>10 Books to Read Before You Die?
>Am I allowed to digress into a non-theological blog from time to time? I believe that I am, so that settles it.
Today on the AOL welcome screen, one of the headlines was “Books to Read Before You Die: 10 You Shouldn’t Miss.” I, of course, took the bait and wanted to see just what books were recommended, and now I present them to you:
1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
3. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
4. The Stand by Stephen King
5. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
7. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
8. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
9. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
10. The Holy Bible
To put it bluntly, this is not a good list of ten books you must read before you die. Of course I agree with the inclusion of the Bible in this list, as any person religious or not would have to. It is the best-selling book of all time and has had more impact on the world than any other. It is also the very word of God. That belongs on there.
The Lord of the Rings is a fantastic book series, one of my favorites, and arguably belongs on the list, but that could be my own bias coming through. It did jumpstart the fantasy genre of books in a time when most fiction aimed at realism, and that is a very good thing, but it may not have yet withstood the test of time.
To Kill a Mockingbird is also a fantastic read, and it is not hard to understand its inclusion in the list. The same goes for Catcher in the Rye, Atlas Shrugged, and Gone With the Wind (I’ve never read Atlas Shrugged or Gone With the Wind and did not like Catcher in the Rye but I know enough of the literary world to understand that they are truly considered great literature). A case can be made for these four books, although they are of course debatable members of such a list.
The remaining books: Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, and The Stand are a different case altogether. They are all probably enjoyable and entertaining reads, I know. Perhaps they are more than just entertaining too (although I fundamentally disagree with their theological implications), but do they really belong on the list of ten books to read before you die? Not one of them has been given the chance to withstand the test of time, the most effective way to judge whether or not a book is strictly bound to its own time period, to a particular zeitgeist, to a fad or a trend.
It is also worth noting that every one of these books (with the exception of the Bible) was written within the last one-hundred years in English. Now, it is possible that nine of the ten most important books for you to read before dying were all written in the last hundred years in the English language (and seven of those nine in the United States), but drawing such a conclusion seems improbable at best and culturally and chronologically bound at worst. I understand that the production of this list was probably a last minute assignment, given to an already over-loaded writer at the last minute, but this hints that perhaps the books read by the average American are neither as wide nor as deep as we might hope.
Let us consider for a moment other writers and works that might have been given consideration (admittedly, this contains too high of a percentage of English and recent works, showing that I am part of the problem too):
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer
Jane Austen’s Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility
G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov
William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying
Albert Camus’ The Stranger and The Plague
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica
Dante’s Divine Comedy
Thomas More’s Utopia
Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels
Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote
Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey
Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis
Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling
John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
Clearly this is not anywhere close to an exhaustive list of possible inclusions in our top ten, and it has drawn almost entirely from the Western World, and I have not read all of these works but the point is made. If we want to become better and more thoughtful people, we must read more works written by those who inhabited other time periods, places, and cultures. As an American in the twenty-first century, there are many biases that I unwittingly hold in common with other Americans and Westerners in general from the last hundred years, which can only be exposed by seeing the world through the eyes of writer’s in other contexts. We can also discover what we have right by seeing the mistakes made in other cultures and eras. To end on a theological note as an example, my view of what the Church is supposed to look like is primarily informed by my geographical and chronological context, which is fine and has been the case for all people throughout time. It is likely, though, that some of the thought of my particular time period is mistaken and ungodly, and I can learn from the wisdom of the past to avoid some of mistakes of the present. Innovation is great, but wisdom requires that we couple it with tradition.
For those of you who have read this far, what books do you think belong on a ten-book list to read before dying? Can you make a case for some that I felt did not belong?