50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Soul

“[Kurtz] won’t be forgotten. Whatever he was, he was not common. He had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witchdance in his honour; he could also fill the small souls of the pilgrims with bitter misgivings: he had one devoted friend at least, and he had conquered one soul in the world that was neither rudimentary nor tainted with self-seeking. No; I can’t forget him . . . “

—from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

“Yes, there is death in this business of whaling—a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into Eternity. But what then? Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air. Methinks my body is but the lees of my better being. In fact take my body who will, take it I say, it is not me. And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot.”

—from Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Missing From the List: Cloud Atlas

Hello again, class.

I didn’t expect to write about Cloud Atlas because I didn’t think I’d have the chance to read it, while focusing on the books from the 50-books list. But I gave it a shot, and it absolutely belongs here. I know why it didn’t make the list, but I also know that it 100% should have.

Cloud Atlas is a rare book. Author David Mitchell wrote 6 interconnecting stories in a unique and cohesive format—each story is in a different time period with vastly different characters and even different writing styles, but mostly similar themes. The stories never completely converge . . . one story may bleed into the next or reference another in the past or the future, but they are separate stories.

The first story is from the perspective of the attorney Adam Ewing on a Pacific ship in the 1800s, writing his experiences in his journal. The journal stops midway and picks up with an entirely new character, Robert Frobisher, a young composer in the 1930s working with a crippled aging composer as a sort of apprentice. Frobisher writes letters to his distant lover—both his letters and his lover are plot devices in the third story, a 70s mystery novel focusing on the stouthearted journalist Luisa Rey, who attempts to get to the bottom of a corporate conspiracy.

Then, in present day, we focus on a spirited and manipulative publisher, Timothy Cavendish, hilariously finding himself trapped in an elderly care facility by a sadistic nurse. Then we jump forward into the future, where Neo-Seoul is run by something called the Corpocracy; the hero is a clone, Sonmi-451, who begins to understand her own humanity and is kidnapped in her failed revolution, and before her execution she is given a final interview to explain the complicated details of her life. Last but not least, in the far away future after what seems like an apocalyptic event, a fearful and flawed man named Zachry, simply trying to get by in a hard-enough life, struggles to deal with a band of cannibals, a tech-savvy foreigner who he may have feelings for, and a prophecy that threatens to unbalance his life.

Author David Mitchell

But that’s only the first half of the novel—from the final story, the novel begins to work backwards, revisiting the second half of each story in reverse order. Each story has some importance to the overall arc of the novel, but Mitchell makes it clear that they are important individually, too. The ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is comic genius, while the Pacific journal is a Victorian masterpiece, ringing with Moby-Dick vibes. The Luisa Rey mystery is a perfectly cheesy hard-boiled thriller, and the broken language of Zachry’s world after “The Fall” perfectly grasps the sense of long-lost humanity and our tragic downfall as a species. Each story is good, and all combined, the one shared story is even better.

For all their differences, there are things beyond continuity that keep the stories together, and finding those things is kind of like solving a puzzle. Every story seems to have a mention about cannibals, for instance—from the actual cannibals in the far off future to Timothy Cavendish mockingly shouting at his fellow inmates at the elderly home, “Soylent Green is people!” (in reference to the 1970s movie Soylent Green, for the unobservant of you). Overall, the theme of cannibalism—the literal or metaphorical feeding off others—seems to be Mitchell’s commentary on human hunger, the inner animal with an insatiable appetite that threatens humanity’s existence. It’s a small piece of the puzzle, but an important one.

Other themes pop up consistently as well, if you have enough patience to make the connections—it’s got so many layers that I’m sure it welcomes rereading. And the goal seems to be one overall story about a soul, reincarnated again and again throughout time. The reader gets to see the story of the same soul in several different lives, moving across the centuries the same way clouds move above us, changing shape and color but staying still inherently clouds . . . hence the name Cloud Atlas—a mapping out of the life of a soul, moving like the clouds across the sky.

Poster from the movie adaptation of Cloud Atlas (2012)

I know why it didn’t make the list—as good as each single story is, they’re still each performing at one-sixths capacity. Mitchell didn’t devote all his time to Ewing’s journal, just a fraction of it, so there’s no way it matches the feat that Moby-Dick achieved, over a hundred years later (blog post pending). The same can be said of his futuristic stories, creative as they are, which still come off as straightforward reflections of other stronger works like Brave New World. Mitchell’s genius may be overpowered by the weight of the story he’s telling, and even though it’s impressive and rare, that’s mostly so because Mitchell is one author rather than six.

But that’s not good enough for me. It should be on the list anyway. The six wildly different stories are still interrelated enough to make something new—something that is distinctly Cloud-Atlas-y, not a collection of cheap duplicates but something made greater in the fusion of powerful stories in their own right. This is an epic—an overarching story of humanity’s past and future, where we follow a soul’s path through time. It’s an amazing, incredible tale that everyone should read.

Still working on Huckleberry Finn, up next time. I don’t know how I’ll feel when I sit down to write about it, but I can tell you I liked Cloud Atlas better. We’ll see how that goes I guess.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back.”

—from “Now I Lay Me” by Ernest Hemingway

“Who would ever think that so much can go on in the soul of a young girl?”

