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World Book Day: 25 Books To Read Before You Die 2006-03-02

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Humanities, List.

Today is ‘World Book Day’, and how better to mark it than to read something you’ve always meant to but never got round to?

Here we select 25 titles from ‘1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die’:

  1. The Secret Agent
    Author: Joseph Conrad
    First Serialised: 1906
    First published: 1907
    The Secret Agent tells of subversive politics, crime and detection. The setting is late Victorian London. In the parlour of Adolf Verloc’s seedy shop in Soho, a grotesque band of revolutionaries meets to pursue futile political arguments. Verloc obtains a bomb from the diminutive ‘Professor’ and directs his mentally immature brother-in-law, Stevie, to plant it. However, this ill-measured move sparks a series of tragic events, as the story advances towards its conclusion. Particularly relevant to present times is its anticipation of the era of the suicide bomber.
  2. The Thousand and One Nights
    Author: Anonymous
    First published: circa 850
    King Shahryar is in the unseemly habit of deflowering and killing virgins on a nightly basis, and The Nights opens with Sheherazade lining up to be the king’s next victim. Determined not to meet with such a fate, Sheherazade contrives to tell the king stories. They prove so compelling he cannot bring himself to kill her. The stories are inhabited by a kind of insatiable desire, an open unfinishedness that keeps us reading and panting, eager for more, just as King Shahryar listens and pants.
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God
    Author: Zora Neale Hurston
    First published: 1937
    Brutal experiences of slavery prompt 16-year-old Janie’s grandmother to marry her off to a respectable man. Yet, Janie’s idealism leaves her feeling unfulfilled, and she abandons her emotionally stingy husband for Joe, a dreamer with whom she heads south to build a thriving, all-black town out of little more than ambition and some roadside land. Hurston was the mayor’s daughter in America’s first incorporated black town, so her social and political experience of African-American autonomy afforded a unique perspective on race.
  4. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
    Author: Anne Bronte
    First published: 1848
    A sensational story of alcoholism and domestic abuse, ‘The Tenant of WiIdfell Hall’ scandalised reviewers on its publication. It is a powerful portrayal of a young woman’s marriage to a Regency rake, her struggle to reform him and her flight in order to protect their son against his father’s corruption. Told largely from Helen Huntingdon’s point of view, through letters and journals, the novel recounts an abusive relationship at a time in British history when married women had few legal rights.
  5. Ulysses
    Author: James Joyce
    First published: 1922
    One of the most extraordinary works of literature in English. It explores the adventures of two characters, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, over the course of a single day in Dublin. But this is merely a peg on which to hang all manner of streams-of-consciousness — on topics ranging from such generalities as life, death and sex to the contemporary state of Irish nationalism. It opened a whole new way of writing fiction, which recognised that the moral rules by which we try to govern our lives are constantly at the mercy of accident and the by-roads of the mind.
  6. Unless
    Author: Carol Shields
    First published: 2002
    Against the relatively comfortable background of a stable marriage and buoyant career writing popular fiction, Reta Winters’ eldest daughter, Norah, disappears from her university to join the outcasts on Toronto’s streets. The novel traces Reta’s quest to retain coherence as she negotiates between the shattering aftermath of her daughter’s choice and her commitments as wife, mother, writer and friend. Throughout this dual-pronged narrative, Shields shows her singular ability to ambush the most ordinary experiences with verbal economy and suppleness, caressing without sentimentalising everyday events of personal introspection.
  7. Vanity Fair
    Author: William Makepeace Thackeray
    First published: 1847
    Set in the Regency period, ‘Vanity Fair’ explores the limits of that historical world. Becky Sharp is central to this; a constantly calculating adventuress who, devoid of sentimentality, is the perfect mistress of a society in which everything is for sale and nothing possesses lasting value. She makes her way through a hollow world, with the battle of Waterloo at its centre, diagnosing the hypocrisies she exploits, and acting as a foil to illuminate the few moments of generosity in evidence.
  8. Vile Bodies
    Author: Evelyn Waugh
    First published: 1930
    Adam Fenwick-Symes is one of the Bright Young People, though on the periphery of the set. In a whirl of parties — in hotels, houses, a zeppelin, Number Ten Downing Street — Adam and his fiancée Nina Blount find their fortunes constantly in flux. Adam is given money then loses it, gets a job as a gossip columnist then loses it; and their engagement is on or off accordingly. The ‘transition from gaiety to bitterness’, which Waugh notes in his preface — the result of his wife leaving him — is an apt epithet for a novel that brilliantly and hilariously effects the volatile times in which it was written.
  9. The War of the Worlds
    Author: HG Wells
    First published: 1898
