5 Books You Don’t Actually Have to Read Before You Die

These books are good, but they aren’t that good.

As a bookworm, I’m a connoisseur of good books. But for me, a good book is not limited to its story alone. Good books also have good plot lines, characters, fonts, smells, cover art, etc. However, I like to get some help when discovering NEW good books.

I ususally take recommendations from friends and from society when, and only when, the hype has ebbed on certain titles. But I also occasionally take to the Internet in search of reviews and critiques. Unfortunately, what I come across the most are the all-inclusive 100 BOOKS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE lists.

I believe these lists to be a bit melodramatic. I mean, what if you’re on 99 when you kick the bucket? How unfulfilled would you feel? Well, I’m here to say, “lower your expectations.” The truth is society has done a good job of spoiling or summarizing some of these famous titles. So much so that it is really unnecessary to read the entire thing. So, go ahead. Skip these, and go read some of the other titles that you simply must read because they will change your life. 

By the way, my tongue is positioned firmly in my cheek. So, if I tell you to skip one of your favorite books of all time, it’s nothing personal. It’s just books. Besides, only you can decide what you actually end up downloading to your e-reader. I’m just trying to do you a solid.

#5Ulysses by James Joyce

I know, I know blasphemy of all blasphemy! I write a blog post professing my undying love for the man, and then tell you not to read one of his masterpieces. However, I must stand by my decision to love James Joyce, but not Ulysses. Joyce has been fairly candid about the book’s subject matter; he simply wanted to cram it full of allusions, which he was successful at. Yet, there are books on the annotations for Ulysses that are longer than the text itself. So, skip this one. If you must read it, read it once. Not the 45 times that your literature professor will encourage you to read it so you can “soak it all in.”

#4-Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

We’ve been there, done that, and Hugh Jackman has starred in it. Not only has the play been reinvented and recast numerous times, but few fans rarely read the book after they’ve seen the production. And really, why would you? You’ve sat through what can only be a 3 or 4 hour play or movie at minimum (you cut 5 songs, and I’m still sitting in the theatre 2 hours later!) and then you’re going to ask me to read a book that contains over 530,000 words for text-to-stage analysis??? I think I’ll let the Les Miserables be miserable and move onto something with a bit more guesswork for the ending. (Spoiler alert: everyone cries or dies.) 

#3-The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

This feels totally wrong to be saying this, but uh, you can skip this one, too. I love Middle Earth, but when I read The Hobbit I found no reason to book my tickets to New Zealand’s Hobbiton. Tolkien is a bit heavy-handed with about everything he does, which includes lots of description and explanations that may make you jump back and forth between the top and the bottom of the page to remember who we’re talking about and where we are in the story. I like a little bit of sensory detail in my reading, but his sentences are more winding than the road that Bilbo Baggins takes to find the ring. It’s weird; all Tolkien fans realize that his writing could be better and clearer, and yet everyone is still swept up in the story and the world he has created. Including myself. So, with this one, I’m not saying you shouldn’t read it. I’m just saying you don’t have to. If books were body language, this Bilbo Baggins adventure would be a shrug for me.

#2-Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

To be honest, this one is a little hazy for me, and I don’t really remember the details or the plot. All I know is that I read it in high school, completed a book project for it, and continued to live my life. That’s just it; I wasn’t overwhelmed or underwhelmed by the story. It didn’t invade my consciousness and set up camp; it didn’t disturb my universe. I read it, I crossed it off the list, and that was that. If you have an affinity for coming of age novels with sassy main characters that curse for no real reason but to seem tough and mature, then go ahead and pick this one up. Maybe Salinger is over my head, but he was out of his mind, so we’re even.

#1-Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I don’t even like saying this title aloud because it gives me horrible flashbacks of this book and its equally horrible spark notes. It takes place in the heart of the Congo during the Colonial period, which was a time that was rife with ignorance and stupidity on both accountable sides. So, Joseph Conrad felt not only an urge but a life’s calling to take this depressing little point in history and drape dark curtains around it. I had to watch the ending of The Notebook to feel a little bit happier after I read this book. The only thing cool that came out of this one was the literary term anthropomorphism in which the setting or scenery is given human qualities to the point that the very trees become characters in the novel. But please, don’t read it for the neat terminology. And if you are going to read it, have some chocolate on your nightstand. Or don’t because dementors would be able to cheer you better than this book ever could.

Ironically, I used some titles from 100 BOOKS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE lists to create this blog post. The bright side is that there were plenty of books on these lists that should be read before your dead. So, like I said, tongue is still firmly planted in cheek. But then again, I’d like to think I’ve saved you some time and space on your book shelves all the same. And hey, if there’s an afterlife, these books would definitely work as numbers 101, 102, 103, 104, and 105 on the list 200 BOOKS TO READ AFTER YOU’RE ALREADY DEAD. 


