1001 Books To Read Before You Die

William Grimes writes:

An odd book fell into my hands recently, a doorstopper with the irresistible title “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.” It suggests that you, the supposedly educated reader, might have read half the list at best. The book is British. The British love literary lists and the fights they provoke, so much so that they divide candidates for the Man Booker Prize into shortlist books and longlist books. In this instance Peter Boxall, who teaches English at Sussex University, asked 105 critics, editors and academics — mostly obscure — to submit lists of great novels, from which he assembled his supposedly mandatory reading list of one thousand and one. Quintessence, the British publishers, later decided that “books” worked better than “novels” in the title.

Even without Milton or Shakespeare, Professor Boxall has come up with a lot of books. That leaves 698 titles. Two potent factors make “1001 Books” (published in the United States in 2006 by Universe; $34.95) compelling: guilt and time. Page after page reveals a writer or a novel unread, and therefore a demerit on the great report card of one’s cultural life. If the “1001 Books” program seems quirky, even perverse, it’s no accident. More than half the books were written after World War II. Paul Auster gets six novels. Fair enough. A French or Russian version of “1001 Books” would impose its own prejudices. Anthony Powell shows up with “A Dance to the Music of Time” — which is actually 12 novels, so Professor Boxall cheats — but I would have made a play for a few of the pre-“Dance” novels, like “Venusberg” or “Afternoon Men.”

“The Invention of Curried Sausage” (1993) is an offbeat quest novel. Eternal gratitude to Andrew Blades, theater reviewer for Stage magazine, who convinced Professor Boxall that this novel belonged on the list.

J. M. Coetzee, with 10 novels, can afford to lose 1 or 2. One problem with drawing up recommended-reading lists is the urge to show off. No matter how well read you are, you’re not that well read. In his novel “Changing Places,” David Lodge — not on the list — introduces a game called Humiliation. Players earn points by admitting to a famous work that they have not read. The greater the work, the higher the point score.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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