Skip to main content

Books to read before you die

By Jay Parini
updated 7:33 AM EST, Tue February 11, 2014
'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee
HIDE CAPTION
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
Amazon's 100 best list
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
87
88
89
90
91
92
93
94
95
96
97
98
99
100
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amazon recently came out with its "100 Books to Read in a Lifetime"
  • Jay Parini: I was more than a little shocked by the list, which crudely mixes categories
  • If you're going to die soon, he suggests reading "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau
  • Parini: Only about a third of the books on the Amazon list are in any way must-reads

Editor's note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He has just published "Jesus: the Human Face of God," a biography of Jesus.

(CNN) -- 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?

Jay Parini
Jay Parini

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jay Parini.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT