I had just finished high school when I joined a site called LibraryThing. I’d seen an article in Writer’s Digest that spoke highly of it. I created an account, felt a thrill of adding books I owned and books I’d read, and began to explore. It was on the forums that I found it, a group following a list of 1001 books that you apparently must read before you die.
I was not particularly well-read in the classics, being so young. In fact, the amount of adult fiction I’d read was low, considering the fact that I was young. When I went to the library, I beelined for the young adult section. But I had a feeling that I should set forth on that grand adventure of exploring an entirely different set of shelves, turning left instead of right and continuing even beyond the magazines. For perhaps the first time in my life.
I was an aspiring author, headed off to college to pursue a degree in Writing despite my parents’ suggestion that writing should, perhaps, be just a hobby. I’ve always been a little stubborn. Suggestions that I might not be able to accomplish my goals only increased my determination. I was going to work hard, and I was going to read “the masterpieces of literature” to make my way.
I joined the group.
About the List
So obviously “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die”, as a name, is a great bit of marketing. It worked on eighteen-year-old me, at least. But who created the almighty list? Who got to decide what everybody else, presumably in the entire world, should spend their lives reading?
Peter Boxall (general editor) and two pages full of contributors like the following:
Yes, they published a book. A book with multiple editions, in fact. And yes, I own a copy, as you can probably tell from the poor lighting and shaky camera work above. I do my best.
For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to list out every contributor here, but I would like to share this quote from the introduction, which speaks to the people involved and what they were aiming for:
“The book is made up of entries from over 100 contributors—a cross-section of the international reading community, including critics, academics, novelists, poets, literary journalists—and the list is generated to a large degree from what this diverse group of readers tells us about what the novel looks like today. As such, this book reflects a set of priorities that are shared by today’s readers, a certain understanding of where the novel comes from, a particular kind of passion for reading. But it does so in a spirit of love for the diversity and endlessness of the possibilities of fiction, rather than any desire to separate the quality from the rabble, the wheat from the chaff.”– Introduction of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (Revised and Updated Edition)
The editor, then, does not make any claims to have “gotten it right” in terms of selecting the exact 1001 books that are most necessary. In fact, in each new edition published, there have been books added and removed, causing the combined total of books that have been included on some version of the list to be well over 1001.
There’s also the fact that the list includes books from as early as 500 BC to as late as 2017, a year before the latest edition was published. One can easily imagine that it would include even more recent titles if there was yet another new edition.
There is no one list, unless you list all books that have ever been included in any edition. If you’re curious, you can find such a list at the link here.
As a result of the multiple editions, therefore, some people who take up this challenge decide to follow one particular version of the list, perhaps the one represented in the edition that they own. Others take it upon themselves to read every single entry from the combined list, or at least as many as they can practically get their hands on and their minds around. Some of these books, I’ve heard, are rare and out of print. Others have never been translated into English. And I can only assume that non-English speakers following the list have problems of books not being translated into their language either.
As for myself, I’ve decided that the best course of action is to aim for 1001 books out of the greater total represented by the combined listing. For one thing, I know my limits as a monolingual person (despite many years attempting to learn Spanish in school). For another, I don’t believe in universal absolutes. I don’t believe that I personally “must” read the same books that you “must” read. I believe that I will never understand the appeal of Finnegan’s Wake, and I don’t believe I’ll necessarily benefit from reading certain of the other books instead of certain books that haven’t ever appeared on the list.
As such, I don’t read books from this list exclusively, nor do I put that much pressure on myself to finish it. I do, however, turn to it as a list of suggestions, and I’ve found a lot of worthwhile titles on it that I probably never would have read otherwise.
The Results (So Far)
I’m a long way off from dying (hopefully), so my reading journey is far from complete. But up to this point, I can report having read ninety-five books that were included on at least one edition of this list. Some I read before I even knew about the list. Some I was going to read anyway. Some I picked off of the list because I recognized them and thought they sounded like just the thing I was looking for. Others I’ve given a try after flipping through my copy of 1001 and reading through the explanation of why a certain book was included. Still others have been books recommended elsewhere, which I decided to pick up after realizing they are also on the list.
I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences reading this way, some of which I plan to share more about in posts to come. Overall, though, I can say that I learned about the sorts of books (particularly classics) that I like, and I have also learned that some classics are placed on lists like this for reasons completely different to the reasons I want to be reading them. I’m not an academic or a literary critic. Some books that a professor of literature would find an invaluable study are just not as relevant to me.
There’s an important lesson in that, I think. The books that we as a society praise as being great are certainly considered great by someone. But who is the someone? Should we, whoever we are, be bound to agree with what any one group of others thinks? Should we be afraid to say that we didn’t enjoy reading a particular classic for fear of how we’ll be perceived?
I say no. Of course expertise should be respected, but we should all be free to say “that’s not for me” or to admit that we don’t get it. There should be no shame in being honest, in being who we are and valuing what we value and being in the place we are. I read some books early on in my journey that I’ve since gone back to and understood far better. Some books on the list are written for a younger audience, and I fear I’ll never have the same enjoyment of them that I might have if I’d read them earlier. And some I’m putting off because I know I’m not prepared for them. I need a greater understanding of the historical context or the cultural context or just more practice with an older version of the English language.
I’m not a beginner anymore, but I’m not an expert either. Not yet. Perhaps I never will be. But that’s ok. That’s life. Some people will become restauranteurs and food critics with such refined palates that they can appreciate fine dishes on a level that allows them to describe the most subtle nuances of flavor. And some of us will just continue cooking for ourselves and for our families and raving about our favorite fast-food franchise. You don’t have to be a gourmand to enjoy eating. You don’t have to have the same tastes as a literary expert to be a reader.
I don’t advise following a list like this exclusively. But if you do follow the list, I hope that you find joy in your selections. As I continue reading, I’ll share reviews of my selections, doing my best to determine who I think would enjoy them and who might benefit from reading them. If you want to start reading books from the list, hopefully my posts will help you find a starting point that’s right for you. If you’re already following it, maybe I can help you pick what’s next. And if you’re just a person deciding for yourself which books to read, feel free to check for ones that you can skip! I haven’t found a book yet that I think should be read by absolutely everyone, and I doubt I ever will. I wish you luck on your reading journey, whatever form it takes. Whether you’ve read a thousand of these books or none of them, you’re welcome here.