24 November 2007

Books to Read Before You Die

The Modern Language Association (MLA) has published a list of 30 books adults must read in their lifetimes. Here it is:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Bible
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
All Quiet on the Western Front by E M Remarque
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Tess of the D'ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn

It seems a kind of random list. I've read 15 of them; maybe that's why I think it's random! Anyway, how many have you read, and which ones would you add or subtract? I personally think the world would not be one jot poorer for the non-existence of The Life of Pi.

I would add:
The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams
The Narnia Chronicles and Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet by Shakespeare
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The Divine Comedy by Dante
Confessions by Augustine
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis
A Wrinkle in Time Madeleine L'Engle
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce
Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson

For now. I'll surely think of others.


Ariel said...

I agree, this does seem pretty random. And can they be serious? No C.S. Lewis? I've read 13, with the expectation of probably reading most of the rest of the list...

Other names I'd add:
Walker Percy
Flannery O'Connor

And Shakespeare and Augustine, definitely. We should probably be skeptical of any such list that includes just 30 books... At least they had a couple Dickens titles.

Steve Hayes said...

I've read 19 of them, and Jany Eyre I never finished.

Yes, it does seem pretty arbitrary to me.

His dark materials
The curious incident of the dog in the night time
The wind in the willows
The time traveler's wife
The master and Margarita

I read, and enjoyed, but don't see why they are "must read", and I'm not sure about some of the others either.

My "must read" list would include

The Bible
Lord of the rings
Lord of the flies

Darlin Gem said...

Ive read 13 of them.

Now,I agree with your list of ad far as what I have read of them...which is most of them.

However- I do like life of Pi.
It is not particularly great writing style...very fragmented...
But it presents debatable ideas and important questions. It made me think about it, and I know if and when witnessing, those questions have a very good possibility of occurring.
it was also nice to for once, not have a predictable ending.
What is it that makes the boook so disagreeable to you?

Iambic Admonit said...

The list is kind of skimpy on "Great Western Classics" but doesn't introduce a whole lot of the foundational works of other cultures, either. Not what I'd call canonical. I think we're doing better. :)

Darlin: Why didn't I like Life of Pi? Well, let's see. OK, Darlin, you're right, it does present important debatable questions. And reading it and finding answers to those questions could be great witnessing preparation. But that book just made me feel sick. Personal taste, partly, but a basic worldview objection, too.

First of all I just have a hard time with lots of works that are "popular" writing. The writing is not fantastic and the style irritates me. But then there's the more serious issue of the content and its impact on society. Well, I've heard several fairly intelligent secular types say they loved that book and that it gave a perfect picture of what true religion ought to be -- some silly, watered-down, non-doctrinal parody of all relgions which equals no religion! And I thought the ending was just gross. Sure, I love a twist, an ending I can't guess. But I think that book did more harm than good, in persuading people to swallow the stupid idea that you don't actually have to believe anything, you just have to love God in some kind of mushy undefined moral and spiritual soup.

Then, too, there was that whole floating island episode, totally stolen from C. S. Lewis's Perelandra -- although I'm not sure the idea was original with Lewis, either.

Iambic Admonit said...

Here's a better list. I've read 46 of them. So far.

Iambic Admonit said...

And here's St. John's College's current great books list. it includes some musical compositions, poetry, and essays. I've "read" 45 of the items.

Rosie Perera said...

Yes, it does seem like a pretty random list. Like someone's personal preferences perhaps. I will put a * next to the ones which I agree should be on the list in my breakdown below:

Of the original 30, I have read 15:
*To Kill a Mockingbird
*The Bible
*The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
*A Christmas Carol
*Pride and Prejudice
*All Quiet on the Western Front
*The Lord of the Flies
*Winnie the Pooh
The Wind in the Willows
*Great Expectations
The Prophet
Life of Pi
A Clockwork Orange
*A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Started but never finished:
The Grapes of Wrath

Own but have not read yet:
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Tess of the D'ubervilles
Wuthering Heights
David Copperfield
The Poisonwood Bible

Have not read nor do I own:
Jane Eyre
His Dark Materials Trilogy

Have not even heard of:
The Time Traveller's Wife
The Lovely Bones
The Alchemist
The Master and Margarita

Have seen the movie but not read the book:
Gone With the Wind

Of the ones Admonit added, I've read these:
The Place of the Lion (yes, Williams is great, but he's not for everyone, and I think you've put him on your "must read" list just because you've been immersed in him lately)
*The Narnia Chronicles
Till We Have Faces (ditto)
*Romeo & Juliet
*Paradise Lost
*The Pilgrim’s Progress
Charlotte's Web (wonderful, but it's just one of many great children's books; I don't think I've ever seen a "canonical list" of children's books that one ought to read in one's lifetime; I think if you read 15 or 20 of the greatest ones, you'd be fine even if CW wasn't among them)
A Wrinkle in Time (ditto)
The Phantom Tollbooth (one of my personal favorites, but one could survive adulthood without having ever heard of it)
Harold and the Purple Crayon (ditto)
The Screwtape Letters (pretty essential among Lewis's works, but not as essential on a broader scale as Narnia Chronicles)
The Great Divorce (ditto)
*Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
*The Scarlet Letter

