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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 9 March 2021

Will '1,000 Books to Read Before You Die' be another must own?

The editor of the book says it is meant to be “an invitation to a conversation – even a merry argument – about the books and authors that are missing as well as the books and authors included”

Your bookshelf should tell a story about the life you have actually lived. Getty 
Your bookshelf should tell a story about the life you have actually lived. Getty 

Workman Publishing scored a large and unexpected success with ­Patricia Schultz’s 2003 book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, a personal and wide-ranging compendium of travel destinations the author considered unmissable. Customers bought the book in droves, one sensed, not only for its suggestions of travel goals, but for its loving descriptions of unreachable ones; the book was an invitation to the open road and to endless armchair-voyaging, and it sold accordingly.

Other such volumes followed: 1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, and now, by editor and bookseller James Mustich, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, billed in its subtitle as “a life-changing list”. This latest entry in the series is fittingly huge, nearly 1,000 pages long, heavy stock paper, and extensively illustrated with book-jackets and author portraits. In his introduction, Mustich tells readers he’s been assembling and re-assembling this book’s contents for 14 years, with the end goal of producing a list that’s “expansive in its tastes, encompassing revered classics and commercial favourites, flights of escapist entertainment and enlightening works of erudition”.

Books like this have a long pedigree, of course. It was a century ago that Harvard University’s legendary “five-foot shelf of books” first appeared under the auspices of Harvard’s charismatic president Charles Eliot. Many such books have followed, each presenting an array of suggestions and recommendations, often masquerading as pronouncements from Parnassus.

In 1960 Clifton Fadiman came out with the first edition of his The Lifetime Reading Plan, which would go on to many editions and bestseller status. In 1981, Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish published The List of Books, assembling more than 3,000 titles and authors across the whole spectrum of the written word, not just literary titles.

In 1994 literary eminence Harold Bloom produced The Western Canon, complete with supplementary lists broken down by country. It was probably inevitable that Workman’s “Thousand” series would get around to books.

It is arranged alphabetically from Edward Abbey to Carl Zuckmayer, the entries all ending with road-signs pointing the reader both elsewhere in this volume and outside into the rest of the bookish world. Roald Dahl’s children’s classic Matilda, for instance (“[Dahl] has a knack for making kids feel they are in on a great joke at the expense of their elders, especially the mean ones”), concludes not only with a list of Dahl’s other standout books but also with that foremost staple of the bookseller’s job: “if you liked that, try this”.

It’s astounding how many of these “Try” recommendations are perfect hits (in Matilda’s case, Roderick Townley’s The Great Good Thing and T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose). Mustich has created a tsunami of book recommendations. If there were a lectern copy of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die in every book store, half the booksellers on Earth would be out of a job.

Back when Charles Eliot made his little shelf of books, the authority of the canon was a smooth marble face, impregnable, unchallengeable. The lists changed with glacial slowness, and the literature of the day was largely dismissed as ephemera (although not by Eliot himself, who read with eager abandon in all genres at all times, nor by Fadiman, who consumed an endless stream of mystery and science fiction potboilers with very vocal glee).

The present era is, thankfully, more adventurous and receptive; this present volume includes a dozen titles from the 21st century, including Roz Chast’s brilliant cartoon book Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (“tender, wry yet mournful”). Equally encouraging: non-fiction is liberally represented, with Harry Potter, and Arundhati Roy showing up right alongside John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day.


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Mustich says his book is meant to be “an invitation to a conversation – even a merry argument – about the books and authors that are missing as well as the books and authors included”. This will certainly happen. It’s impossible not to notice, for instance, that of the book’s 47 authors given a longer biographical entry and more than one book featured, only seven are women – each James brother, William and Henry, get one, but not Muriel Spark (represented here by Memento Mori rather than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), Barbara Pym, or Iris Murdoch – or, for that matter, since “escapist entertainment” was mentioned, Danielle Steel or Jackie Collins. Georgette Heyer does get a mention, weirdly for An Infamous Army – a mannerism, repeated often, of praising authors for their minor rather than major works (Hilary Mantel is written up for A Place of Greater Safety, rather than the bestseller Wolf Hall).

Some of the inclusions are so idiosyncratic they will make the most hardened cynics crack a smile. Who won’t cheer to see William Roughead’s 1951 cult gem Classic Crimes thrust back into the spotlight? And other inclusions are head-scratchingly bizarre. What on earth is Period Piece by Gwen Raverat (Charles Darwin’s granddaughter) doing in a volume that doesn’t include Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock? What can justify Donna Leon’s 2000 Venetian murder mystery Friends in High Places (ninth in a series) but neither Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé nor T E Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom?

Frustrations like these are actually one of the greatest gifts of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: Mustich’s sprawling feast of choices and exclusions will doubtless spark emphatic agreements and heated arguments in bookish circles everywhere. Copies will be heavily annotated, ardently passed around, and perhaps, hurled in outrage. It’s good to be reminded that this is exactly how we should always feel about books.

Updated: November 3, 2018 01:31 PM


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