Monday, January 16, 2012

1001 books you must read before you die

Last week, I took a little departure from reality: I unplugged (to a certain extent), decompressed, and reorganized. It was a much needed break after an incredibly happening year for me and my little family. Lots of firsts which necessitated lots of changes, most, thankfully, for the better. As grateful as I was (still am) for them, I was understandably overwhelmed enough to seek a little respite so I could catch my breath. Overflowing is probably an adequate description of my cranial status at the time. I'm not quite sure that the break helped though... see exhibit A below.

Peripherally registering the tragic sinking of a cruise ship, the escalating (almost unbridled) expansion of the Department of Defense in its futile attempt to rule spread freedom in the world, the disgraceful display of election-spending that tries to pass itself off as democracy in action, and the stagnating, almost paralyzed state of the economy, I switched my gaze from macro to micro, tangible little things in my little life, over which I still seem to have some control. After the obligatory cleaning and purging (and haranguing my little family to do the same), it finally rested on the book that I was given for my birthday a few weeks ago:

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Thoughts of one's own mortality are not usually undertaken with glee. Especially on one's birthday. So the sneaky way-- which Peter Boxall chose to arm-twist me to begin reading the literary masterpieces that he highlights and showcases -- aside (ah the pressure... what if I die halfway through the list, wouldn't that suck?), I reluctantly must confess that perhaps a little persuading was necessary in getting me to allot the requisite time to delve into this worthy exercise.

Okay, so there are some great books out there, most of which I have not read (and many of the ones I have were not read of my own volition, owing chiefly to the mandatory reading requirements of my thorough French education). Now what?

I don't want to die having missed out on the most impressive and groundbreaking literature of human mankind (okay, largely Western Civilization, if you want to get specific). Damn you Boxall, you hit a nerve!

Boxell's book is organized by eras, chronologically, starting with the pre-1700s, which features books such as Aesop's Fables, Ovid's Metamorphosis, and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote; and after proper due to the 1700s, the 1800s, and 1900s, ends in the 2000s, with Salman Rushdie's Fury, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, and (the last entry) Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.  Left to my own devices, a head-first dive into another one of my (frequent) descents into madness is all but imminent.

Presenting, Exhibit A:

Do I read them chronologically? 
Assuming that I give myself a good enough pace to tackle this massive undertaking in a relatively short time (short enough to finish it before my latent Alzheimer's develops into full-blown dementia), do I start at the beginning, with the pre-1700s books, you know, how they were written? There is something to be said about following the progress of the written word through the ages, appreciating man's steady progress to literary sophistication, right?

Do I read them in reverse chronological order?
Let's face it, old stuff is, well, old. Dated, archaic, no longer applicable. If the reasoning is that practice makes perfect, that man definitely got better through time, then why bother with the half-ass stuff, albeit the best of its contemporaries?

Establish some sort of pecking order then jump through the different eras in a rule-governed manner?
Why be tied to the old-to-new or new-to-old order? How about alternating? Say, pick one book from the pre-1700s, the next one from the 1700s, then, sequentially through the eras until current times? Or vice versa? So that I am not either stuck in the present or stuck in the past? I did warn you about the insanity, didn't I? You thought I was being facetious? Well, haha! the joke's on you!

Fuck rules and just randomly select the next reading material?
This might be a big problem for me: Every part of my being resists chucking methodical reasoning of a linear nature to replace it with the unknown. Perhaps I could have a random number generator choose page numbers (or book numbers) for me (of course that would entail entering the data one by one and don't think that I'm not OCD enough to do it!) I could maybe flip at random pages and just read whatever I land on? (that would be sort of cheating because I know that the book is in chronological order so I would more or less determine based on my flip which part I will read: too shallow and I'm go back in time to the "enlightened" ages, too deep and I get back to the present, see what I mean?)

Let practical matters decide?
I recently vowed to never again buy a printed book if it is available in digital version. My Kindle (or Kindle app on my iPad) is the best invention for de-cluttering my life that has EVER been invented, umm, so far that is (alongside my handy-dandy ScanSnap S1500, my trusty scanner, turner of my paperwork-junk into organized folders in my computer). Should I then just read whatever is available in eBook or Kindle format first then move on (maybe) to the available-only-in-printed format books? Even then, how do I decide which to read first? Price? Size? Alphabetical? (Argh!)

Fuck Peter Boxall, who is he anyway and what gives him the right to torture me with his evil book?
What gives him the credentials to authoritatively decide what is and isn't a worthy read? Can you really judge art objectively? And why 1001 books, how did he decide that that was the magical number? Was it a wink and a nod to Elf Layla wa Laylah (One Thousand and One Nights) featured on p.28? I just had an interesting conversation over the weekend with someone who introduced me to the work of the Italian psychiatrist Luigi Morelli, who questions the very idea of torment that we inflict upon ourselves in the name of musts and shoulds in our lives. Am I a slave to obligation of my own doing? Why must I care about these arguably arbitrarily-decided 1001 titles? 5 centuries of work, and only 1001 books made the cut, come on, does that even make sense?

