50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Writing

The Final Review

We’re at the end, class!

I’m not dying, or anything. But I promised myself at the beginning of this that I wouldn’t push this blog too far. I wouldn’t let it be one of those blogs that posted a lot at once, tapered off into a few posts a year, and died out from age or boredom. (If anyone thinks to look back at the posting dates of each one of my posts, you’ll notice a remarkable consistency.)

Which means there’s a finale to this saga. I read and reviewed the 50 Books to Read Before You Die, according to a bookmark. Just a few final remarks, and that’s all, folks.


I liked most of them. I loved many of them. There were a few I couldn’t stand, and I’m getting rid of those (to leave room on my bookshelf for better books). They all left an impression . . . they all gave me something to think about, something to chew on. Reading each one gave me a world to explore or a new perspective to consider. That’s what books are for.

Several of them gave me clues about how to be a better writer. This list is full to the brim of storytelling techniques, fascinating characters, and hilarious puns. I think all the great storytellers and artists copy from the greats, and this list featured some of the greatest stories of all time—so I’ve got a storytelling repertoire that will continue to inspire before I expire.

I keep coming back to why I chose to do this, and there’s one very obvious answer. I’d just graduated college. I loved college, and more importantly, I loved going to class. I love reading books and then talking about them. We just read this amazing chapter in this book I love, I can’t miss class! The professor’s going to break it apart, show me the little pieces that I missed—then I’ll love it even more!! That’s me. So what’s a man to do after graduation, when there are no more classes, no more professors, no more books and discussions? He starts a blog, of course.

I did this because I’d done nothing but read the assigned reading for the past four years. I wanted to dare myself into reading “literature” on my own. This was my way of making a real life class for myself, a series of self-assigned readings that any professor of a grade-A-geek would be proud of. And I did it for myself—not to show off my limited knowledge to people that know me, but to make myself better as a reader, writer, and storyteller, through the magic of the internet.

But I don’t stoop to think that this almost-three-year task made me a better person. I didn’t expect it would, because a better reader/writer/storyteller is not a better person. (If that sounds like too obvious a statement, I can assure you, that’s something I had to learn, and it’s something several fully grown adults still don’t know.)

It’s like the difference between living and reading about living. Some writers will tell you that the story is all that matters, but that only applies to stories, not to life. Stories serve many purposes—relief, connection, understanding, entertainment, discovery, motivation—but the one thing a story can’t do is replace living. Stories are reflections of life, and so is everything from history to art, from the greatest movie ever to a good joke. The reflections take us where we cannot go, far and wide around the Earth, back in time and forward to the future, and life still waits for us when we return.

No, this didn’t make me a better person. I learned a lot, though. If I use all I learned to not only tell better stories, but live a better life, then I’ll become a better person, I hope. That’s why the blogging is done, at least for now—I’m done with this chapter of my life-book, and if I stick around for too long, I might not get to the rest.

So keep reading. Then go live with what you learned.

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: My Poetry

Good morning, class.

I should tell you . . . I’m not always writing about what other people have written. I feel like I’m doing a good enough job reviewing the 50 Books to Read Before You Die (you’d tell me if I wasn’t, right?)—but my writing talents aren’t limited to book reviews. I’ve written my fair share of poetry, for instance, and a handful of those poems have even been published. And today, I’d like to lend a bit of credibility to my own writing—by sharing some poetry, of course!

I’ve picked three of my poems to share, with a bit of commentary for good measure. Enjoy!


Consider the Ravens

Regarding musical thoughts . . . consider
The difference between thoughts and the ones who
Think them.

Through meticulous study, through
Expression, we thinkers rage and condemn
Stark thoughtlessness.

To impose on mayhem,
Order—that is our aim, our daily stress,
Our pang-laden dreamscape.

If we should guess,
God might be mayhem—leaves stretched in no shape
While we stand mean on wrathful roots.

That scrape,
Which our thoughts brace against the gentle fruits
Of our bodies and spirits, is music.

Consider the ravens—thoughtless and whole,
Scolding our scrape with their symphonic squall.

“Consider the Ravens” comes from a Bible passage, Luke 12:24, which can be boiled down do a pretty simple concept—birds don’t worry about anything and are fed nonetheless; you shouldn’t worry either. This verse always seemed to be aimed at me—the proof that I shouldn’t worry too much because God tells me everything will be alright. But worrying seems to be something the animal kingdom doesn’t suffer from all that often. Humans, on the other hand, worry all the time—it’s how we improve, how we change, how we challenge the status quo, and most importantly, how we make art, literature, and music. Our worry is what makes us seek perfection, and we’ll never reach it but never stop seeking it either, and that back and forth is sort of the secret to humanity.

I liked how this poem turned out, especially the rhyme scheme. This is a sonnet, but it’s been broken places that give it a different feel without becoming unbalanced. It looks like chaos, but it’s more like rearranged order, and I’m proud of that.


Campfire

A Crack
And a faint Echo.

He Snaps the branches,
Here a hard wrist twisting and there a swift foot stomping,
With a surge of Crunch and Crackle—
Fingers careen down the bark, rough skin toppling twigs and leaves
That Clatter to the ground like debris.

Then, repetition:
Crack, Echo…
Snap, Crunch, Crackle, Clatter, Clatter—
Crack, Snap, Clatter,
Crack, Snap, Clatter.

He gathers, organizes, sets—
The overlapping wood,
The hodgepodge twig-pile,
The leaves, crushed and stuffed—
All in a cube—a prison of bark.

He isn’t alone—poking out of his pockets are the fire-starters of the unnatural world:
Old newspaper,
Weeks of collected dryer lint,
And the protruding metal stem of a blood-orange barbeque lighter.

There’s an accompanying Snap.

Another Snap.

Another Snap—and then a Crack, and a spark.

A flicker appears—a teardrop of light—
And it buds into two,
Produces four, reproduces eight,
And becomes a living flame,
While a column of smoke explores the air.

Lint catches, newspaper blackens, leaves curl, wood peels,
And the bark settles into its pit.

The light swims across his hard eyes
As he surveys his work—he is calculating, probing, observing, listening . . .
He protectively prods the creature with a leftover branch.

His eyes soften. His shoulders settle.
He interlaces his fingers and Cracks
The air out of his knucklebones.
Then he sits in his foldable chair
And settles his arm on my shoulders.

Sylvia Plath’s poetry had a tendency to take something ordinary and describe it so poetically that it seemed strange and foreign. That was my approach here, and though I don’t think it turned out that way, the result was something so simple and rustic that I fell in love with it. It’s a scene around a campfire; the wood is collected, the fire brought chaotically to life, and the fire settling into a dependable flame.

I applied some of the regular poetic tricks—the metaphor of the fire as alive, the implication that the man is creating a living thing (almost parent-like), the destruction of the first half building to the creation of the second half, etc. I’m particularly proud of the use of sound . . . I’m typically more of a visual/verbal guy, and this is my attempt at capturing the noises of the scene as much as the visuals. You’ll notice the sound is mostly at the beginning, before the light becomes a factor in the scene (oooooo . . . meaning!!)


To Know a Man

I know a man as if from a strange dream. I know
His fervent voice, his sympathy, his charming face,
His internal adversity, and his true, whole
Story. Of few others can I claim such a bare
Knowledge; but my knowing is like a song I hear
In rare moments, when certainty guides my passion.

He wears a wooden mask, matching social passions
For etiquette’s sake—and with all I seem to know,
His mask, at times, fools even me. The voice I hear
Between the wooden lips of his fictitious face
Kindles in me an insobriety. I bear
It, if only to sense the more resonant whole.

I can sense harmony there, which resonates whole,
But seems built brutishly with divergent passions—
A series of conflicting fragments, never bare
But for the miracle of the harmony—no
One flaw exposed. This seemingly perfected face
Spoils any harmonic strain I would wish to hear.

But beyond these sounds is a voice I want to hear—
The voice of that man’s mind, trapped by the sullied whole
Of that harmonious character and that face
He shows the world. His mind speaks of different passions,
Of contrarian thoughts, of worlds I could not know,
And of dreams my spirit could only hope to bear.

Within the depths of such a hidden mind, he may bear
An ocean of knowledge, which deepens as it hears
The songs of others and swells as it comes to know
The strangeness of a senseless world, bursting with whole
Fragments of melodic, discordant compassion
That dares to flaunt itself at his fictitious face.

Beyond this hidden mind, and far beyond that face
Is, hopefully, some soul—a purity he bears
For entropy’s sake. This soul may guide his passions,
Divergent as they are, and may let his mind hear
Of love in the darkness we endure as a whole.
And beyond this soul dwells something no one could know . . .

. . . Perhaps some faceless, transparent eardrum that hears,
Perhaps, the whole human symphony, and that bears,
Perhaps, a passion for a man he hopes to know.

This one is more personal. There’s a man in my life who is hard to describe, but I used poetry and made an attempt—I left out the details and decided to describe my knowing him . . . the poem is less about the person and more about his closeness to me. He is a lot like me, and there’s a lot we know about each other, but the great obstacles of humanity keep us from knowing each other completely—I know him as he presents himself to me, but I don’t know his thoughts, his dreams, his soul . . . I can’t know those things. I can tell there are things about him that I can know, even without proof, because I like to think he is like me in that way—he wants to know me as much as I want to know him, and through that, we begin to know each other more deeply.

This poem is in the form of a sestina—a long and repetitive form that uses the last word in each line over and over again in different, predictable patterns. Using this form is a great way to tackle the kind of subject that is hard to convey in fewer words—the kind of subject that needs a variety of approaches in order to make sense, or that attempts to capture a concept in its totality, from all angles. It doubles back quite a bit, but I think it gets the point across, and of that I am happy.


I’m finishing up Martin Amis’ novel Money: A Suicide Note, so that’s what I’m writing about next. I’ll be honest, I am not at all thrilled by it—there’s a lot that makes it unlikable, uncomfortable, and unnecessary. I’ve got a few ideas about why it made the list, but I’m not sure that any of those reasons made it actually worth my time. In any case, I’ll try to write as unbiased a blog post about Money as possible.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“In the planetary aggregate of all life, there are many more suicide notes than there are suicides. They’re like poems in that respect, suicide notes: nearly everyone tries their hand at them at some time, with or without the talent. We all write them in our heads.”

—from Money: A Suicide Note by Martin Amis

“Thus, gentle reader, I have given thee a faithful history of my travels for sixteen years and above seven months: wherein I have not been so studious of ornament as of truth. I could, perhaps, like others, have astonished thee with strange improbable tales; but I rather chose to relate plain matter of fact, in the simplest manner and style; because my principal design was to inform, and not to amuse thee.”

—from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

The Diary of Anne Frank

Hello again, class.

This isn’t a review or a critique of Anne Frank’s Diary—that’s not something I would consider appropriate for a book like this. The private journal entries of a teenager are a certain kind of sacred. There are parts about her Diary I don’t like, but they are a part of Anne Frank’s tragically cut-short life and deserve to be cherished.

The reason a book like this is published is not for something like literary merit or artistic value (though, miraculously, it has both anyway). The reason a book like this is published is to imprint the tragedies of history into the minds of as many people as possible, and to cherish the memory of a collective and personal loss. That also happens to be why it makes the list of 50 books to read before you die—not for the value of its content or structure, but for its universal need for recognition.


There is very little of the major story within the Diary, because that story happens mostly before and after Anne Frank’s writings—the text itself fills in the details of a story that’s already in place. I’m not taking any chances here—since we live in a world of Neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers, and “fake news,” I’m going to recap the moments in history that The Diary of Anne Frank is a concrete part of.

Anne’s story is about a Jewish family that goes into hiding because of the Nazi regime, a radical political party, spreading from Germany. The Nazis declared that Jewish people were responsible for German failures in WWI and were an inferior race, leading to the hunt for and capture of Jewish people. What started as a political movement became the systematic racial genocide known today as the Holocaust.

Otto Frank, Anne’s father (1968)

The Frank family hid in a small set of rooms behind a bookcase in a warehouse, along with four other individuals. They hid there successfully for two years, but before the end of WWII, the Franks were captured and sent to concentration camps. All but Anne’s father Otto died in these camps, and after regaining his freedom, he found the contents of his daughter’s diary. He decided to have the contents published.

The book serves as a reminder of the tragedy of the Holocaust and the very human lives lost to history, despite the inhumanity with which those lives were portrayed by the Nazi party.


Which brings us to the Diary. Anne gets the blank diary as a birthday present in 1942, and she begins writing her everyday thoughts and feelings. Not long after, the family goes into hiding—most of her writings are various forms of cabin fever from the perspective of a teenager, which is equal parts boring, frightening, and inspiring. Anne is an amazing writer and an insightful (though never unbiased) person. She seems to always write with a purpose and represents childhood and youth in her own way. Even when the entry is dull, the writing is not.

I review her writing (like I said I wouldn’t earlier) because it was purposefully well-written. She writes about being a writer and about a future in journalism, and the Diary has stood the test of time partly because she wrote so well. This diary was her chance to practice her craft, and her craft is worth reviewing. She writes about her feuds with those hiding with her, her desires for romance, her thoughts on humanity, her daily routine, and her fears and doubts. Reading her diary is watching her transform over the course of two years in hiding.


And then the Diary ends, unceremoniously. The inhabitants of the “Secret Annexe” (as it’s known in English) were captured in 1944, and the writings of a young girl were ignored and left behind. The nature of the book’s ending forces a return to the historical facts of the end of Anne’s life. You’re reading it knowing that eventually, she will die—and then the book ends as incompletely as her life. The ending reshapes the Diary back into a historical artifact, along with the reports of her life in the concentration camp and the details known of her death.

The Diary itself doesn’t tell the story of Anne’s life as much as it reflects the vignettes that make up her experience—that of a teenager in hiding (which is special enough). But the statistics of her life and death, while telling a story, are heartless. Anne’s humanity is more alive in her own writing, which gives a voice to the millions of victims of the Holocaust that could only tell stories with the statistics of their lives and deaths. The picture on the cover of The Diary of Anne Frank becomes the face of this period in history.

And as important as that is, it tends to limit all that the Diary can be. The reason to pick up the Diary and start reading is because it represents one of the darkest moments in human history, and the book itself has a tendency to belong to that part of history. But it isn’t as dark as that—this book is one of the bright spots in an era of horror. The reason to continue reading it, once you’ve picked it up, isn’t to remember the Holocaust or the death of a child. The reason to continue reading it is to witness the unabridged beauty of a young girl’s voice.


The time I have put in to reading these books and writing these posts can feel unnecessary at times. Some of the books I’ve trudged through have felt like a bit of a waste. But The Diary of Anne Frank is one of those that restored me—I read it once in seventh grade, and it left very little impact at the time, so I’ve been willing to chalk it up as nothing more than an important piece of history. But reading it again helped me realize what I missed, and how important was. I’m happy I read it, and I’m happier I read it a second time.

Next up, I’m jumping backwards to read Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. I’ve always liked the story for exactly what it is, even if it was never that special to me, but its effects can be seen everywhere in our society today. I’m excited about diving into it again.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“I want to go on living even after my death! And therefore I am grateful to God for giving me this gift, this possibility of developing myself and of writing, of expressing all that is in me.”

—from The Diary of Anne Frank on Tuesday, 4 April, 1944

“It’s an odd idea for someone like me to keep a diary; not only because I have never done so before, but because it seems to me that neither I—nor for that matter anyone else—will be interested in the unbosomings of a thirteen-year-old school girl. Still, what does that matter? I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.”

—from The Diary of Anne Frank on Saturday, 20 June, 1942