Three Works of Fiction That Will Change Your Life

By Michaela Jorgensen
Literature and the human condition have a relationship that began with the genre’s founding. A single work’s ability to resonate in our thoughts, inform our actions, and shape our lives is a global phenomenon intrinsically developed through the evolution of storytelling, that has been honed into an exceptional tool in the novel. As fiction pertains to the human condition, many of its finest examples explore mankind’s darkest qualities, willing readers to step farther into a darkness that plagues the psyche. The greatest questions posed by the novel demand to be answered. And once we comprehend the work’s implications, we are subsequently altered for our efforts. If you have not read the works below, consider placing them on your reading list. While unrelenting, they may change your life.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Yale Law Library

Yale Law Library

Set in Russia during the late 1800s during an economic and social crisis, Crime and Punishment examines the importance of morality in a climate where the law’s influences have faded. Raskolnikov, the protagonist, commits a horrific crime in the hopes of proving, to himself, his country’s laws are not applicable in a moral sense. After his heinous crime, Raskolnikov searches for redemption, which he eventually finds in Sonya, a young prostitute, who he confides in. It is a dark tale, but one with a powerful message: a man or woman cannot simply do whatever they wish without consequences. It is not a story without redemption, however. Even as Raskolnikov suffers, he finds eventual peace in confession and imprisonment.



Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Abhi Sharma

Abhi Sharma

On the surface, it may seem merely a cruel tale. However, Heart of Darkness flourishes in its understanding of man’s many faults while exploring the horrors that accompany leadership. Marlow begins an excursion in an African jungle where he is greeted by a cast of characters who have abandoned civility in favor of survival-based methods of living. Marlow must confront Kurtz, a man who manages a dock in the jungle and inexplicably governs the nearby tribe with a ruthless, Machiavellian style of leadership. While potentially problematic due to several racist themes, Heart of Darkness unabashedly delves into the horrific nature of a man’s will to survive in the harshest physical and emotional conditions, and leaves the reader with an unnerving question: What, precisely, would you have done in the heart of darkness?

The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The most recently written novel on this list, The Road is nevertheless a captivating bridge between literature and the human condition. Set in the increasingly popular post-apocalyptic wasteland of the United States, the story follows the trials of the man and the boy, archetypal representations of a protective father and his meek, naive son. A unique study of the individual, where the man is realized as a survivor first and foremost, the man holds onto ideals of the world before, but does not utilize them. Unbeknownst to himself, the man has abandoned his country’s laws and has reverted to a more primal state. After realizing his change, the man, and the reader, try to cope with a lawless reality and an existence where the individual is truly responsible for his or her own actions.

The prevalence of the disturbed permeates in these novels, but their messages are important, and they grasp at the reasons for laws, normalcy, and the nature of the human condition. These are novels that ascend the passage of time and strike at the very notions of what it means to be human.
Michaela Jorgensen is an English teacher that writes all about the creative arts and education. Her recent work is on the Top 10 Online Colleges for aspiring teachers.

Book Groups and Prisoner Education

Have you read this Saturday’s essay? Click here to jump to director Ted Schillinger’s account of his new documentary, Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead. 



Gregory Cowles over at the NYT book blog Paper Cuts, asks his readers about the pleasures of personal reading versus discussing the book with one’s peers: 

“I’ve heard enough book-group horror stories to doubt the whole notion of communal reading. One of the undercelebrated joys of literature, after all, is precisely that it allows (or demands?) such solitude and intimacy: reading has more in common with the cloisters than it does with the congregation.” 

He concludes by asking: What do you think? Can reading really work as a group activity?  Tell him what you think over in the Paper Cuts comment section. 



bpi_grad_2-09_085The New Republic’s Leon Botstein  talks about the effectiveness and potential of prisoner education systems in his new article “Con Ed: Reading Lolita in the Big House.”  He highlights a commencement ceremony in the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, where prisoners receive higher education degrees through the Bard Prison Initiative.  Prisoners cited the joy of closely reading texts and learning how to express themselves in written arguments. Botstein argues this program can teach us a lot about human nature and the potential for change:      

We have become accustomed by conventions most eloquently expressed in literature, for example in Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead, to believe that it is in circumstances of complete unfreedom and deprivation, particularly in incarceration, that the character of human nature is revealed. If that is indeed the case, it was plain in this ceremony, in which the families of the graduates were gathered alongside fellow inmates, prison guards, the superintendent of the prison, and New York State’s Commissioner of Correctional Services, that the capacity for good is never erased. An incredible potential for good resides in all of us, for it is the consequence of the human ability to learn and speak. In no other circumstance in my experience has the connection between ethics and learning been so dramatically validated.

Check out the full article and share your thoughts with Botstein by clicking the “Con Ed” link above.

Book Review: “Missing Sarah” by Maggie de Vries

by Allan McDougall

missingsarah1This post is a review of an excellent Canadian memoir that probes themes of female agency and victimization in the face of poverty, drug addiction, and neglect. Missing Sarah (2005), by Maggie de Vries, is the author’s autobiographical memoir of her sister, Sarah de Vries, a sex worker living in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Sarah was adopted as a baby, and grew into a bright, funny, artistic child. Yet, as Maggie reflects, Sarah’s mixed-race heritage—partially African-Canadian, Mexican, and Native—caused her to feel isolated from her white siblings. In the book, Maggie reflects that these feelings of segregation may have driven Sarah to seek solace on the streets of Downtown Vancouver, partying, and experiments with drugs in her teens.

Sarah ran away from home before completing high school and eventually became addicted to cocaine and heroine, working as a prostitute to pay for drugs. As Maggie grew to accept and deal with Sarah’s lifestyle, she implicitly learned about street life. Missing Sarah is as much a memoir as a social commentary on urban prostitution policies.

Though Canadians idealize Vancouver as Canada’s California, the city has a sordid history of prostitution laws. During the late 70s and early 80s, rezoning laws allowed police to harass prostitutes from all over Vancouver into the Downtown Eastside neighborhood, thus isolating them from safer, more well lit areas of the city. This process of ‘city beautification’ exacerbated violence against prostitutes, and between 1979 and 2003, 69 female sex trade workers disappeared from the Downtown Eastside and were never seen again. The fundamental goal of Missing Sarah is for readers to recognize that these weren’t just “sex trade workers,” these were women with families, often with children of their own.

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