1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is now out in a revised edition. This is part of an appealing series of books published by Universe, an imprint of Rizzoli, with other volumes devoted to the albums, beers, buildings, children’s books, classical recordings, foods, paintings, movies, and wines you must see, hear, taste, sniff or read before you shuffle off this mortal coil. Books like this manage to succeed in piquing our interest because our society has cultivated the not-so-fine art of list making. These volumes speak to the inner list maker inside all of us.Hopefully, the titles they suggest call out to those of us who think of ourselves as readers.
If you don’t simultaneously love and hate a book like this, it has neither been done properly produced nor properly absorbed. Half of the joy of poring through it is gathering the names of new books and authors that you want to read or get to know, or of beloved authors that have slipped your mind and to whom you want to return. The other half of the job is getting intensely angry when some of your beloved books were inexplicably excluded or when what you know in your heart are execrable pieces of crap are given two page spreads.If this doesn’t frequently upset you, then you are doing something wrong.
Like the first edition of this book, the new version contains a host of literary suggestions from most periods in literary history, though primarily after 1800. The editorial principles are vague at best. It isn’t clear, for instance, why The Golden Ass is included but neither The Illiad nor The Odyssey is. Why would you include Thoreau’s Walden but neither Montaigne’s Essays nor Boswell’s Life of Johnson? How can any book with the words Books You Must Read Before You Die, regardless of the number preceding them, not contain The Brothers Karamazov as one of the selections?
If I were to compile a list of two Books You Must Read Before You Die, Dostoevsky’s greatest masterpiece would make the cut (the other would be Proust). What are we to think of such an omission? It was in the first edition, but left out of the second. I can’t make an excuse for the editors other than that they simply overlooked it. If the title were left out intentionally, what possible justification is there for Boxall and his collaborators? Leaving out this title is like leaving out War and Peace or In Search of Lost Time; it is something that no editor would possibly consider doing. It’s like leaving out either the Bible or the Koran out of a list of the world’s great religious writings.
So some nonfiction titles are included, but not a hundred or so others equally deserving. I love Walden, but I can’t understand including it but privileging it over Gibbon or Montaigne or Boswell or Henry Adams. I also don’t quite grasp why short story collections are, for the most part, left out. It leads to some oddities, like Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter being included, but not her far more interesting short stories. Yet a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories are included. Although there are occasional exceptions, the preference in the book is for novels, and the editor simply doesn’t make clear why some books that are not novels are made exceptions.
The reason to hate a book like this, if you love literature at all, is the omission of books that you are absolutely convinced should have been included. Obviously, there is a great deal of subjectivity in this and a degree of that is always admissible. Those of us in the Western Hemisphere will rightfully find many startling omissions that demonstrate a strong bias to British and European authors, along with writers from former colonies. This is borne out not only in the many odd choices in the 1001 suggested titles, but by gazing over the list of contributors, the vast majority of whom are British.
This strong British orientation will irritate those in the Western Hemisphere on multiple levels.One particularly upsetting feature of the book is the improper alphabetization of Latin American names. For instance, Gabriel García Márquez is alphabetized under Márquez instead of Garcia Márquez. The author has often expressed his disappointment when people split up his last name. The same is true of Mario Vargas Llosa, treating Vargas as a middle name rather than the first half of his last name. These were errors that appeared in the first edition of the book and I had hoped would be corrected in the second, but were not.
Because of the book’s strong British perspective, there is a lack of sensitivity to the best in American literature. Oh, they get the major writers OK. How can you miss on Faulkner or Fitzgerald or Hemingway? Yet there were some absolutely shocking omissions, books that anyone definitely should read, even if the list were to be cut down to 500 or even 250 titles. One of the greatest American novels of the second half of the 20th century is Wallace Stegner’s astonishing Angle of Repose. It appeared neither in this nor the original edition of this book.
Other major American writers – and I mean A-list and not B-list or merely regional authors – that are completely left out include Richard Yates, James T. Farrell, the aforementioned Wallace Stegner, James Dickey, Norman Mailer, Sherwood Anderson, Denis Johnson (no Jesus’ Son!), Charles Bukowski, Michael Chabon, William Kennedy, William Stryon, Charles Portis, and Ross MacDonald. The absence of all of these writers makes you wonder who the editors were consulting for American literature.
Including Gore Vidal’s insipid Myra Breckinridge rather than one or all of his Narratives of Empire series (at least Burr or Lincoln should have been included) makes one suspect that many of the titles in the collection were chosen because they had been made into a movie. Stephen King’s The Shining is on the list instead of the far more acclaimed The Stand. It doesn’t even seem to have mattered if in many cases they were turned into poor movies.
Latin American authors suffer mightily at the hands of the editors. Arguably the most important author of the past 50 years is Garcia Márquez. They include four of his novels, but leave out two of his greatest works, Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Of Love and Other Demons. They did correct one of the great omissions in the first edition by including Roberto Bolzano’s two great masterpieces, The Savage Detectives and 2666. They also included a single Carlos Fuentes’ novel, another author missing in the first edition, but they left out his best book, Aura. There is nothing by Cortazar and only one by Galeano (though they include Memory of Fire rather than The Book of Embraces or Upside-Down), but we are treated to two novels by the criminally overrated Isabel Allende.
There are other confusing omissions. Nothing appears in the book by the fascinating German ex-patriot novelist B. Traven, who lived anonymously in Mexico after WW I while publishing several outstanding novels, including The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Death Ship. They also leave out some superior British novelists. Barbara Pym was left out of the first edition entirely and finally included here, but Neil Gaiman, easily one of the most consistently fascinating writers to have come out of Great Britain, is represented neither by novels like American Gods or Neverwhere, nor by his great graphic series Sandman, the equal in the opinion of many to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, which is included.
To put it bluntly, if Watchmen made the book, then Sandman should have. (Perhaps Gaiman has not been forgiven for moving to Minnesota.) Where is David Lodge? I had hoped against hope that Derek Robinson, one of the most underrated novelists of the past 40 years, would receive some notice, but no such luck. No D. M. Thomas?
There is also something of a tin ear, if I can mix my metaphor, to genre fiction in the selections. At this point, how could any serious list omit the great juvenile fantasy series of either J. K. Rowling or Philip Pullman? The editors include the truly awful Isaac Asimov, perhaps because they aren’t aware of the large number of far better sci-fi writers working in his wake (they omit Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, arguably the single most important sci-fi novel since the date of its publication, though including almost equally excellent The Dispossessed; they also omit all novels by Samuel R. Delaney and Octavia Butler).
They include what students of sci-fi regard as one of Robert Heinlein’s worst books, Stranger in a Strange Land, a book that was popular in the ’60s counterculture, but one of the most critically reviled sci-fi books of all time. It is the kind of sci-fi book that someone who knows absolutely nothing about sci-fi would choose.
I was glad to see Iain M. Banks included, but what of China Miéville or Terry Pratchett? Trust me: anyone who loves books needs to read both Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and Un Dun Lun, as well as several of Pratchett’s Discworld books
On an upside, they didn’t include Ayn Rand, whose two best known novels may just be the most poorly written famous books of the past century (one may love the books for their ideology, but no objective student of literature can give them high marks strictly as literature). The second edition removed Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, one of the worst novels ever written by a major novelist. I am still sad that they did not include Albert Camus’ The Fall, one of my favorite novels. I was, however, delighted that they retained May Sinclair’s relatively unknown but entirely worthy 1922 short novel, Life and Death of Harriet Frean. Read it, be amazed, and then recommend it to your friends.
Now, it may seem at this point that I hate 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, but recall what I wrote at the beginning. A book like this only succeeds if it both makes you truly hate and love it. A list of great books, even one as long as this, is made to be debated. It is both educational and self-enlightening to worry over why one book was excluded and to wonder why another was included. It helps you to understand yourself as a reader and your own grasp of our culture’s literature; it helps orient you as a reader to the rest of the world of literature.
My love of the book comes from the dozens if not hundreds of heartfelt recommendations the volume makes. One of the authors I discovered from the first edition – I was somewhat disappointed to see the number of his titles in the second edition had decreased – was Iain (M.) Banks (when writing mainstream books he publishes without the invented middle initial, while his sci-fi is published as Iain M. Banks) I owe my reading of him directly to the first edition of this work.
I looked into the novels of J. G. Farrell thanks to the earlier edition. Through the first edition I learned of both Michel Houellebecq and W. G. Sebald. While I still have not read Ian McEwan – frankly my greatest omission of any living writer – the book created a still unrealized determination to read extensively in his work at some point, as well as others like José Saramago and Will Self and Martin Amis. Furthermore, the original edition led me to reread Henry Green after having rapidly read through his books while in grad school, only to have set him aside for awhile. It also sent me back to read some of the classic gothic novels I missed when I made a brief but intense foray into works like The Castle of Otranto and The Mysteries of Udolpho.
The hatred of this book comes from arguing with it about what books were unjustifiably excluded; the love comes from the new books that it drives you to read. I hate it for including Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001, which is actually an expansion of a short story entitled “The Sentinel”, while excluding his finest novel, Childhood’s End. I love it for alerting me to Angela Carter and explaining to me why I need to read her.
It’s impossible for a book like this to satisfy anyone, let alone everyone. We readers are inherently unsatisfiable souls. We are restless and constantly in search of new books to read or new authors to explore. Think of it this way: if you take up this book and are driven to read only a dozen books of the 1001 that are mentioned, the cost of the book will be justified. Hopefully you will learn of far more than that.
There are, in my opinion, two books that will give you more guidance in finding new books to read than any others. One is Harold Bloom’s more high-browed The Western Canon. The other is this book.