    Like so much of HG Wells’s work, ‘The War of the Worlds’ introduces a theme that found countless imitations. Perhaps the most well-known was Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of 1938 — the transmission of which provoked panic in America. The plot is simple: a strange canister lands on Horsell Common. The alien inside is malevolent, destroying all with its ‘heat ray’. Humanity is powerless and the Martians easily seize control. The grandeur of Wells’s vision suggests humanity’s inherent fallibility.
  10. Wide Sargasso Sea
    Author: Jean Rhys
    First published: 1966
    ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is Jean Rhys’s literary response to Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel ‘Jane Eyre’. Rhys takes as her starting point Brontë’s animalistic, sexualised depiction of Bertha Mason, Edward Rochester’s insane first wife. In rewriting this literary classic, Rhys allows Antoinette to speak (Bertha is revealed as Rochester’s imposed name for his wife) and also explores the uneven desires and fears that have dominated relationships between the Caribbean and Europe. Rhys sets the events in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ against slavery’s ending in the Caribbean and positions Antoinette between the black and European communities.
  11. Brave New World
    Author: Aldous Huxley
    First published: 1932
    Huxley’s futuristic dystopia is one in which state power has grafted itself so thoroughly to the psyche of its citizens that exploitation and fulfilment seem irredeemably blurred. The World State’s professed ideal of social stability has been achieved through the proliferation of consumption and a myriad sophisticated technologies. For the childlike denizens of ‘Brave New World’, order is an end in itself. Their conviction that they have been successful in achieving the fullest expression of human aspiration should give contemporary readers a deep shudder of recognition.
  12. Camilla
    Author: Fanny Burney
    First published: 1796
    The full title of this novel is ‘Camilla or A Picture of Youth’ and this is precisely what Burney gives us. It tells the story of a lively and spirited young girl’s entry into the world and of her eventual coming of age. Camilla’s story and those of her sisters — the beautiful Lavinia and the angelic, though disfigured and scarred, Eugenia — display the ideals, temptations, loves, doubts, and jealousies that inform and trouble the passage from youth to adulthood. Burney’s characters, especially the women, are realistic, enabling the reader to easily be drawn in to their joys, sorrows, and concerns.
  13. Diary of a Nobody
    Authors: George and Weedon Grossmith
    First published: 1892
    One of the great English comic novels, ‘Diary of a Nobody’ bridges the world of Dickens and that of Waugh and Wodehouse. Strait-laced London clerk Charles Pooter records his daily life, both in the office and at home: a life involving insolent employees, his long-suffering wife Carrie, and the serial amours of his son. With a surreally funny style, Pooter is a supreme example of anxious Englishness, Bridget Jones and Basil Fawlty might not have existed without him.
  14. Frankenstein
    Author: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
    First published: 1818
    The Swiss scientist and philosopher Victor Frankenstein is inspired by occult philosophy to create a human-like brute, and give it life. The idea of reanimation is at the heart of much modern horror — the attempted violation of chaotic natural order in favour of linear certainty is something that modern society takes for granted, from the construction of unnatural environments to attempts to postpone death and decline. It is a novel that addresses such concerns from a point in history where these developments could only be imagined, yet it remains a part of the culture it examines and foresees.
  15. Ivanhoe
    Author: Sir Walter Scott
    First published: 1820
    ‘Ivanhoe’ details the political and cultural enmity between the subjugated Saxons and their Norman overlords during the reign of Richard the Lionheart in the 12th century. Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a Saxon knight, returns from the Crusades to assist Richard in recovering his throne from usurping Prince John. As a sustained examination of the political, chivalric, and romantic practices of old, this not only galvanised for a number of later writers and readers impressions of the medieval past but pioneered the genre of the historical novel.
  16. Lucky Jim
    Author: Kingsley Amis
    First published: 1953
    ‘Lucky Jim’ is iconoclastic, satirical, disrespectful of the norms of conservative society, and very funny. It tells the story of Jim Dixon, a mediocre but sharp-witted assistant lecturer at an uninspiring provincial university, who realises he has made a terrible career choice, that medieval history is dull and that he cannot stand the awful pretensions he encounters, both at his institution and in the grim town where he lives. It’s a story of frustrated ambition and talent, exposing England as a drab wilderness ruled and run by colourless charlatans.
  17. Never Let Me Go
    Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
    First published: 2005
    In the English countryside, a number of special institutions have been secretly set up in the later 20th century to raise and educate young people whose destiny, unsuspected during the innocent years of childhood, is to be sacrificed for the collective good. Its compelling narrative metaphors make us think in new ways about mortality, individuality and social democracy. The book’s questions are about the life we lead. What is the purpose of fostering the creative imagination of beings whose fate is to live for a while and then die?
  18. Persuasion
    Author: Jane Austen
    First published: 1818
    The last book Austen was to complete, ‘Persuasion’, is about second chances, and the triumph of true love over social obstacles, snobbishness, and other people’s selfish concerns. Anne Elliot missed her opportunity for romantic fulfilment, having at 19 been persuaded by her mentor, Lady Russell, against marrying Captain Wentworth on the grounds of his impecunity and poor prospects. Now older and capable of judging for herself, she is thrown once more into his company. The novel conveys, with great intensity, her heightened consciousness in his presence, and her alert charting of the signs of his reawakening love for her.
  19. The Crow Road
    Author: Iain Banks
    First published 1992
    Iain Banks’s ‘The Crow Road’ begins with one of the most memorable lines in modern literature: ‘It was the day my grandmother exploded.’ This is the voice of Prentice McHoan, the middle son of an affluent Scottish family, whose narrative forms the greater part of the book, while the rest is a kind of saga of the McHoan, Wart, and Urvill families. As a university student, Prentice finds himself drawn home as the mystery of Uncle Rory’s fate takes hold , but he makes for a fallible detective. ‘The Crow Road’ is a novel about death: desire in relation to death, the body in life and death, and the exhuming of buried secrets.
  20. The Quiet American
    Author: Graham Greene
    First published: 1955
    Set in Vietnam during the early 1950s, this recounts the conflict between Fowler, the jaded English journalist, and Pyle, the idealistic American spy, for the affections of Phuong, a young Vietnamese woman anxious for a Western husband. Pyle is young and wealthy and offers the promise of financial security, whereas Fowler is old and jaded, offering only the prospects of a continuing and unsatisfactory informal union. For these reasons, the book has most frequently been read as being both prophetic and critical of the roles of America and the former colonial powers in the Vietnam War.
  21. A Boy’s Own Story
    Author: Edmund White
    First published: 1982
    ‘A Boy’s Own Story’ is a coming-out novel significant not only for its timing, being one of the first, but also for its frank portrayal of a young teenager’s anxious self-conception, growing up gay in 1950s America. Based to some extent on White’s own story, the narrator is eccentric and slightly creepy. A quintessential tale of teenage angst and self-discovery. The boy undergoes psycho-analysis in an attempt to cure his urges. White lyrically evokes a poignant longing for love and highlights the disorientating lack of romantic narratives for gay people.
  22. A Farewell To Arms
    Author: Ernest Hemingway
    First published: 1929
    ‘A Farewell to Arms’ is set in Italy and Switzerland during the First World War. The unadorned style of Hemingway’s narrator Frederic Henry provides a realistic and unromanticised account of war on the Italian front. It established Hemingway as a successful writer and also as a spokesman of ‘The Lost Generation’, a group of American intellectuals (Ezra Pound, F Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein) who lived in Paris in the 1920s and 30s and whose outlook — shaped by the experience of the First World War — was cynical and pessimistic.
  23. A Prayer for Owen Meany
    Author: John Irving
    First published: 1989
    In Toronto in 1987, a past-obsessed John Wheelwright narrates the story of his early life, remembering the time he spent during the 1960s and 70s with his friend, Owen Meany. He remembers Owen as a luminous-skinned dwarf, whose underdeveloped vocal chords shaped the sound of his nasal voice and led him to bear the brunt of many cruel pranks. He also remembers Owen as the person who managed to accidentally kill his mother. The main theme of the book is the relationship between faith and doubt in the world.
  24. Aesop’s Fables
    Author: Aesopus
    First edition: 4BC
    First published: circa 1475
    What we know as ‘Aesop’s Fables’ is a body of work from a huge variety of sources. Among the earliest recorded narratives, these stories have become embedded in the Western psyche, like the stories of Oedipus and Narcissus. Who isn’t familiar, for example, with the story of ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’? As well as stories about animals, ‘Aesop’s Fables’ contains tales about everyday people. Without Aesop, Kafka’s ‘The Metamorphosis’ would be inconceivable and Orwell would never have written ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.
  25. Oroonoko
    Author: Aphra Behn
    First published: 1688
    Oroonoko is a noble warrior-prince, the grandson of the king, with whom he clashes over the beautiful Imoinda, Oroonoko’s lover and the object of the king’s jealous and impotent affections. The king sells Imoinda as a slave while Oroonoko is betrayed into slavery. Behn’s story gives a uniquely participatory role to the narrator, who is not only an ‘eyewitness’ but also refers to herself as an ‘actor’ in the story. Exotic romance mixes with an acute account of the slave trade, and the relations between Carib Indians, English plantation owners, slaves and the Dutch.


1. Karman - 2010-02-04

Thank Allah, it could have been worse. it could have included some awlful religious texts.

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