1001 Books for Every Mood
by Hallie Ephron
May 2007, 400 pages, $14.95
I love books about books. You know the ones I mean — The Western Canon, Books of the Century — those indispensable tools for bluffing my way through dinner conversations with other English majors who paid more attention and probably more money during their education than I did.
These metabooks are so authoritative, so full of imperatives: Here are the greatest novels ever written! The poems you must read before you die! The short stories that changed life for every person on the planet! If these PhD holding gentlemen — they are almost always gentlemen — are to be believed, it’s unlikely that any of the world’s civilizations would have endured without Hamlet.
1001 Books for Every Mood blows a big raspberry in the face of every other book-on-books I’ve encountered. Author Hallie Ephron has taken the unusual approach of assuming that rather than being told what to read her audience might appreciate a bit of choice in the matter. And, furthermore, sometimes her audience likes reading crap.
Ephron’s is a goofy guide to one woman’s egalitarian library, where The Da Vinci Code is just as valid a selection as Lolita. The pages are smattered, too, with occasional “quizzes” to match fictional lovers or literary siblings. From its cerise color scheme to its convoluted symbol system, the whole endeavor is a bit of a mess, albeit a well-meaning one.
Still, some of Ephron’s choices and selections leave more than a bit to be desired. One thousand and one titles was not enough space to acknowledge works by Dostoyevsky, Edith Wharton or — ouch — Shakespeare. I don’t know quite what to make of Oscar Wilde’s exclusion, especially in light of a “Revel in Wit” section. (Mark Twain isn’t in that one, either.)
For those who want to rub salt in these wounds, know that Paul Coelho gets three out of four stars for literary merit, the same as Kafka and Orwell. Poor Henry James, who only gets two, could apparently could learn a few things from Dave Eggers’ “virtuoso performance” in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
With that kind of table talk, no English major will have the appetite for a meal.