5 Times I Fell in Love with James Joyce

Okay, the title of this blog post should actually be “5 Times I Fell in Love with James Joyce and Was Also Sort Of Creeped Out By Him” but brevity is the soul of wit. So, I shortened the title (and it’s still not that funny.)

On June 15th of this year, we celebrated Dubliners’ (notice the lack of the “the”) centennial anniversary. That’s 100 brilliant years of Joyce’s collection of 15 short stories that express themes of loss, nationality, and awkward pubescence. I can talk about Joyce’s work rather nonchalantly now, but that’s because I’ve wedged some time between me and my undergraduate thesis. I dedicated a solid four months (when we had about eight months to write) to the small volume. In all, I wrote 22 pages about two stories from the collection, the first and the last. I was incredibly proud of what I had weaved and teased from the stories when I was finished with them, but I could not go near any of Joyce’s work after that.

But what was my initial attraction to JJ’s Dubliners? I had read the stories in high school, and they had influenced me. Probably not like other authors had, like Hemingway or Tim O’Brien. I enjoy books that have a bit more going on under the surface. But Joyce’s work seemed to pull back the veil on reality for me, if it did not also submerge me into his own version of things. He wrote people how they were and illustrated their dark underbellies. To this day, I can’t go to a funeral without thinking about Joyce’s The Dead. And so, unironically, Joyce haunted me throughout my literary career and my life.

But before I reiterate my entire thesis, let’s check out some interesting tidbits about the man who would come to openly hate and champion his own country and who would become one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

#5-He Really, Really Loved His Wife

Joyce loved Nora Barnacle (what a name!) but like most writers he suffered from a debilitating sense of negative self-worth. As a result, he was an incredibly protective and jealous husband. So, why did Barnacle keep him around? It might have to do with these very NSFW (not safe for work) love letters he wrote for her. Read at your own risk. Remember, somethings can’t be unseen or unread. For whatever reason, this makes me love him more. Not that I want to be the object of his rather explicit affection, I just like a person who says what they mean. Especially when a writer who can do that.

#4-Joyce Was Very Persistent

While every writer experiences some sort of rejection, Joyce seemed to have enjoyed a fair amount of it in comparison. Dubliners was submitted a total of 18 times to 15 different publishers (!!!). Mostly, the publishers believed his work to be too obscene. Joyce tried to stand up for himself by asserting his poetic license, but many of the publishers would not budge, even when he omitted several of the offensive instances in question. MentalFloss does Joyce’s publishing journey justice. In the end, Joyce was able to preserve the integrity of his work. And for that, we cannot fault him, but we can celebrate him.

#3-His Last Words Were Rather Profound

Now, this is a little unfair. All last words are profound because they are the last things you ever say. If you don’t show emotional depth and insight on your death bed, then where will you? However, Joyce’s final question, “Does nobody understand?” seems to accurately capture his entire life. I think he was an incredibly troubled man, and he used his writing to help people comprehend. Not him, per se, I don’t think he wanted to be put under a microscope, and I don’t think he was asking if anyone understood him in that really annoying, cliched teenager sense. But rather, he wanted people to acknowledge their own follies and shortcomings, as individuals and as a population. Not exactly the person you’d invite to a party, but not everyone can be charming. Actually, it’s what I love most about Joyce. He was what he was, and he was absolutely unapologetic for it.

#2-He Asked Hemingway to Beat People Up for Him

One account of Joyce recalls the fact he would pick fights at bars, and Hemingway would finish them. Due to his frail frame and his rather bookish personality, Joyce was hardly the one to initiate violence, but that doesn’t mean he would keep his mouth shut. You would think that this would make me dislike Joyce because he seems to be fearless in every other aspect of his life. But for me, this fact gives him a bit of dimension. Like most writers, he wasn’t the hero of his own life, but unlike most writers, he didn’t seek to write books with main characters bearing similarities to himself but with much bigger brawn and a lot more ladies circling. Joyce saw things as they were. And if he saw that you had about 3 inches on him, he would call Hemingway over for the intimidation factor.

#1-And He Once Said This, “Your battles inspired me–not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead.” 

We are all our biggest enemies, and history tells us it was no different for Joyce. This quote speaks to the man he was, valuing intelligence over sheer might, but I think it also represents what kind of man he was when no one else was looking. He was troubled, but tender. In this quote, we can all relate, and we can recognize that we all have a little bit of Joyce inside of us, staring out.

There you have it. The reasons I completely adore James Joyce but sort of abhor his behavior. He wasn’t a particularly kind man, but he was a character. In life, sometimes the best thing you can have is a bit of personality and some quirks. I’m not saying he wasn’t a troublemaker, I’m just saying he’s my troublemaker. Cheers, JJ.