Skip to main content

Books to read before you die

By Jay Parini
updated 7:33 AM EST, Tue February 11, 2014
'1984' by George Orwell '1984' by George Orwell
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 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT