Books to Read (Again?) Before You Die

March 27, 2006 @ 3:01 am | Filed under:

British librarians recently named a list of thirty books all adults should read before they die.

Here’s the list. I’ve read the titles in bold.

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’urbevilles 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

Like Ms. Mental Multivitamin, to whom I tip my hat for the link, I find several of the choices to be puzzling. I loved The Time-Traveler’s Wife but I don’t think I’d put it in the “read before you die” category. Same for Life of Pi. I’d have picked A Tale of Two Cities over Great Expectations. And where is Toni Morrison on the list? Or Faulkner and Wharton? Or Fred Chappell? Well, it is a British librarians’ list, I suppose.

This list also put me in mind of a post I read a while back: How long does a book stay read? After perusing a different list of books, the author reflected:

Looking down the list, mentally adding up the number I’ve read, I came to several, Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, to name but three, that I know I read as a teenager. I remember the experience of reading the book, the fact of reading the book, and in the case of A Tale of Two Cities I still have the exact copy of the book I read, but although I remember all that, I don’t know that I really retain much of the book itself twenty odd years later. I know the story lines and names of some of the characters in each of the three I’ve named because they are themselves well known, and have passed into the wider common culture outside the novel itself. But I’m reasonably confident that if I went back and re-read them I would find the books themselves almost unrecognisable.

I would have to say the same for several of the titles on the list above. As a matter of fact, I too reread Gatsby not long ago, for the first time in almost twenty years. I might as well have been reading for the first time a book I’d only heard vague hints about. The language, the richness of it, was wholly new. I had no memory of tasting those phrases and images before. It was like trying some kind of food, like chocolate or lobster, for the first time. No matter what one has heard other people say about it, the exact flavor is indescribable because it is unique. It, in fact, forms a basis of comparison for other foods. I could say that some other book has a Gatsby-like quality, but I can’t say Gatsby tastes like anything else I’ve ever tasted before.

I once ate a meal in an Afghan restaurant on the Upper East Side, a rice dish flavored with lemon, saffron, other spices unrecognizable to my suburban-America-trained palate, and, most shocking to my taste buds, rose petals. I can’t say I liked it exactly, but I was compelled to keep tasting, turning small bites over in my mouth in an attempt to understand and savor the strange flavors.

Last week I reread a Faulkner novel I hadn’t picked up since high school. Reading As I Lay Dying was like tasting that rose-petal and saffron dish, each word a grain of rice, complex and savory with an uncomfortable assault of flavors. I didn’t enjoy the meal—it was too rich, too much, too suffused with sorrow and pain—but I could not stop eating until I was done, and I felt awed and nourished by it afterward. I could feel the novel becoming a part of me, altering me, just as if one could actually feel food being broken down into its elements and absorbed into one’s body at a cellular level.

I know this was not the experience I had reading it in high school. This was a book that did not “stay read” for me. Nor was Gatsby. There are many others. It’s been over twenty years since I read Tess in 11th grade, though I did go on a Hardy jag shortly after college. I skipped Tess in that spree because I’d already read it. Now I remember the bones of the plot and a pervasive sadness. That’s all. I couldn’t speak about it with any astuteness nowadays; I’d have to reread it. And if I hadn’t read Winnie the Pooh as an adult, I’d have missed out on half its charm.

I’ll have to think about what I read in high school that stayed read. Some Flannery O’Connor short stories come to mind. Pygmalion. Midsummer Night’s Dream. I do think The Grapes of Wrath has stayed read for me, but not Great Expectations (which I yawned through in 10th grade, and am currently reading to Jane and delighting in every word) or (shudder) Billy Budd.

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10 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Angela,Mother Crone says:

    A kindred spirit! I, too, sat there shaking my head at some of these books, as so many were enjoyable, but I certainly could have died happily without reading them! I always try to picture who the people are that come up with these lists, anyway. Are they typical male intellectuals, sitting around a conference table, with rumpled khakis and disheveled hair? Are the popular books from the lone female appointed secretary, who just added them before publication? HeHe!

  2. Karen E. says:

    Yes, I was going to say, “Where’s GATSBY?” And why are some of these things on this list?? 🙂

    Atticus teaches Tess nearly every year (though, beautifully sensitive soul that he is, he will skip it in those years in which he has a pregnant teen girl in his class….) and he has taught Gatsby in the past. We agree that some novels can not be adequately viewed through the lens of youth. We have to age a bit before we can see them more clearly.

    I like the phrase, “stay read” … I had several of those from high school, too (those that did *not* stay read, that is ….)

  3. Sherry says:

    Goodness! I’m not sure my memory is good enough for any books that I haven’t re-read several times to “stay read.” Also, I have a tendency to skim through the parts that my brain tells my eyes will be uninteresting, Since I do this almost unconsciously, I could have missed who-knows-what, even in some of my favorite books. I do know that when I re-read I find myself thinking, “I didn’t know that was in there.”

  4. Theresa says:

    I agree that Time Travelers Wife is fluff compared to the other books on the list. Life of Pi, however is one of the best, most haunting books I’ve ever read and I would definitely include it. (BTW, Poisonwood Bible was drudgery to get through compared to Kingsolver’s earlier works (Bean Trees, etc)).
    To me, books that stay read do so because they resonate with experiences and emotions you’ve already had. So it makes sense that complex works will not stick in the hearts and minds of the young. Us older, more experienced folks have a few more “pegs” to hang these works on and so they stick there a bit better. That is until we get so old our pegs start falling out and we can’t remember anything!

  5. Mary Ellen Barrett says:

    I think that popular novels need to stand the test of time (many, many years) before they could be included on this kind of list.

    Gatsby definitely should be there. And where is MacBeth? Or anything Shakepeare? What about Mark Twain? Can you be considered well read without having read and re-read Huck Finn (although my preference is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – it cracks me up).

    If you include Flannery O’Connor then Walker Percy should be on the list. The Moviegoer (I should re-read that). A collection of short stories (OHenry, EAPoe, etc..) would make the list more complete.

    It’s a puzzling list – but not a bad jumping off point.

  6. Melissa Wiley says:

    I didn’t think Time Traveler’s Wife was fluff at all; I loved it and was deeply affected by it, in part because Henry reminded me so much of my husband. But I wouldn’t say it’s a must-read-before-you-die book.

    I am totally with you about Life of Pi being a haunting, powerful novel. There were moments during reading it when I felt like I could hardly speak; it was so wrenching to pull myself back to reality.

    Mary Ellen, interesting thought about a novel needing to stand the test of time. How long is long enough, I wonder?

  7. mstaff4 says:

    What a lovely post. books lists are always fun, but i especially like thinking about the books that “stay read.” In my case, i think they’re the books that connected on some level with something that was happening in my life at the time i was reading them. But for that reason, i have no desire to revisit them since they are so intimately linked to a particular stage or age or moment. I worry that what made them powerful will be destroyed or what made them stay read will disappear.

  8. The LLama Butchers says:

    Not your typical book meme

    From Lissa over at Here in the Bonny Glen….

  9. Better Full Than Empty says:

    I’ve read a few of these, but I better get to work. Like the list.

  10. Elena Maria Vidal says:

    What a helpful and delightful blog for reading mothers! I am so glad you included “Gone With The Wind” in the books we need to read before we die. Where would we all be without Scarlett?