[PB] 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die by Peter Boxall

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Edited by Peter Boxall [PB]

Published in 2006.

Sometime after the Modern Library [MLB] came out with its controversial list of the hundred greatest works of English language fiction in 1998 there was a big rush in “canonical” lists. Besides Harold Bloom’s attempt (which predates 1001 Books by a decade) this is the most ambitious list of all. You might come across the massive 1001 Books volume, with its cover resembling a Florida postcard, in chic stores for bookish types like Urban Outfitters or Anthropology. It’s a conversation starter, meant to prompt its share of disagreement and reader’s guilt.

The [PB] was compiled by a chap named Peter Boxall. He’s a Brit. (It should be pointed out that the Brits love lists almost as much as they love Indian food and queuing.)  Boxall consulted with a number of supposed experts in certain 20th century authors, which means [PB] mostly focuses on the 20th century. Nevertheless, it does dabble in the rest of history’s literary output in its final fifth. The [PB] also limits itself to “books” which, in this case, mostly means novels, though early story collections like 1001 Nights and Ovid’s Metamorphoses are here as well. What the “books” restriction means is poets, playwrights, philosophers, historians, and scientists are largely absent.

The problem with this list is that it gets hung up on certain authors. Like that other massive British list, nearly half of the [PB]’s recommendations don’t appear on any other list, and so didn’t make the Master List. What are these books? Mostly they’re the second, third, fourth, or even eighth book by a talented author. Think Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo or Ian McEwan, guys with big reputations who wrote a lot of books. But it seems at times that this list had a mandate with a title of 1001 Books before the authors had a list that merited such a length. At times some of the entries seem tacked on, as if the compilers were running through Charing Cross Road bookshops, throwing stuff into the basket. “Are we at 1001 yet?” “A spot short. Keep calm and carry on.”

The New York Times (which has its own list) reviewed 1001 Books back in 2008: 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.

I should note that Delta of Venus did make the Master with a second vote by the Guardian newspaper. Thanks, England.

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