Books to Read Before You Die
By Jay Parini
I’m a lover of books, great ones and not-so-great ones. And I also love lists. So it didn’t surprise me when Amazon recently came out with its 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.
I was, however, more than a little shocked by the list, which crudely mixes categories, putting in a few classics, such as George Orwell’s “1984” and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” alongside “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain, “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis, and “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn. Really?
And do you think “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle should sit on the shelf of must-reads-before-dying with “Pride and Prejudice,” the great masterpiece by Jane Austen?
In the novel category, should one read Jacqueline Suzann’s truly terrible “Valley of the Dolls” instead of, say, Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” or — the greatest of all novels — “Middlemarch” by George Eliot?
For poetry, Amazon recommends Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” instead of the poems of Robert Frost or Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. For a great biography, we get Robert A. Caro’s admirable life of Robert Moses. But what about James Boswell’s “Life of Johnson,” arguably the finest biography ever published?
Certain books here are familiar to high school students, including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and “Catcher in the Rye.” I don’t myself like any of these much, if truth be told. One of my sons recently graduated from high school, and he complained that in the past six years he had been asked every single year to read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Surely there are other books about race relations in the American South?
I also wonder about including so many recent popular novels, such as Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” or “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz or, even more puzzling, “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt. These books made a splash, and continue to find readers, but any one of a dozen or more books could have been substituted for these, and the books in this category would certainly change with the decades. In the ’20s, everyone thought you should read “Java Head” by Joseph Hergesheimer. In the ’30s, you would have been asked to read “Seven Who Fled” by Frederic Prokosch.
I liked certain choices here, however: Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is certainly the best book about Vietnam; more than that, it’s a dazzling work of art. John Irving’s “The World According to Garp” will always deserve readers, as will “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov.
But are these the 100 books you must read before you die or the 100 books Amazon will probably sell you before you die? The latter, I think.
If you’re going to die soon, I suggest reading “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, which didn’t make Amazon’s list. It’s a sublime work of literature, a better memoir than any of the memoirs included here. And read “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” before you read “The Liars’ Club” by Mary Carr or “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. The latter are fine books, but they should not crowd out Thoreau or Franklin.
It’s sad to see that Shakespeare and Tolstoy don’t make the Amazon list. Nor do John Updike or Saul Bellow or Mark Twain. I’d say that only about a third of the books on Amazon’s list are in any way essential reading. Buy these books, if you must. And die, if you must. But if you want to know what books you should really read before you die, look elsewhere.