—from The Diary of Anne Frank on Wednesday, 12 Jan. 1944

“‘You en’t gyptian, Lyra. You might pass for gyptian with practice, but there’s more to us than gyptian language. There’s deeps in us and strong currents. We’re water people all through, and you en’t, you’re a fire person. What you’re most like is marsh fire, that’s the place you have in the gyptian scheme; you got witch oil in your soul. Deceptive, that’s what you are child.'”

—from The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Wuthering Heights

Good morning, class.

It’s easy to see the similarities between Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and her sister Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. In both stories, the swampy moors of the English countryside set an atmosphere of oppressive weariness and longing. The romances tracked in both novels have drama seeping through the pages—lies, betrayal, terrible passion, and a man too mysterious to ever fully trust.

But I think it’s easier to talk about Jane Eyre, at least in terms of plot—our heroine Jane begins as an orphan, and we follow her journey into adulthood and into her romance with Mr. Rochester. Wuthering Heights is much murkier. Instead of any hero, we get a cluster of characters surrounding the villainous Heathcliff, one of the more disgusting characters I’ve ever read in a novel. He enters the narrative, destroys almost everything around him, and remains a mysterious stain on everyone’s happiness until the final pages of the novel, where a happy ending barely scrapes by from the debris in his wake. And so Wuthering Heights leaves its mark.

Heathcliff and Catherine, portrayed by Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights (1939)

The main narrative follows Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw in a tortured romance. Heathcliff is brought back to the Wuthering Heights estate as a child by Mr. Earnshaw, where he meets the young Catherine and her brother Hindley. They grow up together, and Catherine and Heathcliff realize their attraction to each other, but obstacles get in the way. Heathcliff runs away, and Catherine decides to marry their neighbor Edgar Linton instead. When Heathcliff returns, he has enough money to enact revenge on those who kept him and Catherine apart.

Heathcliff swindles Wuthering Heights from Hindley (and from Hindley’s son Hareton) while marrying Edgar’s sister to punish both Edgar and Catherine. They each have children: Linton is Heathcliff’s son, and Catherine’s daughter is named Catherine (simply to confuse matters further). The elder Catherine dies while giving birth, and Heathcliff prays that her soul never rest—that she haunt him until he dies.

Fast-forward about 18 years, and Hareton, Catherine, and Linton have all grown up. They are the product of tortured love, revenge, and heartbreak, with Heathcliff the only surviving member of the first generation. Without giving too much away, the three of them try to right the wrongs of the past and revolt against Heathcliff’s tyranny—to be what their parents couldn’t be.

Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939)

Heathcliff is the reason to read Wuthering HeightsI called him one of the more disgusting characters I’d ever read in a novel, and that’s because there so much villainous life breathed into him by Emily Brontë that he’s stood the test of time. His origins are unknown—both his heritage and his means of getting money—and hatred seems to come easier to him than love.

His relationship with Catherine is simply a mess. They seem to enjoy each other in childhood, both a little more unkempt and uncontrollable than most children. As outsiders they grow fond of each other. But in adulthood they punish each other as signs of love. They wrap up the Lintons into their mess and ruin the Lintons’ happiness—Edgar is in a loveless marriage and must compete with Heathcliff’s rage, while his sister Isabella is tricked into marrying Heathcliff who cares nothing for her.

After Catherine’s death, Heathcliff regularly digs up Catherine’s corpse and cries over it. He is ultimately disgusted with his son Linton and forces him to marry the younger Catherine so that he can inherit Edgar’s estate. Without a doubt, Heathcliff is a nightmare. Characters speculate if he is some kind of demon or imp. He has no pity for the people he hurts and delights in suffering. His obsession with Catherine is only matched by her obsession with him, and the only real question about his motivations is whether or not their relationship does more damage than he himself does.

Emily Brontë

Is Brontë’s writing strong? Absolutely—ahead of its time, even. Is the story worth reading? I’d say so—the plot is intricate and chaotic, in the best way. But Heathcliff is what makes Wuthering Heights special, and he’s why it made the list.

I like to think there isn’t a moral to the story, but if there is one, it’s about a bad kind of love vs. a good kind. The bad kind of love is the one that destroys and poisons, that’s so passionate and full of emotion that it can’t survive. Then there’s a patient, practical love—one that doesn’t hurt, and yet still wins out against obstacle. The love between Heathcliff and Catherine is destructive, but maybe the next generation can share a better love, despite the effects of the the generation before.

Up next, I’m reading E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India—one of the few books on the list I’ve never heard of before. Let’s hope it’s good!

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘May she wake in torment!’ he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion. ‘Why, she’s a liar to the end! Where is she? Not there—not in heaven—not perished—where? Oh! you said you cared nothing for my sufferings! And I pray one prayer—I repeat it till my tongue stiffens—Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you—haunt me, then! The murdered do haunt there murderers, I believe—I know that ghosts have wandered on earth. Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!'”

—from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

“‘I’ve no more business to marry Edgar Linton than I have to be in heaven; and if the wicked man in there had not brought Heathcliff so low, I shouldn’t have thought it. It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.'”

—from Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

“This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors.  As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul.  And when winter came upon it, he would would still be standing where spring trembles on the verge of summer.  When the blood crept from its face, and left behind a pallid mask of chalk with leaden eyes, he would keep the glamour of boyhood.  Not one blossom of his loveliness would ever fade.  Not one pulse of his life would ever weaken.  Like the gods of the Greeks, he would be strong, and fleet, and joyous.  What did it matter what happened to the coloured image on the canvas?  He would be safe.  That was everything.”

–from The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde