Fun with books: “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die”

I’ve had quite a few evenings of fun with friends by playing the 1000 Places To See Before You Die game. It is quite a simple game: one person opens Patricia Schultz’s book at a random page, reads out the name of the location that is reviewed on that page, and if you’ve been there, you get one point. Whoever has the most point when people are falling asleep on the sofa at the end of the evening is the winner.

I am now looking forward to playing the game with 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall. It is the sort of glossy coffee-table book that you can criticize from almost any angle: too Anglo-American, too skewed towards the last couple of centuries, too heavy on pictures and not enough on substance, too intellectual, too commercial, whatever. I’ll say one thing in defense of the editors: they decided to focus on a specific form of the “book” category, the novel (while making a small number of exceptions for short story collections). If one tries to select 1001 novels, then by definition the list has no Aeschylus, no Seneca, no Dante, no Chaucer, no Machiavelli, no Shakespeare. (Boccaccio, though, should have been there – Aesop, Ovid, Apuleius and The Thousand and One Nights all make the cut in the pre-1700s category).

So, we have a list of 1001 novels, or story collections; of these, 67 have appeared in print since 2000. And even of these, running my own quick stats, I’ve read fewer than half; I haven’t yet ventured out to measure how abysmally I perform on the 1800s and 1900s. The chief use of such books, no matter how imperfect, is to become uncomfortably aware of one’s own ignorance. And because time isn’t infinite, the memento mori in the title is quite appropriate.

I am often drawn to the minor work by a favorite author, the self-help bestseller of the season, the introverted essay collection, the trashy airport paperback. But for each one of these I read, I don’t get to read one Great Novel. What do you say, my readers? Should I better contain my airport-paperback urges and discipline myself to catch up on some more of those 1001 books?

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