Volumes to Go Before You Die

Written on May 23, 2008 by DeansTalk in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Literature

An odd book fell into my hands recently, a doorstopper 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 He-Man or Limp Wrist.

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 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. Assume, for the sake of argument, that a reasonably well-educated person will have read a third of them. (My own score, tallied after I made this estimate, 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 United States in 2006 by Universe; $34.95) 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 Professor 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 Anaïs Nin’s “Delta of Venus” into my trembling hands, I would probably leave this world with a curse on my lips.

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.,” Professor Boxall informed me in an e-mail message. 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. Already I feel my hackles rising. Does not the age of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky 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. Like many others, I admire Ian McEwan, but does he really 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 of “1001 Books” 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.”

A little more Anglophilia might have been in order. 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.”

On the other hand, the 20th-century bias eliminates Americans like Stephen Crane and William Dean Howells entirely, and a certain weakness for postmodernism squeezes out novels like “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser and “The Octopus” by Frank Norris. Drop a couple of Austers, and there would have been room.

As an experiment, I picked three novels, more or less at random, to see how they might change my quality of life: “Castle Rackrent” by Maria Edgeworth; “Tarka the Otter” by Henry Williamson; and “The Invention of Curried Sausage” by Uwe Timm.

Two of the three definitely provided a lift. “Castle Rackrent” (1800), a rollicking satire about trashy English aristocrats who bring ruin to an Irish estate, is worth reading just for the name Carrick O’Fungus, although literary historians prize it for being the first regional novel. That’s fine. Bonus points for getting there first, but the real reason to pick it up is Edgeworth’s slyly vicious picture of slovenly aristos on the loose.

Uwe Timm, a contemporary German writer unknown to me, now flies very high on my mental Amazon rankings. “The Invention of Curried Sausage” (1993) is an offbeat quest novel. The narrator, seeking the origins of currywurst, a German fast-food specialty, quizzes an elderly vendor and winds up with a big, fat history lesson. The issues are big, the prose brilliant, the execution deft. Eternal gratitude to Andrew Blades, theater reviewer for Stage magazine, who convinced Professor Boxall that this novel belonged on the list.

Tarka turned out to be too much otter for me, even though the back story is compelling. Williamson, returning from the trenches after World War I, took up a hermit’s life in north Devon, where he lived among the plants and the animals, observing closely and shunning humankind. “Tarka,” published in 1927, tells the story of a young male otter and its day-to-day struggles for food, a mate and security in a world populated by baying dogs and evil men. T. E. Lawrence loved it. I didn’t.

Since Professor Boxall is keen to start an argument, let me oblige. Drop the bloated, self-indulgent “Ada” from an otherwise correct Nabokov list (“Lolita,” “Pale Fire,” “Pnin”) and insert “Laughter in the Dark” or “The Gift.” J. M. Coetzee, with 10 novels, can afford to lose 1 or 2. That would open up space for “The Cossacks” by Tolstoy and “A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov. There should be another five Balzacs. I could go on and on.

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.”

A little humility is in order. Easy for me to bring up “Envy” by Yuri Olyesha because I happen to have read it, or Jakob Arjouni, a German writer of Turkish descent who counts as one of my latest discoveries, largely because I was seduced by the title of a recent story collection, “Idiots.”

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.

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. An obnoxious American academic, competing with a group of colleagues, finally gets the hang of the game and plays his trump card: “Hamlet.” He wins the game but is then denied tenure.

That’s the thing with reading lists like “1001 Books.” There’s always that host of the unread.

Come to think of it, I have a personal white whale: “Moby-Dick.” I really must read it before I die.


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