Thursday, July 3, 2008


A recent article on America Online listed the “Ten Books You Must Read Before You Die”. The come-on implied that a life in which one had not digested these might tomes might just have well been unlived.

So, what books were listed?

In order, they were: Gone With The Wind; Tolkein’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy; all seven books in the Harry Potter series; Stephen King’s The Stand; two of Dan Brown’s books – The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand; Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye; and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (all three books, and presumably that weird Zaphod Beeblebrox short story that’s packaged in with them now).


First, and most obvious quibble – this is actually twenty books, not ten.

And, before you start labeling me a pointy-headed Eastern liberal (my head is actually more roundish than pointed), I can ride with Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, and Ayn Rand.

But, where is Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea? Where is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (in my estimation the one true great American novel)? Whither William Faulkner? What about Frank Norris’s epic tale of greed and western warfare The Octopus? Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage? Nowhere on this list.

We’re missing John Updike, John O’Hara, and Thomas Pynchon.

Have we completely forgotten Thomas Wolfe’s The Web and the Rock, You Can’t Go Home Again, and Look Homeward Angel?

Upton Sinclair was totally ignored, as were Leo Tolstoy, Fyodr Dostoyevsky, and Pushkin. One might imagine from this list that Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, and Owen Wister never even existed.

In the mystery genre, you could easily include duMaurier’s Rebecca; Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon; Chandler’s The Big Sleep; Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, and any of a number of works by Agatha Christie, however redundant many of them might be.

How can you include two books by Dan Brown, and not even one by Michael Chabon? For that matter, why would you include any books by Dan Brown?

Then, I took a closer look at the article, and realized that it was actually nothing but a huge advertisement for – you guessed it – Barnes and Noble! This wasn’t a true examination of groundbreaking literature. It was an attempt to sell a bunch of books, and make (at least) Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling even richer (as if they needed it). Sure, they tossed in a few ringers, but very few truly pivotal pieces of fiction.

How sad. It’s possible that Rowling’s work will endure, much the way that Madeline L’Engle’s has, but I have a hard time envisioning a world in which The DaVinci Code will be widely read twenty years from now.

The Stand is a fine book – I’ve read it at least twice, and parts of it more, but is it really better than The Shining? I mean, to the point that you absolutely must read it or face eternity with regrets? Tolkein, Rand, and Salinger have weathered the test of time, but no more perhaps than many of the authors I suggested above.

Want my "Ten Novels You Must Read Before You Die" list? Okay, here goes, in no particular order:

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

And (since Barns of Novels got to actually use twenty titles) honorable mention goes to:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
The Virginian, by Owen Wister
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London
The Octopus, by Frank Norris
Appointment in Samarra, by John O’Hara
The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham
Dune, by Frank Herbert

I probably could have put many more on the list, but I didn’t make the rules.

So, how about you? Which novels would be on your list for Mandatory Life Reading?

Gotta go. Things to do…


Stuart Barnhill said...

Bravo, Mr. Helms:
I applaud you sticking with the classics over the more popular and commercial fiction. Any "bucket list" that doesn't include staples such as Faulkner, Hemingway -- as well as the mystery masters Hammett and Chandler -- is seriously lacking.

S. Barnhill,
Dallas, Texas

SonOfHelms said...

How could you leave out MAD magazine or Clifford the Big Red Dog or Juicy Watusi (IN STORES NOW!!!)....Like that plug?