Haven't read:
*The Divine Comedy (an absolute must, and #1 on my list of books I must read before I die)
Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge

I would add:
* The Odyssey by Homer
* The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky

I have only read 33 of the College Board's 101 "Great Books" and only 21 of St. John's College's list. I guess I've got a lot of catching up to do! I think the former of these is a more realistic list, though. I'm not sure everyone needs to read all of the more obscure works on the St. John's list.

As for Life of Pi, I really enjoyed it. It was required reading for a course I took at Regent College called "Christianity & Literature: Modern Fiction: Stories of Doubt & Faith." The biggest point of discussion about it was the very nature of narrative. Can one tell an objective story or is it always just one's own perspective? And even if you recognize the perspectival nature of narrative, how can you trust the teller of the narrative to be honest? One could get angry at the writer of such a book, and come to the conclusion that there was nothing in it worth reading. But I still think that whether they were trustworthy or not, the best parts in the book were the opening section where Pi is still in India (Martel artfully brings the reader into a different culture, regardless of whether it's really what that culture is like) and the page-turning middle section where Pi is in survival mode on the raft with the tiger (completely unbelievable, but so are some of Lewis's great stories).

I actually like stories where there's some ambiguity as to what the truth really is. You can talk about them afterwards with someone else who read the same story and each come to a different conclusion about what the author left open to the reader's interpretation. Another great one like that is The Giver by Lois Lowry. It doesn't have the bizarre postmodern plot structure that Life of Pi has, so it's more accessible. One of my all-time favorite books.

Rosie Perera said...

Aart Hilal,

I'm very sorry. I saw your post and didn't recognize the author's name "Paulo Coelho" as being on the list of "must read" books Admonit posted, so I thought you were just a spammer publicizing some other random blog here, and I deleted your comment. At least I saved the email I got when you posted it, so here it is again, but not attributed to you, and there's no way we can follow a link to your Blogger profile. Mea culpa.

Aart Hilal said:

I'm a big Paulo Coelho's fan and I don't know if you heard about his blog
I've started as a fan and now I'm collaborating with him and thought that you would like to enter his universe.
Check the blog.
if you want, or subscribe to his newsletter
You'll see a community of warriors of light sharing ideas, dreams and most importantly following their personal legend.


The Warrior of Light knows his own faults, but also knows his qualities. (Warrior of the Light)

See u there and have a great day!


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure a list of thirty books to read before you die is any better than lists of thirty people to kiss before you die, but maybe that's just because it makes me feel inferior? (I've read twelve of them, by the way.) I think both are too personal to recommend to everyone. Maybe that's why the list seems so random?

Also, it's interesting to see how few non-fiction books everyone's listed so far - I think just the Bible, Augustine's Confessions, and The Pilgrim's Regress - and one of those might not count. I'll stick my neck out, though:

A (relatively) short world history, illustrated as well as possible.
Ditto of the twentieth century.
A good history of colonialism, probably Canadian to appeal to both sides of the Atlantic.
Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics
How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand
1066 and All That by Sellars and Yeatman (or the US equivalent, if there is one)
I don't know what the best introduction to the scientific method is, but it's probably by either Richard Fortey or Feynmann.

Specific titles don't matter for those first three, of course; and if I seem a little lightweight, well, these are meant to be for everybody. Also:

The Odyssey (the Iliad's not for everyone)
Anthology of the Romantic poets
Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Lear
Pride and Prejudice
Peace, by Gene Wolfe (a bit obscure, this man, but I like him)
Unlikely Stories, Mostly, by Alasdair Gray
Hard Times
Probably Arthur Waley's translation of Monkey, but not the whole thing
Hemingway's short stories
Jane Eyre
The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
Maybe Malba Tahan's The Man Who Counted, a children's book about a Muslim mathematician. (And while we're on it, I'll second The Phantom Tollbooth
Frivolously, Time and the Hour by Jan Mark; it's about a class of schoolboys who make a bet about how much time they can waste in lessons.

I've tried to avoid repeating things lots of people have said and choose things I think have a high probability of being enjoyed (or, in the case of the non-fiction, not being chucked aside in disgust.)

Think I'm done. Interesting to hear that you're on a Charles Williams kick at the moment, Admonit, by the way. :)


Steve Hayes said...

I've linked to this and put my own list at: Notes from underground: Books to read before you die. Now I must look at the links you put to other lists!

Darlin said... in reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein I think it should be added to the must read list.