50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Story

The Stranger

Good morning, class.

It’s hard to write about The Stranger because there’s so little of it. It’s not the shortest novel on the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, but it feels like it is—it’s like an extended short story, circling one major event in the center, building up to it and reacting to it. It’s the story of a man named Meursault, unworried and unambitious, who commits murder and goes to trial. There, he faces his own mortality and means to understand the meaninglessness of the universe.

Meursault has a philosophy of life that answers every problem that approaches him: nothing matters. His mother dies in the opening line of the novel—and nothing matters. His employer doesn’t see him as ambitious enough and dares him to care more about his job—but nothing matters. He is arrested for murder that he feels isn’t his fault—still, nothing matters. It’s more of a philosophy than a story; but then the philosophy and the story collide, and things get interesting. What about love? Romantic love, family, friendship? Does that matter? What about religion, afterlife, the soul—do those things matter? Does one’s own life matter? Meursault faces those questions with his philosophy like a knight faces a dragon with a sword—the drama of such a mundane, detached story comes in when his lifestyle of detachment is threatened by things that require passion, care, commitment . . . and whether or not Meursault upholds his beliefs is what makes him a philosophical hero.


I have some personal bias here—like with other books on the 50-books list that handle belief systems, the philosophy of this story conflicts with mine and makes it difficult for me to connect with it. It’s hard enough anyway to connect with The Stranger—it disregards and abandons connection. The belief that nothing matters is found not only in what’s being said, but also in how it’s being said. It’s a story that feels emotionless, and it means to strip away not only the things we’re supposed to care about, but also the act of caring at all. Long story short, it’s difficult to appreciate this story while reading it.

But to discuss it (especially in a classroom setting) opens up some of the most important questions people can ever ask. What does it mean to live as if nothing matters? What are the stories—or, more appropriately, lies—that we tell each other to convince ourselves to care? And the things that we care about—justice, family, God, money, comfort, morality, health, beauty . . . what if those things are simply shadows on a cave wall?

I don’t have answers to those questions, and I don’t even have all the questions. But if you read The Stranger honestly and witness this one man’s struggle with his state in the vast universe, I can bet you’ll start asking those questions yourself.


Author Albert Camus

It’s hard to tell this kind of story, so credit is due to the author, Albert Camus. It’s not the most exciting book—like I said, it’s less story, more philosophy—but Camus knows how to frame philosophy in the heart of his story. I’ve also read The Plague by Camus, and it asks similar unanswerable questions of existence and mortality, and tells a story worth reading. If anything, Camus made the list for a good reason.

Next up is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad—another one as morbid and thought-provoking as The Stranger, with a bit more story in it’s punch. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Catch-22

Welcome back, class.

Author Joseph Heller invented the phrase “catch-22”—in his novel, it’s a military rule for pilots: if a pilot shows signs of insanity, he doesn’t have to fly anymore combat missions; but if he asks not to fly anymore missions, he has proven his own sanity by being aware of the danger of his surroundings, and he is required to fly as many missions as the military requests; if he doesn’t ask to be grounded, and no one declares him insane or sends him home, he continues flying missions even though he might be insane and doesn’t have to, but as soon as he asks to be grounded, he has to fly more missions because he’s clearly sane.

If you feel like your mind is doing back flips, you’re in the right place. All of Catch-22 is like this—the “catch-22” rule is one of many self-defeating bureaucratic and social conundrums that keep soldiers fighting, whether they want to or not. Unlike Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, it’s not a series of brutally realistic battle scenes, side-by-side with meditations on inhumanity (at least, it’s not ONLY that); instead, Catch-22 is an absurdist comedy, proving just how insane war really is, and how insane people have to be to want to be a part of one.


There almost isn’t a main character, but the one we focus on most is Yossarian, a fighter pilot who’s true enemy seems to be the war itself. He finds creative ways of avoiding combat—most often, he’s in the hospital for an illness that he intentionally aggravates and pretends to continue suffering from. But his officers keep raising the number of missions pilots are required to fly, and his ticket home becomes more and more out of reach. Instead of having a kind of character arc, where he finds a way to accept the war or escape it, he ends up continually fighting against the war, battle after battle, and either Yossarian or the war will lose, or it will keep on going endlessly.

The rest of the characters have a range of influence on Yossarian’s story, and each chapter is named after one of the characters in his life—fellow soldiers, superior officers, lovers, villains, and strangers he meets on his misadventures. The episodes in his life are told out of order, alternating between the present and the past so subtly that it can be hard to know when something is taking place. And one terrible event after another makes Yossarian’s life harder to protect, so that he’s more desperate to do whatever he can to save it.

The humor is warped and depraved—a not-so-subtle coping mechanism to deal with death around every corner, a mechanism that most 20th century soldiers, if not all, know very much about. This is self-defeatist comedy—comedy that points out how funny it is that the world works in such a ridiculous way, gently avoiding (or painfully reveling in) how terrible in all is. It’s cynical, uncomfortable, offensive, and nonetheless hilarious . . . that’s Heller’s genius, I think. Catch-22 is unlike any war novel I’ve ever read, because the intent is to point out, in the midst of the chaos, the rage, the terror of war, how insane it all is.

Author Joseph Heller

And for all that, Catch-22 is a messy story—and that’s a compliment. I’ve called it an “anti-story” before, because it breaks most of the rules of fiction. It’s not a linear story, and it wouldn’t be even if it was in chronological order. It’s more dialogue than exposition, and the dialogue is where most of the humor is, but it’s meant more to establish the environment of war than to tell a story. Yossarian doesn’t have an arc—he’s a desperate, determined man trying to survive, and that’s true on the first page and on the last. It’s all a mess, and most people don’t like it because of that.

And that’s exactly why it makes the list of books you should read before you die—it’s an anti-war anti-story, and nothing else I’ve ever read comes close to showing me how crazy war is, but that it’s the way of the world whether we like it or not. Yossarian seems like the crazy one because he wants to protect his own life, even as he’s criticized and penalized for refusing to die for his country. It’s a radical notion even today—that dying for your country is insane—and that makes Catch-22 one of the most important war novels from the past century.


Up next is a different kind of absurd—The Stranger by Albert Camus (referred to on the 50-books list as The Outsider—a translation discrepancy). Instead of laughing at the absurdity of it all, Camus seems to want readers to realize that nothing matters, and that’s that—much less entertaining, and much shorter, compared to Heller’s Catch-22, but just as important philosophically. What kind of life do we lead when nothing matters? More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

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

Off-Topic: Similarities Among the 50 Books

Hello again, class.

I’m nearing the end of this blog, with only a handful of books left from the list to finish. I’ve been thinking about why certain books were chosen, and about the list overall—how the list itself affects the way someone reads the books on it. Like when I read Moby-Dick at the same time as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Men Without Women—my thoughts about themes like insanity and masculinity felt more well-rounded.

There’s something to be said for my approach . . . I imagine most people who attempt something like reading all 50 of these books do so more casually. They might add the books to some catch-all reading list and get around to it when they can, maybe jump into Ulysses as a book club or a personal reading challenge . . . and in a bookstore one day, they happen upon one of the obscure ones, like Birdsong or The Quiet American, and they buy it, only to get around to it months or even years later, remembering why they bought it in the first place. Not me—I made this list and this blog my personal mission. With any luck, I’ll have finished all 50 books in under three years, with a blog to show for it.

In reading all 50 of these books in as short a time as I could manage, I tightened the experience. It cost me in some places—reading Anna Karenina on a budgeted schedule made it hard to appreciate it in the small moments, and flying through Hamlet, even in reading it a third time, dangerously hindered my understanding of Shakespeare. But even so, I gained something as well: a greater understanding of the list itself. Most people would have read one of the books every so often, but I’ve read the list in one swift motion.

And as you, dear students, potentially read the list in its totality like I did (or like I’m doing), you might find the similarities I found. Thematic callbacks, cultural foreshadowing, opposing arguments, storytelling trends . . . every book on the list has these qualities in common. And no matter what book you pick up from the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, you’ll likely see these qualities pop up yourself.


The Theme of Humanity

That’s right—you’ll notice that every author on this list is a human.

Humanity as a theme is broader than people tend to give it credit for—it covers everything. All stories are human stories, and any story that claims otherwise is fiction or even fantasy told from human perspective. As a species we have defined ourselves and are constantly redefining ourselves with every story ever told, and the 50-books list reflects that.

There are fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings or The Wind in the Willows, involving nonhuman characters doing very human things. Romantic stories like Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights tell stories of romantic love . . . passionate, practical, destructive, all-consuming, redeeming love, defining one of the most human experiences we know. War stories like Birdsong or The War of the Worlds (as well as a true account of wartime, The Diary of Anne Frank), portray some of the darkest moments human history has to offer—inhumanity at its strongest. Stories relying heavily on religion like Life of Pi or The Divine Comedy tell stories about God in human contexts, and humanity’s contrast to God is so stark and vast that it could be the overarching theme of the Bible itself.

It makes sense that every work on the list has something to say, even if unintentionally, about the great human story we’re all a part of. The 50-Books list is a best-of compilation of Walt Whitman’s line of poetry—from “O Me! O Life!”, Whitman says “the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” The list is 50 different contributions to the powerful play of life from the greatest writers of all time.


A Western Perspective

Not all of the similarities are good—and this one happens to point out some intrinsic bias on the list. There are some exceptions, but 4 times out of 5, if you pick up a book from this list you’ll be reading stories by English-speaking, first world authors.

For instance, there seem to be no Asian authors on this list, despite there being several great Asian authors like Lu Xun or Asian-American authors like Amy Tan who could have been featured. This is made worse by the fact that Caucasian writer Arthur Golden makes an appearance on the list for telling a Japanese story, Memoirs of a Geisha. It’s a great story, which unfortunately is still a Western story and a weak form of representation for a huge percentage of the world population.

Another point of contention is the Bible being featured on the list—it is the only religious text featured. The Bible itself is not a Western text; its origins are Hebrew and Middle Eastern, and it is a remarkable reflection of oral tradition and culture from a definitely not-Western history. But the Bible, like Christianity, has first-world connotations; Western cultures have a history of forcing Christianity on others, and the Bible can be and has been used as a tool to do so.

I don’t condemn the inclusion of the Bible on the list, because it has had such a huge cultural impact on stories across the globe that it’s worth reading for that reason alone. But what if another religious text was featured to balance things out? Including the Quran on the list, as an example, would have shed light on Islamic beliefs and reflected the culture of a different people—a small step in undoing social biases and bridging cultural divides, a step that this list does not take.

This doesn’t mean “don’t read from this list, it’s biased and overrated”—if that’s what I meant I would have stopped this blog a long time ago. It just means “take this list with a grain of salt.” Like all things, this list has its flaws, and it should not be treated as a sacred end-all-be-all to your personal library.


Modern Literature

I have a theory here—one that I already brought up on my post about Modernism and Postmodernism, so I won’t go into too much detail. Basically, I think that modern literature is the focal point (or maybe tipping point?) that all other literature revolves around. The modern era is the first half of the 20th Century, defined by world wars, technology, psychology, shifting morality, financial crisis, and all the art that resulted from it. I think modern literature is that which lends focus to the chaos of our world, specifically the chaos of the 20th Century, and all literature before that time is a part of the long journey building up to it.

Every book on the list (arguably) falls into this category. Older stories like Gulliver’s Travels and Don Quixote foreshadow the changing literary landscape, while novels like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick are prefaces to 20th Century literature. Novels from the actual time period like UlyssesThe Great Gatsby, and Men Without Women each deal with the chaos head-on—grapple with it, challenge it, fear it, and attempt to make art out of it. Novels after that period are postmodern reactions to the chaos, like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye, and more contemporary novels like Life of Pi or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time are more like celebrations of the chaos that make the world and the people in it more interesting.

The list is a series of historical milestones, looking forward and backward to find truth in the chaos, or to at least accept the chaos as the truth. Questions posed by stories of the past are answered by stories of the present (though they answer with more questions). Each of these stories questions convention and force us to think in a modern way, and that change of perspective is everything in a good story.


How to Tell a Story

Every story on the list has a meta-storytelling approach. Or, put a different way, every story on the list is aware of itself as a story, and is all the better for it.

Most stories stop at telling a story, plain and simple. There’s nothing wrong with that; stories make the world go ’round, just as they are. But the best ones seem to reflect on themselves, challenge themselves to be better (almost like people—the best stories are the ones that are almost alive, and they can comfort, frighten, challenge, and improve us like other people can).

This usually pops up in small ways, like when a story is told in a different form. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, which means it’s told entirely in letters—a simple method that upends the entire dynamic of the story. All eighteen chapters of Ulysses are each in a different form—a play, a series of newspaper articles, a romance novel, a catechism, and so on. Even the Bible is told in several forms—law books, poetry, parables, letters, and gospels, all with different authors, audiences, and intentions. To play with the form of a story is to find out how to tell a story in a better way.

More often than not, a book from the list will include stories within stories as a reflection on their own storytelling. Don Quixote and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are a series of overlapping episodes and several mini-stories, told in the context of the overall story. The Canterbury Tales is a set of stories within stories within stories, all within one big story. Hamlet features its famous play-within-a-play, a common and effective Shakespeare move. Moby-Dick is filled with textbook-like interludes, almost anti-stories, with enough aesthetic merit to not feel out of place.

A lot of the authors on the list write stories about authors and storytellers, who tell stories of their own and reflect the authors’ personal narratives. Stories like The Divine Comedy and Money: A Suicide Note feature the authors themselves (Dante Alighieri and Martin Amis, respectively) as major characters. Gulliver’s Travels and The Way We Live Now feature fictional authors that the real author can use to criticize or shed light on other real life authors. Life of Pi and Memoirs of a Geisha are both disguised as works based on a true story, which gives their fictional main characters a kind of authoritative power and reorients the kind of story they are telling.

In every case, it’s about story. These are all books written for the purpose of advancing what a story can do, and what a story can be. These are all books written by people who not only know how to tell a story, but who are dedicated to telling lasting stories, and that’s why they each made the list in the first place.


I expect the remaining books on the list to have these same qualities—and I expect a lot of the great books I’ll read down the road will be similar. I know I won’t enjoy every book previously vetted by a master list like this (as we’ve seen with MoneyA Bend in the RiverHuckleberry Finn, etc.); but even for the books I don’t enjoy, I’ve developed a few tricks up my sleeve to see if a story is objectively good. Being able to tell the difference between a story you don’t like and a story that’s bad is a pretty useful skill.

I’m finishing up Rebecca—I’ll leave the discussion for next time. Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” but that ain’t no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.”

—from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

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

Off-Topic: Modern and Postmodern Literature

Hello again, class.

We’ll have a bit of a history lesson today, and talk about literary periods. Historical context can redefine a piece of literature, and something that’s always helped me with reading older texts is understanding which period of history it came from. The Victorian Era, for example, was the era of Great Britain during the reign of Queen Victoria. I know little bits about Victorian society, belief systems, social stigmas . . . each one increasing my understanding of novels and poems of the time. It’s basic reading strategy any good blog professor should know.

My two favorite periods of literature are Modernism and Postmodernism (which are more like one 2-part period, but I didn’t write the textbooks). More than being the eras of some of my favorite works, I think the majority of the books on the 50-books list could fall in the categories of modern or postmodern literature. That alone makes it worth knowing what these categories mean and how they apply to novels on the list.

(Disclaimer: I am summing up entire textbooks worth of information into a blog post. It’s a LIMITED analysis.)


Modern writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby.”

Modern literature doesn’t actually mean “modern” like new or contemporary. It sort of meant that at the time, but that period is about a hundred years old by now. When people talk about modern literature, they’re usually referring to the first half of the 20th century, ending around the same time as the end of WWII. That period of history was, on a worldwide scale, sheer chaos.

Both World Wars, the Great Depression, political movements for women’s rights, the Harlem Renaissance, introduction of Freud’s theories, the roaring 20’s, advances in technology . . . these are fractions of the chaos of the time. Traditions were breaking down, becoming fragmented copies of the old world. Questions were asked about morality, society, sexuality, religion, government, the future—questions that were never considered before.

Modern Writer Ernest Hemingway, works including “The Sun Also Rises” and “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The art reflected the chaos. Novels like The Grapes of Wrath and As I Lay Dying were chaotic in the most complicated ways; they broke the rules of grammar and storytelling, and they sacrificed old traditions to make room for greater truths. Poems like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming” broke the rules of poetry and removed the comfort of structure.


The dates are shifty for Modernism, so they are just as shifty for the sequel, Postmodernism. Ending with WWII and working through the Cold War and the later half of the 20th century, the Postmodern Era shares a lot of similarities to Modernism. The chaos of the 50s, 60s, and onward, the continuing breakdown of traditional values, the Vietnam and Korea conflicts, the birth of nuclear power, the Civil Rights movement . . . the chaos continued.

Postmodern poet Allen Ginsberg, author of “Howl.”

But one of the key differences was how the artists responded (which is why it gets a different name in the textbooks). The artists of the modern era were more afraid of the chaos, and the art was used to help them cope with it. But postmodern artists celebrated the chaos; they relished in the collapse of the old and the strangeness of the new.

Novels like The Catcher in the RyeThe Color Purpleand On the Road fall in the postmodern category. These writers took the previous generation’s fear and apprehension and transformed it into a movement that praised the breaking of tradition. Novels like these lived into the chaos of the time.


Postmodern author Margaret Atwood, author of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

But as I said, the reason I chose these two periods for today’s lesson is not just because they’re my favorite, but because they sum up most of the books on the 50-books list. Before the 20th Century, elements of modern and postmodern literature can be seen popping up among the best of literature. Novels like The Picture of Dorian Gray and Pride and Prejudice and even older pre-novel works like Hamlet and The Canterbury Tales have elements reflecting the chaos: the depths of psychology, the fear of advancing technology, the downfall of conventionality, the inherent wrongness in rules of morality and religion.

