Review: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die – Peter Boxall

Christmas Gifts for Readers no. 1. (a short series)

Over the next month or so I’m going to write a few articles on books which if I’d not already got them I would be delighted to  receive on Christmas Day.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is a controversial volume among book-lovers.  Let me say at the start that as a book lover, I really value this book – apart from its rich content with its high production values, it is a thing of beauty in itself and will not be a book to be placed on a shelf and forgotten about.

Some people hate it with a vengeance – one woman on Goodreads wrote a review full of expletives as she considered the thought that someone should tell her what she must read.  Others disagree with the selection of the 1001 books, while others accuse it of just being a collection of synopses of the sort you find on the back cover of a paper-back.  One reviewer on Amazon.com described it as “a cynical exercise in marketing to the culturally insecure”.

On the other hand, many reviews are glowing – for example, so many people think that the list of 1001 books is valuable that they have formed a group on GoodReads with over 11,000 members, many of whom have signed up to read all 1001 books – and why not? – its as good a list as any and at least has more rational thought behind it than just randomly picking books with attractive covers, or books you read reviews of in the newspapers.

This year sees a completely revised edition of the book and I think its well-worth writing about it.  Firstly, lets say very clearly that this book is not the work of one man.  The General Editor, Peter Boxall, is a Professor of English at Sussex University.  He has drawn on a very large panel of nearly 200 contributors to write much of the text of the books.  The contributors, including many academics with books on literature to their name, are listed at the start of the book and their initials are given at the end of the articles they have written.

Peter Boxall writes in the introduction,

The list offered here does not seek to be a new canon, and does not claim to define or exhaust the novel.  Rather, it is a list that lives in the middle of contradiction between the comprehensiveness and the partial.  It is a list that is animated by the spirit of the novel, by a love for what the novel is and does, but which nevertheless does not hope or aim to capture it, to sum it up or put it to bed.  This books is . . . a snapshot . . . one story among others that one can tell about its history.

And I had no difficulty in believing that this is a sincere statement – “one list among many”.  Nobody is claiming that this is the only possible list, and despite the title of the book, there really is no “must” about it.

Sample double-page spread from 1001 Books

For myself however, I find the book a great reminder about books I’ve omitted to read, or books I’ve heard about but have since forgotten.  I’ve also discovered many books which I’d never heard of before but which I would now like to read.  Since acquiring this book, I don’t think I’ll ever be stuck for something to read again and just turning its pages makes me want to go out and spend a small fortune on acquiring even more books for my shelves. Even if some of the books turned out to be not perhaps the greatest examples of literature, its pretty certain that they’re all worth reading for one reason or another.

Having said that, the selections are definitely at the “literary” end of the publishing world.  Quite a few of them are downright obscure and most are challenging reads in various ways.  We have Robert Musil’s 1000+ page epic, The Man Without Qualities, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Balzac’s Lost Illusions.  There are four books each from Tolstoy and Dostoeveky and at the modern end of the list we see W G Sebald (Austerlitz of course), Orhan Pamauk (Snow) and Michel Houellebecq (Platform).  But there are also plenty of very readable authors such as Anthony Trollope, J R R Tolkein, Edna O’Brian and Ian Fleming (and who could not agree that at least one James Bond novel should not be included, Casino Royale in this case). Many female authors are included from Anaïs Nin to Iris Murdoch, and others such as Margaret Atwood (three books) , Kiran Desai (The Inheritance of Loss), Marilynne Robinson (Home) and Zadie Smith (White Teeth).

One slight problem with the book is that not all the novels recommended are actually in print at the moment. I checked just a few yesterday evening and found that you’d need to go to the second-hand market to find,

Emile Zola – The Drunkard
José Hernandez – Martin Fierro
Clarin Leopoldo Alas – The Regents Wife
Liviu Rebreanu – Forest of the Hanged

And you’d have to be very careful with one-click settings on Amazon with Georges Bernanos , “Under Satan’s Sun” which is listed at £106 and Guy de Maupassant’s “A Woman’s Life” which is £98!

At least the memory of these books is being kept alive and some of the older books are now available on free ebook sites like Project Gutenberg.  Perhaps their inclusion in 1001 Books will encourage publishers to re-print these missing titles.
The articles presenting each book consist of short descriptions of the book together with a brief explanation of the literary context of the book and the reasons it was selected.  For example, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “Jealousy” is “one of the most famous examples of the noveau romain which tried to extend the limits of the realist approach to novelistic plotting, setting and characterisation. Tarjei Vessas’ book, The Birds, is “an example of Norwegian “landsmål” or country language” (New Norwegian as it was later known).  It “describes highly charged relationships and experiences in a stunningly primordial landscape”.

The book is sumptuously illustrated with picture of first editions, portraits of authors, related art-work and contemporaneous photographs.  Its printed on high quality paper and despite its 958 pages, it doesn’t look as though its about to fall apart any time soon.

I have a fair number of books about books in my library and I’ve reviewed many of them here. I’m not ashamed to say that I count 1001 Books as a highly-valued addition to their number.  I’ve already had a few sessions of imaginary debates with Peter Boxall and his contributors about their selections.  On the whole though, I have learned that I am only scratching the surface of literary knowledge and even in this one book of lists I have found several hundred books I have yet to read.

I’ve posted some photographs below of double-page spreads from the book so you can get an idea of what the book is like.


Please note, the Disqus comment system I am using has not been well-received and I am going to revert to the old system on Wednesday. I regret that any comments you leave until then may be lost when I change back to the old system.

18 comments to Review: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die – Peter Boxall

  • Brian Joseph

    I have had my eye on this for years. I love literature lists. Though, as you pointed out many folks takes umbrage to the this sort of thing if one does not take them too seriously they can be a great resource and very fun to browse. The obscure picks are half the fun!

    Though not illustrated, I am partial towards Clifton Fadiman’s and John S. Major’s “The New Lifetime Reading Plan”.

  • Lisa Hill

    I’m in the Love the Concept camp! I have the 2006 edition and although (as any follower of my blg knows) I don’t follow it slavishly, I have used it to guide my reading too. While the synopses are necessarily brief, I also sometimes find that they’ve helped me off on the right track as to why a particular title is significant. Mind you, I still don’t understand why they included Bridget Jones’ Diary on the list and I’m unlikely ever to read it…

    Of course it’s deficient in many areas: it’s weak on African literature, Asian literature, Australian literature and New Zealand literature, and women writers aren’t too well served either. There’s not enough translated work, and they’ve probably overlooked heaps of really beaut European literature. I think they’ve probably resolved a lot of these complaints in later editions, but the general point is that it offers a good grounding in world literature and it’s a starting point. I wish someone had given it to me as an Xmas gift, I had to buy mine.

    PS BTW I don’t like Disqus. Although I’m a Facebook & Twitter user (and a reluctant signup at Google+) I do not want to link up these accounts to Disqus and I don’t want to register with them either – another password, no thanks! So I have to sign in every time I comment, whereas before the comment box remembered the details for me.

  • Hi Brian – Thanks for the comment. I am enjoying this book very much.

    Clifton Fadiman’s daughter Anne is a great essayist Unfortunately she doesn’t publish enough books but her book At Large and Small is really good.

  • Hi Lisa – thanks for visiting and for your thoughts on the book. Bridget Jones has been dropped from this edition! Perhaps the perspective of time is a good thing.

    Oh dear, comment systems are so problematic! I had a break from reviewing this summer as you know and when I returned I found that WordPress.com which so many book bloggers use has changed its commenting system (in July) to use the Gravatar system. Now when I comment on a WordPress.com site I have all sorts of problems depending on what options the blogger has set up. AND it never links back to my site but takes people to a gravatar page instead. I used to be able to put name, email and URL in and it would link back to my site directly.

    Workpress self-hosted doesn’t have this problem and having experimented with Disqus I think I may go back to the original system later this week. I expect I’ll lose the Disqus comments for the last two weeks and can only apologise to anyone who has left a comment during that period

  • Not sure why they’re using the rather obscure title ‘The Drunkard’ for the Zola – it’s cheap and easy to get hold of under its much more accepted name – L’Assommoir. Alternative titles might be the case with some of the other foreign books on the list too.

  • Lisa Hill

    Yay, goodbye Disqus, but yes, I know about the WordPress problem too, and don’t get me started about trying to comment on Blogger! I suppose the underlying problem is spam, and all these systems are one attempt after another to keep it from clogging up our lovely blogs. I used to be able to check mine for stray comments daily, but now that there are 200-300 spams each day, it’s just too time consuming to go through them all. Such a shame.

    BTW Another very good site for out-of-print titles that are out of copyright too is Many Books.http://manybooks.net/ They have a very good search and categories system, and you can download in almost any format you like including for a Kindle. It’s free, though I like to give them an annual donation because they have saved me so much money.

  • Tom

    Hi Alex – thanks for the comment – you may well be right that other books use alternative titles too

  • Whispering Gums

    I’m in the pro camp too … I don’t actually have a copy … Though this edition looks gorgeous … But sometime somewhere I got a spreadsheet of the lst edition and I do look at it every now and then.

    As for commenting systems … They can be so irritating. I find me wordpress account works fine for commenting on WordPress blogs from my laptop, but from my iPad it absolutely refuses to link to my blog even when I type the URL in the block. All Safari but iPad Safari not MacBook Safari! Honestly!

  • Tom

    Hi Sue – thanks for visiting. I wonder if that spreadsheet is still being maintained. I know there’s a text-only list on GoodReads.

    Commenting systems? (sigh). Blogger is by far the worst of all

  • I’ve read one book as a result of it being in ‘1001 Books’. It was by Paolo Coelho, and it was not very good. It seemed like a book for people who like best-sellers and not for anyone really interested in literature. Since then I have used more reliable guides. Put me in the Anti camp.

  • Tom

    Tony – I can’t imagine why Peter Boxall put Paulo Coelho in the book – it is in the current edtion also – I think its the Alchemist – which I read some years ago and thought was dreadful. There is no single reliable guide to books worth reading is there.

  • i think it is a great guide to books and as you say wonderfully put together ,all the best stu

  • JoV

    I rely on the spreadsheet and it seems to change every 2 years which it thought was rather frustrating because I have given up trying to keep up. Still your copy reminds me how beautiful it is to be reminded of some great books to read. I would think about owning a copy.

  • Tom

    JoV – I think the answer is to get someone to buy it for you – I’m not sure I’d fork out my own money for it, but its a great gift

  • I got it from a used book store at a very nice price.

    I like these types of books because they at least give me an idea of what some the classics, classics I may never have time to read, are about. That was to some degree the original purpose of literary reviews – a way to allow people to understand the talking points of an unread work when in polite society.

  • Tom

    Hi Russell – thanks for visiting. I agree, it could be used to learn about the book without actually reading them!

  • Debbie

    bit confused inside front cover it mentions The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid but cant find it anywhere!

  • Tom

    Debbie – I’ll have to check that one out. Probably an editing error I would think

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