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Literary Adequacy For Dummies

from the New York Times

Volumes to Go Before You Die 

Published: May 23, 2008

An odd book fell into my hands recently, a doorstopper with the irresistible title “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.” That sounds like a challenge, with a subtle insult embedded in the premise. It suggests that you, the supposedly educated reader, might have read half the list at best. Like one of those carnival strength-testers, it dares you to find out whether your reading powers rate as He-Man or Limp Wrist.

Photo illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York TimesThe book is British. Of course. The British love literary lists and the fights they provoke, so much so that they divide candidates for the Man Booker Prize into shortlist books and longlist books. In this instance Peter Boxall, who teaches English at Sussex University, asked 105 critics, editors and academics — mostly obscure — to submit lists of great novels, from which he assembled his supposedly mandatory reading list of one thousand and one. Quintessence, the British publishers, later decided that “books” worked better than “novels” in the title.

Even without Milton or Shakespeare, Professor Boxall has come up with a lot of books. Assume, for the sake of argument, that a reasonably well-educated person will have read a third of them. (My own score, tallied after I made this estimate, was 303.) That leaves 668 titles. An ambitious reader might finish off one a month without disrupting a personal reading program already in place. That means he or she would cross the finish line in the year 2063. At that point, upon reaching the last page of title No. 1,001, “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro, death might come as a relief.

Two potent factors make “1001 Books” (published in the United States in 2006 by Universe; $34.95) compelling: guilt and time. It plays on every serious reader’s lingering sense of inadequacy. Page after page reveals a writer or a novel unread, and therefore a demerit on the great report card of one’s cultural life. Then there’s that bullying title, with its ominous allusion to the final day when, for all of us, the last page is turned.

[ click to read full article in the NY Times ]

Posted on May 24, 2008 by Editor

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