Books You Must Read Before You Die

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When you think about what books people should read before they die, you probably think of the ones that you count among your very top favourites. Maybe you know a particularly good Stephen King story that never fails to give you a chill, or maybe you still get a lump in your throat when you remember that John Green novel and what it was like to shut the cover on that final page.

Indeed, when I started to put together my list of books you have to read before you die, I was similarly minded: I just jumped to the novels I knew would have an immediate impact on the reader. But pretty soon after I realised that making a list like this is basically a way of talking about what’s important in life, so, as much as I want everybody on the planet to read the deliciously disturbing Piercing by Ryu Murakami, I figured it isn’t exactly a book that would have a lot of significance as you ponder over the point of your existence at the end of it all.

In such a case, I had to ask, what do I think is important in life and how can I compile it into a top-five list of books for people to argue over on the internet? Well, I suppose the answer to that was baked into question. Since it’s a top-five list, I decided to choose five categories of experience and wisdom that I figure a person should explore before they die, then assign an appropriate book to each of those categories. That is to say, in my search for an enticing essay subject, I think I’ve figured out the meaning of life, the universe and everything in it and you can too just by sitting through the 8-minute length of this book recommendation video

A Book About Love: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The first idea I landed on when I tried to figure out what’s important in life was that it probably had to be something universal, which quickly led me to the idea of love, and how pretty much everybody on the planet is concerned with it, whether they’ve had enough of it or not. And when it comes to talking about love, one book has stayed at the top of my list thus far.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is ostensibly about the unrequited love experienced by a man over the course of his life, but I think that’s a fairly two-dimensional description for such an extraordinary book, not least of all because it explores so much more than his relationship with the woman of his affection. It’s no exaggeration to say that almost every type of romantic love is covered as the narrative weaves in and out of the lives of the cast of characters that populate the story. Jealous, passionate, transactional, altruistic, convenient, tender and downright cold-blooded love affairs are all given their due. I think that what makes it a book you should read before you die is that you’ll probably walk away from the thing with a new eye for the people that surround you in the course of your day to day routine. Every single one of them has pined for, ached for or given themself over to another human being, and in spite of whatever pain the whole mess of a sensation has sometimes caused, that’s probably one of the most beautiful things you could ever imagine.
Admittedly, when I say that the book explores almost every type of love, it does leave out a couple of notable examples. I don’t remember there being any same-sex relationships covered in the text, and, as I said, it mostly just concentrates on romantic love, which leaves a pretty large gap in the familial, paternal and platonic departments. If you have a recommendation that covers all that, drop it in the comments below. In the meantime, I’d say Love in the Time of Cholera will illuminate your understanding on about eighty per cent of every type of love you possibly think of while also being an utterly sublime example of writerly craft, to the extent that I’ll probably make an entire video to talk about just that someday.

A Book About Empathy: Cathedral by Raymond Carver

As important as love can be in anybody’s life, I think it can also become a pretty selfish motivation after a certain point, at least if you’re only thinking about it in terms of how it can benefit yourself and those in your immediate vicinity. To balance this out I figure you need to develop a strong sense of empathy as well as an appreciation for the nuances that make up the insanely complex network of peoples that make up our world. For this reason, I can’t think of a better genre for the task than literary fiction, which has been scientifically proven to expand a person’s sense of empathy for their fellow man. And on that front, Cathedral, the short story collection of Raymond Carver is a particularly easy book for me to include.

I’ll be honest, I was in my early 20’s when I first read Cathedral and if you saw my video on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, then you might recall that I wasn’t the most emotionally aware guy at the time. I remember liking Cathedral, but didn’t really feel like Carver was saying anything all that meaningful. As a matter of fact, it just seemed to be about a bunch of boring suburban couples going about their daily business, dealing with a petty misunderstanding on occasion and sometimes coming to the conclusion that their initial impressions about a person or event were wrong. But, as with most good literary books I’ve come to love over the years, the point of it was more something to brood over than to be outright told. Cathedral contains twelve short stories which all kind of feel like they cover minor happenings, but it’s these minor happenings in life that often hint at the profound. 

If you want a quick example of what I mean, do some Googling and see if you can find a place to read the title story, Cathedral, which explores the discomfort a husband experiences when his wife’s blind friend comes to spend the night in his home and relates to you the life-changing epiphany he experiences by interacting with the man. If you end up thinking it’s as superficial as I once did, maybe let it brew for a while. It might be an incident in your own life that will make you think back on the story and help you realise you’ve experienced something you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to put into words. That is to say, great literary fiction is rarely supposed to act as an instructional manual on how to live your life, but something more akin to a zen koan that enables you to see things from a different angle when the right time comes.

A Book About Adventure: The White Rock – An Exploration of the Inca Heartland by Hugh Thomson

Of course, as important as a bit of love and some emotional awareness is in your life, so is some good old fashioned adventure. For my part, I can say that if I were to make it to 85-years old only to look back and realise I played it safe the whole way I’d be fairly disappointed, because really, what’s the point of having a life if you aren’t going to do something exciting with it? There are a ton of books that can motivate you to take more chances in whatever endeavour you choose. In fact, of all the categories on this list, I actually had the hardest time just picking one adventurous tale to include. So to make things easy, I just went back to one of the earliest examples of a book that inspired me to put myself out there.

