50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Survival

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

Missing From the List: The Hunger Games Trilogy

Hello again, class.

The youngest book on the 50 Books to Read Before You Die list is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, published in the summer of 2007. By that time the series was 10 years old, and it had already established a lasting impact on the world. The 50-books list, made in 2011, could see that impact and the quality of the novels, so the series was made required reading for everyone.

The Hunger Games Trilogy didn’t get the same advantage—the first installment was published in 2008, and the final installment in 2010, a year before the official list was released. If the list had been made later, I honestly believe this series would have been included. But, as always, let’s talk about why.


The story is popular enough by now, but for those who need the cliff notes: the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is a teenager swept up in the political slaughter of children disguised as an annual “game,” where 24 children are forced into an arena to fight against each other for their lives. The personal aspects of Katniss’s life get swept up, too; as soon as children are chosen for this sentence, they live entirely in the spotlight. From the opening chapters of the first novel, Katniss is being filmed and interviewed, giving the public every moment of the emotional roller coaster she’s experiencing.

That includes the intricate difficulties of the family she’s supporting, as well as the love triangle she so desperately wants no part of. And suddenly, her attitude, fashion sense, love life, and ability to survive become the absurd center of attention of an entire nation of oppressed people. How she reacts to her situation is a part of a larger political game she’s also forced to play, which is even more difficult to survive.


Katniss’s journey is only partially about her survival, and what she sacrifices to have it (her humanity, her future, her family). On that point, it’s a dystopian sci-fi action-thriller—interesting futuristic technology and fight sequences that rival war movies. I’d call it entertaining if it wasn’t so brutal, but we are talking about children fighting for their lives.

Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy

And that’s the problem—the teenagers killing each other is broadcast to the whole corrupt nation as entertainment. The Hunger Games trilogy is a scathing criticism of our society privileging and promoting violence as entertainment, with upfront proof that children always pay the price. The society Katniss lives in has such a skewed perspective that it doesn’t see violence and death for what it is: raw, painful, and terrifying. The same could be said of our world, with action movies and violent news stories filling up every void in our daily lives.

The series does have a lot in common with 1984—another reason it might not have made the list, being too similar to an already featured classic. But the fact that The Hunger Games is the teen-fiction version of a great sci-fi classic means it’s even more worthy of being on the list; it’s such a layered and accessible view of societal dangers that it should be required reading for everyone.


It’s especially worth mentioning that The Hunger Games has a strong female lead in an action-based book series. Even at the time of the first book’s release (and even today) that can be hard to find. I definitely believe our society privileges men in stories like this, and it’s good to see a figure like Katniss Everdeen flaunt our societal expectations. But Katniss isn’t a through-and-through warrior either—she’s a teenager with a very messed up life, making mistakes and not knowing who to trust in a world of liars and politicians. Many current novels still fail to treat female characters as well as this, so author Suzanne Collins deserves props.


As I continue to read Jane Eyre, treatment of female characters is on the front of my mind. I’m really impressed with Jane as a character so far—but I’ll update you next week, students.

Enjoy your week!

Prof. Jeffrey

“But even animals that were bred in zoos and have never known the wild, that are perfectly adapted to their enclosures and feel no tension in the presence of humans, will have moments of excitement that push them to seek to escape. All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

—from Life of Pi by Yann Martel