I found out about the book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die via this post on Bookslut, and subsequently followed the link to the list of the chosen books. Of course, there’s a whole series of these 1001 books — other than the one about books, there’s 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, even 1001 Golf Holes You Must Play Before You Die (I’m waiting for 1001 Ridiculous-Looking Sunglasses You Must Wear Before You Die, which would, naturally, be edited by Bono). I know they’re just attention-grabbing titles, but upon seeing them, I felt my annoyance level start to rise. Before I started laughing, imagining some pathetically frantic person sitting on a couch amid a sea of discarded pizza boxes, listening to The White Album, watching The Shining, trying to read Proust and lamenting the fact that there just aren’t enough hours in the day for golf.
But back to books. Before scrolling through the list to see which titles I’ve already read, I figured out that if I read at the rate of 50 books a year (almost one book a week), it would take me a little over 20 years get through everything. I felt a little relief when I counted 70 books that I’d already gotten to — not counting the ones that I quit halfway through, or just saw the film versions of — but my relief went away when I realized that 70 out of 1001 isn’t that great of an average. I know it’s not a contest (though of course I’m planning to email the list to a couple of my co-workers and turn it into one), but it’s always hard to see a numbered list of so-called important things that you’re supposed to experience without wondering how you stack up in comparison to others. At least if you’re me, and you’re not, though in this case you may be similar.
At this point in my 1001 Books saga, I felt a rant bubbling up inside of me. Do people create these lists to make us all feel inadequate? And while I think it’s admirable to try to compile a representative sample of important literature from across the centuries, I think the high number of repeats kind of dilutes the impact. Seven books by Salman Rushdie? (I’ll take death, please.) And seven more by Philip Roth? I find it hard to believe that I really need to read seven books by Philip Roth before I die, perhaps because I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to read one.
And I also wonder how editor Peter Boxall chose to define what a book is. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” made the list, and that is, for all intents and purposes, an essay. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a great story, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not even long enough to qualify as a novella. And then there’s Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” which I love, since I’m an O’Connor fan, but it’s also a short story (though, granted, there is a collection of her work with the same name). Apparently, the truly important stuff is prose, since there is no poetry on the list — no Gilgamesh, no Homeric epics, no Basho or Rumi, no Dante, no Milton or Blake or Rimbaud — and also no plays, which, of course, leaves out writers from Big Daddy Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams to last year’s Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter. I’m all for prose, in fact, I love prose, but I don’t think it’s the medium of all important work that’s been bound into book form.
To be fair, Boxall says that the 1001 will continue to evolve (article here), which is definitely a good thing. And to be even more fair, I will also say that I think the list as it stands at present is a pretty fascinating survey of literary history, full of things I’d never heard of and reminders of things that should at some point go into my ever-growing pile of books to be read. It would probably be fun to spend some time with this book to read more about the books that were chosen and why they ended up there, though I think I might skip over some of the 10 listed books by J.M. Coetzee in favor of, well, lots of things. In the end, it’s a nice try, but I think that in the future it should include more work that isn’t prose into the mix, because no one should die before reading the poetry of Pablo Neruda. That ought to be a rule.