There are many lists of things to do and places to see before a person dies. There’s even a literary “bucket list.” Peter Boxall, a professor of English literature at the University of Sussex, put together a list of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which includes critics’ commentaries from around the world.
Reading 1,001 books could be impossible, especially considering to the fact that one in four people didn’t a read a single book in 2006, according to a poll by the Associated Press-Ipsos. The Oracle staff went through the list and picked out the best, the ones that should be avoided at all costs and the ones that should have been included but weren’t.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby takes its readers back to New York’s roaring ’20s, where the place to party on a Saturday night is Jay Gatsby’s manor. As rich as he is mysterious, Gatsby is driven by his obsession to win the affections of Daisy Buchanan, a married friend of his, and uses whatever means necessary. The characters are interwoven well, some by lies and deceit, others by good intentions.
This book takes an interesting look at the consequences of the choices its characters make. Fitzgerald gives his readers beautiful scenes and poignant allegories. Though it’s slow moving at first, once the action picks up it carries the anxious reader to the bittersweet end. —Emma Sylvester
Animal Farm by George Orwell
George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one of the most important political novels of all time. Beneath the veneer of adorable farm animals speaking English, Animal Farm analyzes the ideas of revolution, government and corruption. Based loosely on the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Orwell’s writing shows that power corrupts and good intentions sour when a small group of people is placed in charge of the masses.
Though specifically targeted at the corruption of socialist ideals, the teachings in Animal Farm can be applied to all governmental systems. It is certain that tyranny will always remain a danger to the world, so one can be sure that Animal Farm will remain a timeless classic. — Matt Ferrara
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities follows the Manette family and company as they become personally involved in and affected by the French Revolution. The story interprets the aspects of the revolution in terms of the aristocracy’s indifference toward the peasantry but does not justify the bloodlust of the revolution.
A Tale of Two Cities is brimming with symbolism. Readers who enjoy finding deeper meanings in novels will not be short of features to examine in the text. Even those who rarely look past superficial meanings can appreciate the intriguing plot that encompasses moments of provocative scenes before and during the revolution. — Matthew Gum
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Written in 1968, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a short book that follows the life of bounty hunter Rick Deckard in the year 1992. The movie Blade Runner is loosely based on this book.
Deckard’s job is to “retire,” or kill, androids that have illegally emigrated to Earth. But their human appearances lead Deckard to have doubts about his job’s necessity as well as his ability to continue it.
The novel presents Philip K. Dick’s examination of what constitutes a human being and morality as it relates to how we treat humanity and inhumanity.
Focusing more on philosophical content than action, the book is well worth the read for those looking to inspect their own concepts of morality. — Matthew Gum
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess’ classic A Clockwork Orange is one of the stranger and more disturbing books in the literary world. Alex, a young, unorthodox and sadistic character, narrates the book as he leads his “droogs”— or friends — through multiple violent and sexual escapades. He later faces the consequences from a very harsh society.
The beauty of this novel rests not only in its moralistic story line but in its language. Most of the words in the book are unique — created with a mix of different languages, mostly Russian. This forces the reader to interpret insinuated meanings and demands the highest level of reading comprehension.
A Clockwork Orange is remarkably innovative. Be sure to buy or borrow a version of the book that includes the alternative ending. It gives the novel a whole new meaning and will make the reader wonder why it was ever left out. — Emily Handy
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
David Copperfield is after all, it was Dickens’ personal favorite, according to the preface of the 1867 edition.
Most readers make the mistake of trying to read the whole book at once, but it is best read as it was originally published. The 56 chapters of the novel that take the reader through the personal history and adventures of the fictional title character were originally published in monthly installments, like a modern-day sitcom.
David Copperfield is a coming-of-age story that is somewhat biographical of Dickens’ own life. — Robin Roup
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is the prequel to the Lord of the Rings trilogy novels. It tells the story of how Bilbo Baggins, Frodo’s uncle, comes to discover his magical ring. Bilbo and Gandalf, the wizard who guides him, join 13 dwarves in their quest to battle a dragon and take back their stolen treasure. The dysfunctional company repeatedly gets itselves into sticky situations with goblins, evil wolves, great eagles, giant spiders and humans. Though those situations sound exciting, the book is actually slow-paced, and the parade of characters is confusing. — Amanda Moore
Billy Budd by Herman Melville
It takes a gift to be able to read Herman Melville and stay awake. Of all the books in the world, there have to be at least 100 worthier choices for Billy Budd’s slot. Though it is shorter than Melville’s more daunting work, Moby Dick, it rambles on just as badly. For half the novel Melville seems to have run out of things to talk about and instead addresses topics hardly related to the storyline.
While it’s said to be a number of impressive things — a religious allegory or the first novel with homosexual undertones — it’s hard to care because it is so tedious and futile. — Emily Handy
Candide by Voltaire
The philosophical tale by the Enlightenment thinker Voltaire is no doubt a classic, but it should not be part of the list. The story is about a young man named Candide who is optimistic to the point of stupidity. He is one of the book’s one-dimensional characters who never develops or grows.
Candide is a satire that requires knowledge of the time period, including the Seven Years’ War and the culture of many different countries in France. Without this prior knowledge, the reader may feel just as stupid as the character sounds. — Candace Kaw
The Should-Have-Been Selections
The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling’s best-selling series is a perfect example of books that do not need to be old to be significant. The enchanting books about a boy wizard tell the timeless tale of the battle between good and evil.
They were written for a juvenile audience but captured the hearts of all ages and got practically everyone in the world reading. The seven books redeemed a generation that was slowly losing interest in reading.
Any book with such widespread adoration and skyrocketing sales — almost all the series’ installments broke sales records, and book seven sold 1.8 million copies in two days, according to the Associated Press — obviously holds some literary charm, if only the ability to bring out the child in everyone.
The characters, though wizards, are easily relatable, and so is the world in which they live. This series left readers positive that while “muggles” cannot see it, Rowling’s magical world certainly exists. — Emily Handy
Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Children’s and Household Tales) by The Brothers Grimm
Children today are familiar with the sugar-coated versions of classics like Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel, but the Grimm Brothers’ original collection of stories were dark and written for adults. Over time, the fairy tales’ twisted outcomes were altered to better fit a younger audience and the anthology grew until its last edition, when it totaled 209 fairy tales and 10 religious moral stories for children.
Though it’s a collection rather than a single novel, it’s a classic that needs to be read. It provides an amusing glimpse — rather than a historical one — into the lives and morals of the German people.
Literary blather aside, the stories are just entertaining. This collection has the original prince, princess and happily ever after. — Emily Handy
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
This German novel didn’t make the list, but it should have. It is the dark tale of Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman who wakes up one day transformed into a monstrous vermin, presumably a giant cockroach. His condition does not surprise his family, who only grows to despise him even more, as his condition makes him a burden.
Within the darkness, Kafka injects doses of comedy, such as Gregor’s fascination with his new abilities as an insect. This 1915 commentary on isolation, the absurdity of the human condition and society’s treatment of those who are different is a quick, fascinating read that should be on everyone’s list. — Robin Roup