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.
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.