likable, but he is still a strong character. And when we see him again in Ulysses . . . well, we’ll get there when we get there.

I’m still reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and it’s worth mentioning the similarities it has with Portrait of the Artist. The main character is hinted to have autism, so he sees everything differently—many people claim that James Joyce had some form of autism, which may have led to his particular stylistic approach. While the novels are very different, the stylistic connections make The Curious Incident a kind of spiritual sequel to Joyce’s writing.

That being said, Haddon’s book is a lot easier. If Joyce isn’t your thing, The Curious Incident is a touch easier on the brain cells. But more on that next week.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“Prime numbers are useful for writing codes and in America they are classified as Military Material, and if you find one over 100 digits long, you have to tell the CIA and they buy it off you for $10,000. But it would not be a very good way of making a living.

Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical, but you can never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.”

—from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Pride and Prejudice

Welcome back, class.

I was once gushing about my newfound favorite novel, Ulysses by James Joyce (blog post pending), to a professor who could gush just as easily over Jane Austen’s novels. I explained that Ulysses broke all the rules and changed literature like nothing ever had, and my professor didn’t hesitate; she said “Jane Austen did that already, about 100 years before Ulysses was published.”

She had a point. Since then, I may have only read one Austen novel, but it really did call every rule into question. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: the novels that break the rules are my favorite ones.

Elizabeth and Mr Darcy (played by Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen, respectively)

Chances are good that you know the story: an unlikely love develops between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Elizabeth is a lower class girl who speaks her mind, often against others’ wishes, and is more concerned with her own happiness than anyone else’s. Mr. Darcy is a very proud, very rich man, who is so bad at conversation and social obligations that he comes off as a terrible person. Mr. Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudice against her first impression of him are the road blocks they must overcome (hint, hint).

Beyond these personal road blocks, there are the general expectations of 19th century society that stand in their way, and Austen is ruthless in criticizing them. The famous opening lines do this best: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” For most of the men in the novel, this is accurate; for Mr. Darcy, pinning down a wife is the furthest thing from his mind. Falling in love with Elizabeth is the only thing that changes his position.

Depiction of Jane Austen

Most of Austen’s criticisms come through Elizabeth’s mother—an incredibly foolish woman whose only desire is to see her daughters married. For instance, when her middle daughter runs away with a man, she is driven to constant bed rest and hysterics from the shame . . . until she finds out her daughter and this man will be married, and it becomes the happiest day of her life. Elizabeth narrowly dodges the bullet of becoming like her mother, but some of her sisters—uncontrollably silly, uneducated, and trapped by skewed perspectives—aren’t so lucky.

These flaws are not one character’s fault—Austen’s criticism is of a society that perpetuates those flaws. This is why Elizabeth is such an amazing character: she not only sees most of these flaws, but also acts against them. She denies the rules that mean nothing to her, and adheres to the ones that she chooses to adhere to. She isn’t perfect—her first impressions of Mr. Darcy can prove that—but she is herself, more than most literary characters and more than most people in the real world.

As some supportive evidence, Pride and Prejudice is based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which I wrote about last week. Elizabeth strives to be herself in a world of disguises, which happens to be a major motif of Twelfth Night. And, of course, Elizabeth’s mother is the Fool from the play—except the Fool is much wiser. Plus about a thousand other connections.

I’d also like to add that for me, it took me several chapters of Pride and Prejudice before I became impressed. If you pick it up, know that it’s the kind of novel where you need to invest yourself—the drama is only DRAMATIC if you let it be. Otherwise, it’ll feel like hundreds of pages of “Good heavens!” which, personally, I can only take so much of.

Up next, I’m picking up what I think is the exact opposite kind of novel—The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, another that I’d never heard of before the 50-books list. All I know is that a dog is murdered and we’re going to solve the mystery. That’s a good enough place to start.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Hello, class, and welcome back.  I hope you’ve had a good week.

I’ve spent the last week reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  I’ll bet you know the story.  You’ve probably seen the Tim Burton movie, or the old Disney movie.  Some of you may have seen the short-lived TV show Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.  The curiouser of you may have noticed the subtle Alice references in movies like The Matrix or Still Alice.  Then there are the fans of T-Swift’s “Wonderland” from her 1989 album.

This story has saturated our culture.  We are still swimming in Alice’s pool of tears (thank you, for those of you clapping in the back; yes, it was a good joke).  That should be enough of a reason to read it—if you’re going to at least try to understand all of those down-the-rabbit-hole-, mad-hatter-, caterpillar-hookah-jokes, you might as well read the book to see what the fuss is about.

But my opinion, for the two cents that its worth, is that Alice has saturated our culture because of something more important.  It has some inner beauty, some strange quality…something that makes it stand the test of time and spawn hundreds of adaptations and pop-culture references.  I don’t think it’s Wonderland that makes it so special (but that place is a TRIP, to say the least).  I don’t think it’s the adventures Alice has there, either.  I think it’s Alice.

She’s some kind of “every-child.”  She’s far from normal and that’s what makes her matter—no child on the planet actually fits the definition of “normal.”  The weirdness of Alice makes her relatable.  She talks to herself as if she’s two people (who hasn’t done that).  Her adventures make her question if she’s still Alice at all, and at one point she decides that she must be some girl named Mabel, since she’s changed so much.  Even the poetry she’s been trained to recite (let me go ahead and disagree with that “educational” practice right there…alright, moving on) comes out wrong.  Not bad, just wrong—different than she learned it.  She clashes with the Victorian England she’s been raised in.

Without even trying, she subverts the rules, etiquette, politics, and education of her society.  It sets her apart, forcing her to be lost in this strange Wonderland.  And if that’s the case, wouldn’t all children, as represented by Alice, be lost in their own Wonderland?  Wouldn’t all children, by being themselves, conflict with what society needs them to be?


Wonderland isn’t some strange fantasy world.  It’s the way children see reality.  Rules that don’t make sense, random body changes, identity confusion, and a string of useless lessons…Wonderland is around us here and now.  And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Now, confession time: I am actually rereading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  The first time I read it was in a college class, so I get to pretend like I know what I’m talking about.  But I do believe it—that Alice was Carroll’s way of subverting Victorian rules by showing their consequences.  Wonderland is an amazing place from the outside, students, but Alice’s adventures weren’t as happy-go-lucky for her.  I believe Carroll was trying to show us that if we stick to rules, regulations, and the evils of “etiquette,” our children will suffer for it.

Alice didn’t take too long for me to finish (another reason to read it—because it’s quick), so finishing this post wasn’t a strain on my personal life.  But my #2 book also happens to be my unofficial #3 and #4 book: the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  It is much longer.  Don’t worry, we’ll still have class next week (wipe those frowns off your faces, my class is fun!!).  I’ll just be improvising my lecture a tad.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey