An odd book fell into my hands recently, a doorstop with the irresistible title "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die." That sounds like a challenge, with a subtle insult embedded in the premise. It suggests that you, the supposedly educated reader, might have read half the list at best. Like one of those carnival strength-testers, it dares you to find out whether your reading powers rate as robust or frail.
The book is British. Of course. 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, Professor 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 1,001. Quintessence, the British publishers, later decided that "books" worked better than "novels" in the title.
Even without Milton or Shakespeare, Boxall has come up with a lot of books. Assume, for the sake of argument, that a reasonably well-educated person will have read a third of them. (My own score was 303.) That leaves 668 titles. An ambitious reader might finish off one a month without disrupting a personal reading program already in place. That means he or she would cross the finish line in the year 2063. At that point, upon reaching the last page of title No. 1,001, "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro, death might come as a relief.
Two potent factors make "1001 Books" (published in the U.S. in 2006 by Universe) compelling: guilt and time. It plays on every serious reader's lingering sense of inadequacy. Page after page reveals a writer or a novel unread, and therefore a demerit on the great report card of one's cultural life. Then there's that bullying title, with its ominous allusion to the final day when, for all of us, the last page is turned.
I appreciate the sense of urgency because I feel it myself. But when Boxall brings death into the picture, he sets the bar very high. Let's have a look at some of these mandatory titles. Not only is it not necessary to read "Interview With the Vampire" by Anne Rice before you die, it is also probably not necessary to read it even if, like Lestat, you are never going to die. If I were mortally ill, and a well-meaning friend pressed Anais Nin's "Delta of Venus" into my trembling hands, I would probably leave this world with a curse on my lips.
Meant to tick you off
If the "1001 Books" program seems quirky, even perverse, it's no accident. "I wanted this book to make people furious about the books that were included and the books that weren't, figuring this would be the best way to generate a fresh debate about canonicity, etc.," Boxall said in e-mail. And how.
The tastes of others are always inexplicable, but "1001 Books" embodies some structural irregularities. Arranged chronologically, it begins with the novel's primordial period -- everything up to 1800 -- and then marches century by century into the present.
More than half the books were written after World War II. I feel my hackles rising. Does not the age of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoevski and Tolstoy dwarf its earnest, fitfully brilliant but ultimately punier successor? And if the 20th century can put up a fight, the real firepower is concentrated in the period of 1900 to 1930. I admire Ian McEwan, but does he merit eight novels on the list, to Balzac's three?
Something is wrong here. Paul Auster gets six novels. Don DeLillo seven. Thackeray gets one: "Vanity Fair."
Because nearly all the contributors hail from Britain and its former colonial possessions, there is a marked English-language bias and a tendency to favor obscure British novelists over obscure Spanish or Italian ones. Fair enough. A French or Russian version would impose its own prejudices. In fact, prejudice is what you want in a book like this, which works best as an annotated tip sheet for hungry readers on the prowl for overlooked writers and neglected works.
The United States gets a fair shake, and there may even be some overcompensation. Philip Roth shows up with no fewer than seven novels, including "The Breast," and Edith Wharton is honored for four novels in addition to the two big ones, "The House of Mirth" and "The Age of Innocence."
One problem with drawing up recommended-reading lists is the urge to show off. No one gets points for proposing "The Brothers Karamazov." Credibility comes with books like "The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein" by Marguerite Duras, or the reverse-chic audacity of insisting that "The Godfather" belongs on the same list as "The Trial."
As a reality check, I opened "1001 Books" at random and beheld "A Kestrel for a Knave," by Barry Hines, which I have not read, followed by "In Watermelon Sugar" by Richard Brautigan (ditto) and "The German Lesson" by Siegfried Lenz (started it, put it down, meant to get back to it, never did).
No matter how well read you are, you're not that well read. If you don't believe it, pick up "1001" and start counting.