Personally, I think all of literature was leading toward the birth of modern works. Questions about race asked by Oroonoko and Robinson Crusoe are answered by literature from the Harlem Renaissance. The heavily structured language of the Victorian Era’s A Christmas Carol and The War of the Worlds led to the deconstruction of language in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Early women writers like Aphra Behn and Jane Austen opened the doors for modern and postmodern writers like Virginia Woolf and Alice Walker. There’s no Ulysses without Dante’s Divine Comedy.


That’s my theory, anyway. And I like it for the same reason I like Ulysses: the “everything-is-connected”-ness of it all. Granted, it’s not a very scholarly theory, but it puts the “story” in “history.”

As I finish up Ulysses, you’ll hear more of this theory—next week is the big one!

Until then, enjoy your week.

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Types of Stories

Hello again, class.

I recently read an article claiming that all stories are the same. Details differ, but the “skeletons” are all based on the same structure. The monsters in a story can take many shapes, like Grendel in Beowulf, the land owners in The Grapes of Wrath, and infidelity in Ulysses, but they’re all monsters. The quest is always about finding something—treasure, peace, home, the damsel in distress, etc. Characters have arcs, plots have acts, and Hollywood has McGuffins.

I see this as a challenge. There isn’t much in this world that’s so subtly threatening as categorizing things. Someone created each of those stories, and if you told them their story was exactly like everyone else’s, you might not get out of there alive. So before we chalk this up as fact, let’s analyze it a bit.


Frankenstein's Monster, a classic example of the monster archetype.

Frankenstein’s Monster, a classic example of the monster archetype.

If all stories are the same, then all plots and characters are based on already-established archetypes. When we talk about a monster or a villain, certain requirements of the archetype come to mind, and an author can adhere to, deny, or parody those requirements with their own creation. The overcoming-the-monster plot is an archetype as well, and certain requirements of that plot are already in place. When we see a hero fighting a monster, we understand the labels of “hero” and “monster” from other stories, and we understand the trajectory of the story from similar stories.

The claim that all stories are the same—like most generalizations—is trapped in labels…and labels are always evolving. The heroes and monsters of Ancient Greece and the Renaissance may not be the same as monsters of today, but we can “translate” the monsters of the past into monsters that we recognize. A character who is imposing, mean-spirited, and violent is a monster, whether it’s a giant one-eyed Cyclops or an angry business-owner. A monster can even be a friendly teenage boy or a devoted parent, as long as the archetype is still upheld—“translated” accurately.

These archetypes are great at doing one of two things: A) helping readers and viewers “figure out” the story by making it familiar, or B) binding the plot and characters unnecessarily, and forcing it to pull its punches rather than tell a good story.


I read another article that clarifies that there are seven types of stories—seven plot archetypes that all stories adhere to. See the article here for a more in-depth look.

  1. bookshelf-illustrationOvercoming the Monster (that’s, like, the millionth time I’ve mentioned this one—take the hint, it will be on the test)
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedies
  6. Tragedies
  7. Rebirth

Even the stories that refute or deny these basic plots are still reflections of them (each one “translated” from the original blueprint). It seems that all stories spring from somewhere else.

The first article I mentioned argues that reducing stories to a formula is like “unweaving the rainbow.” To limit all stories by these boundaries removes the magic of storytelling. I’m not sure I agree though…there is something remarkable about the fact that all stories are connected, as if it’s all one big story. Writers are building on the stories of the past toward stories of the future, and everyone adds a piece.

To quote Walt Whitman, “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” And to quote Robin Williams, “What will your verse be?”


types-of-stories-book-landscapeA professor once told me that there are two ways to start a story—either a stranger comes to town, or someone decides to leave. Whatever happens from there changes everything. Somehow, that simple prompt is both challenging and comforting.

Your homework: I want to see if you have a story that won’t fit in the basic plots listed above. Prove these high brow literature professors wrong (not me, of course—all the other snooty ones). Leave it in the comment section. Don’t feel bad if you can’t find one, though. Yes, those are fighting words.

You can look forward to my post on A Christmas Carol next Wednesday. Thanks for coming to class!

Prof. Jeffrey

Horatio: …let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world

How these things came about. So shall you hear

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads. All this can I

Truly deliver.

–from Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, lines 421-428 by William Shakespeare