As you can see, this can go on and on until grey matter starts oozing out through my scalp in utter protest.
Help me out will ya? Tell me, what would you do?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Addendum: Since posting this, I was told about an excel spreadsheet,  floating about on the interwebs, that lets you mark off the titles as you read them, giving you some interesting statistics (how many left, percentage read). Here's the addy for a free basic download, or more sophisticated versions, which require some payment.

In case you are interested in my stats, at first glance (owing to my deteriorating memory), I was able to ascertain only having read, for sure, 54 of the 1001 books, which puts me at 5.39% completion. Some of these books I have read back in the 6th grade (i.e. Les Trois Mousquetaires), and some I am not entirely sure if I have read the book or seen the movie. I'll post an update as soon as I get to the bottom of this. 

If you care to share, I would be very curious as to what kind of stats you get...

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Addendum to the addendum: Denise was right, there are several editions to the book. And this download doesn't match mine. But since I've just decided that anything I have not read in this century shouldn't qualify, the point is moot...I'll be starting from scratch anyway. Stay tuned for updates!


At 1/16/12, 3:59 PM , Anonymous A loyal reader said...

It could be worse: Boxall could have taken his inspiration from 10,000 Leagues Under The Sea...

At 1/16/12, 5:04 PM , Blogger Karen said...

I don't know but now I kinda want to buy this book... so I can write in it. I love my kindle too, and you are right, it has helped keep my house free of books. Not that I got rid of many, there just aren't as many incoming. Let me know what you start with Megan :)

At 1/16/12, 5:11 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Haha :) Phew, you can imagine the conundrum...

At 1/16/12, 5:12 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

So I should do the kindle thing, then? You're not helping me make my decision, Karen :)

At 1/16/12, 6:07 PM , Anonymous victorias_view said...

Too much stress! I don't want to feel the pressure of reading those books before I die. And what if I waste a perfectly good evening reading a book I might not like...How I do love Never Let Me Go! I think you should start with that ;) Oh! Is the Nicomachean Ethics on there? One of my favorites!

At 1/16/12, 6:17 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

We are presuming that these books are SO good that if I don't like them, there is something wrong with me (damn you Boxall, you evil man!). So let me get this straight Darcie, are you voting for starting with the last book first?

And no, no Nicomachean Ethics on there. If (not WHEN just IF at this point) I am done with these 1001 books and we are both still not completely senile, can you remind me to read it?

At 1/17/12, 3:49 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Karen: check out the link in the addendum to see the list of the books.

At 1/22/12, 9:35 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Imagine my (now not so) secret shame at the HUGE holes in my own reading list, since I purport to be an English teacher.
Personally, I like the lists of 100 books we "must" read. I'm okay with skipping around on the shorter list of 100, since if I start a book and don't like it, I prefer to try again later. The first few times I tried to read Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, I couldn't get far. When on the third try I zoomed through it using a box of Kleenex, I then followed it by reading almost everything Hem wrote. Now he's my best bud, and those ugly rumors about him being a misogynist are not true!
Where were we? Oh, so I vote for reading from a list of 100, only reading what is palatable at the time one cracks open the book, ebooks are great but only if I can't get the book cheaper used, and thanks to Darcie and Virginia I don't have time to read anything other than Stephanie Plum for the next month.
To muddy the waters further, here are 2 lists of 100. One is from the Modern Library's Board, one is from readers. :)

At 1/26/12, 2:38 AM , Blogger Laine Griffin said...

At first I was going to say you have to start at the beginning. Which I still think if you go for 1001.
But I like Melanie's suggestion better.
Or better yet, look at many lists, get yourself one of those spreadsheets and compile your own lists! I actually might need to do this. I have huge holes as well.

At 2/20/12, 5:10 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Hey Mel, just saw this. I love your two lists but this book is my mount Everest and (for now) I am totally committed to it. Ambitious? Hell yeah!

Your friend Hem, by the way, has 5 entries in it. So your hole is not quite as big as you think it is :)

At 2/20/12, 5:15 PM , Blogger Unknown said...

Sorry, just saw this. You are absolutely right, Elaine: the beginning is a very good place to start. In fact, after much pondering (and obsessing) and back and forth, I decided not to fight my linear brain and do just that, with a small practical caveat. I am reading them in chronological order but 1) starting with the ones I already own; 2) then the ones my library carries; 3) then the ones I can find on kindle; 4)and ending with purchasing the rest in hard copy, if they are still in print. Wish me luck!


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