The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland is a non-fiction biographical account of Hugh Thomson’s exploration of, you guessed it, the Inca heartland. The book does about what you’d expect on many fronts. For starters, it gives you a fairly light history of the Inca people as we understand them today, as well as a feel for what it’s like to explore the mountainous forests where they made their home. However, while you might be picturing a handsome nineteen-thirties style of jungle explorer along the lines of Indiana Jones or Nigel Thornberry, you might be surprised to learn that Hugh Thomson was basically just a normal guy in the early two-thousands who was working in a pub when he and his friends landed on the idea of travelling to Peru to search for some cities that were supposedly lost. Thomson and his buddies didn’t have any qualifications. I think the most they did to prepare for the quixotic quest was take a first aid course. Nonetheless, they managed to blag some funding by requesting grants from a couple of British universities that none of them were actually attending, and, most surprisingly of all, then went on to find the ruins of an extraordinarily well preserved site of Inca civilisation.

I’m not sure if this book needs any more explanation as to why you should read it before you die, so in short I’ll say it’s just mind-blowing to me that such a naive and hopelessly optimistic plan can come up with such incredible results, which I think should act as a potent reminder for you to think outside the box when making your own life plans.

A Book That Puts Things in Context: Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Regardless of whatever it is you do decide to do with the rest of your life, the older I get, the more I feel how enriched it becomes when you’re aware of your place within the grand scheme of things. By that I mean, you should know what’s happening in the world today, where it is we’re going as a species, and just as importantly, where we’ve been.

Wild Swans by Jung Chang, for example, might not exactly cover an era of history that’s directly affected my side of the world. It being a memoir that covers the lives of Jung Chang’s grandmother, her mother, and herself over the course of about one-hundred years in Chinese history, you learn about the growth of the Chinese Communist Party and the horrors that were committed as its grip tightened on the countries that fell under its control. But I’d argue that the lessons it holds are far more universal than you might think, and not just because the growth of China as an economic power will continue to influence how world events unfold. At its core, Chang’s book is a personal story as much as it is a factual record that sees the lives of her loved ones intertwined with the broad sweeps of history. It’s a biography that makes you appreciate just how much your own life is influenced by the political and social forces of our time, while also reminding you that the people who got chewed up and spat out in the turbulent days of yesteryear were more than just data points in an historical record, which is probably one of the most important revelations you can have, in that, even if you already know it on an intellectual level, it’s an extraordinary experience to go through on an emotional one. 

As an aside, I’ll just quickly mention one particular episode from Wild Swans that’s remained a harrowing memory for me over the years, which is a funny thing to say, given that I didn’t experience the event myself. In it, a young Chang is travelling across the country on a pilgrimage to pay her respects to Chairman Mao. At this stage of the country’s development, famine and poverty were still a major fact of the Communist party’s rule, which makes it all the worse when Chang has her wallet stolen. Incredibly though, the boy who stole the wallet noticed Chang crying on the train station platform and chose to return the money instead, which for me is a turn of events that speaks to just about everything terrible and inspiring I’ve learned about the human condition thus far.

A Book About Self-Knowledge: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

After zooming out for a cinemascope view of humanity, it’s probably worthwhile considering your internal life once again. You know, if you think about it, there isn’t anybody else on the planet you’ll spend more time with. You’re born with yourself, live with yourself, go to the bathroom with yourself, share all of your worst moments with yourself, and of course, inevitably die with yourself. So isn’t it incredibly sad to think that a lot of people probably stumble along to their final destinations without actually getting to know themselves? 

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin is supposedly a book for young adults, in that, its creation was the result of a publisher asking Le Guin to write a fantasy book for younger readers way back in1960s. As many a writer will tell you, the trick in creating a story for children is to not talk down to them, but, to be honest, I often wonder if most young adult authors have actually taken that advice on board. Not so in the case of Le Guin, who I sincerely believe wrote one of the most compelling coming of age stories ever told, and did it in a voice that I’ve grown to realise is more rewarding to experience as you get older even as it continues to entertain so many children around the world. In a nutshell, the book is about an egotistical wizard boy who has to come to terms with the danger of his own power. What the story teaches, I think, is that your inner life, and exterior one by extension, is doomed to become riddled with harmful neurosis if you haven’t figured out what it is that makes you tick and why you engage with your environment in the way that you do. I made a comment earlier about how too much focus on yourself can be a bad thing, but I suppose what it comes down to is the motivation for such a self-centred form of consideration, so to speak. If you approach your inward odyssey with the right mindset and don’t shy away from areas of your psyche that are otherwise best to ignore, you might find that it enlightens all of the areas of life I’ve mentioned in the previous sections of this essay, which obviously makes it a pretty damn easy book to recommend for people to read before they die. Now, whether or not you think of yourself as the type of person who’ll enjoy a story about magic, I’ll just warn you that the book gives back what you put in, meaning though its a short read, I reckon you should take your time with it and consider the words of wisdom Le Guin imparts a little bit at a time – there’s a lot more to it than other fantasy stories about wizard boys that you might have read.

All that said, what the heck do I know? I’ve got most of my life ahead of me and presumably a lot of books to come. If you can recommend one that I have to check out before I die then let me know in the comments below.  Or, if you’d like to know a little more about A Wizard of Earthsea and what makes it such a powerful story for our time, then you should check out my in-depth video analysis of it.

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Simon Fay

Simon Fay

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