My first complaint upon reading this book—and I think it’s a lot people’s first complaint—is a dumb one. It’s “this list of books is not exactly the sMy first complaint upon reading this book—and I think it’s a lot people’s first complaint—is a dumb one. It’s “this list of books is not exactly the same as the list of books I would have made.”
The odds that anyone would come up with the same 1001 choices as any other person is, of course, rather slim, so I’ll try not to gripe about the simple differences of opinion.
Also, although the idea that there could possibly be 1001 books anyone “must” read is ridiculous—and the idea that everyone “must” read Finnegans Wake, say, doubly so—I understand that this title is a marketing trick, and has little to do with the content of the book. (But the fact that a list of books everyone “must” read includes one book (The Albigenses) that “was never reprinted following its original publication and can now only be found in a very few research libraries” is so astonishingly jerky that I have to remove my hat. Well played, Boxall. (Now, of course, Google books spoils the prank.)) So I won’t complain about that either.
But taking the list on face value for what it’s clearly meant to be—something along the lines of a survey of canonical narrative fiction with allowances for “popular” and genre books and a heavy but not exclusively Western bias—there are huge flaws in the list, and clearly I will not be able to prevent myself from complaining about all of them.
Some of the early choices are weird: The canon is pretty well set when you go back in time two thousand years, and if you told some classicists that you had three slots for ancient novels, I can’t imagine any of them not telling you to fill those slots with Apuleius’ Golden Ass, Petronius’ Satyricon, and Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe. Boxall picks one of these, and fills the other slots up with Chariton and Heliodorus in a choice that is so idiosyncratic that I think one of us is simply misinformed about the relative canonicity of these texts. Lady Murasaki is weirdly omitted as is, in one of the most inexplicable choices in the whole book, Boccaccio, as we go rocketing towards Rabelais. There is no Lazarillo de Tormes or hint of the Continental picaresque tradition as a groundwork for Don Quixote, let alone Thomas Malory. But I get it: there are only 1001 spots to fill, and we need to save room for more modern stuff. Far greater than these sins of omission is the wholly bizarre inclusion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This is, I think, the second biggest blunder in the volume. Because, above all else the Metamorphoses is a poem. 1001BYMRBYD is a record of the prose tradition, and as influential as Ovid is, and despite whatever apologetic excuse the accompanying description provides, Ovid belongs to a different tradition. His inclusion opens a can of worms: there are numerous poetic narratives of equal or greater canonicity that could easily be left out of any book about prose narratives that does not include Ovid. Starting with Aesop (as Boxall does) is weird; starting with the classical era may be weird in and of itself, but I can see how classical novels are “novelistic” in a way that Norse sagas are not and medieval romances are straining towards. But Ovid is a red herring; a dead end not in the history of literature but in 1001BYMRBYD, which will scrupulously avoid verse from this point on. The Decameron is the obvious better choice for an influential story collection, but then so are the Gesta Romanorum, the Heptameron, the Kathasaritsagara, or The Thousand and One Nights—only that last one is included here. I can pick faults with some choices, but really everything I say is going to be overshadowed by this one fact: putting Ovid in, especially instead of Boccaccio, is bonkers.
I understand that choosing these 1001 books is a thankless task. There are many canonical books that no one really likes (Silas Marner, Scarlet Letter), but they need to be included. A book filled with all the canonical literature would be boring; a book that leaves any out would be irresponsible. So Boxall is in an impossible situation, and I think he makes the best of it. The highbrow names are all here, but the high/low distinction has been exploded enough that 1001BYMRBYD can include books that are various degrees of trash (and I mean “trash” lovingly). The mystery genre is well served, with perhaps only Ross MacDonald getting left out; science fiction is underrepresented, and gets a selection that is very mainstream-friendly, but not bad (if I was more of a mystery than an sf fan I might have a different opinion about this). The absence of Le Guin, and the general scarcity of the New Wave, is, considering the tone of most of the rest of 1001BYMRBYD, the weirdest part.
Children’s books are not treated as well. I know—you could make a book of 1001 children’s books to read before you die, and this company has, but all of kidlit is summarized here by two Alice books, Little Women, and The Water Babies (which gets an unconvincing disclaimer that it is not a kid’s book in the first clause of its description). No Baum, no Barrie, no Graham, no Milne, let alone the explosion of great later writers. A rule that kids’ books are disallowed would make sense, but they let a couple slip in and it becomes unclear why more were kept out.
Why do Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, so frequently bound together, get two entries? Why do Mishima’s four Sea of Fertility volumes, Proust’s seven RoTP volumes, or Calvino’s three Our Ancestors volumes get one entry each? I read Calvino’s trilogy and I didn’t even know it was a trilogy until I learned it from this book; that’s how loosely connected they are. The two Dirk Gently books, meantime, get two entries. The choice to split or not to split series will always be somewhat arbitrary, I suppose, but by the time you’re cranking out your third Updike Rabbit write-up, shouldn’t you have come up with some kind of general rule to prevent this redundancy?
There are several short story collections and at least three short stories—couldn’t find a Poe collection you liked? Borges is represented by Ficciones and Labyrinths, two books that contain like 75% of the same material. I realize I’m whining about small individual errors, now, but that one annoyed me.
And…I know I said I wouldn’t complain about simple disagreements in the list, but there are some authors whose absence is a huge puzzle. Carson McCullers is perhaps the biggest howler, but Robert Graves, Shirley Jackson, Arthur Koestler, maybe Yasunari Kawabata or Mika Waltari—their absence is conspicuous.
Oh, but the 1001 Books is a zero sum game. Regrettably some authors are just not going to fit. This is a reasonable position, even if McCullers must be nixed, or at least it would be if the whole volume was not so padded! This is the biggest problem in 1001BYMRBYD, by far. Some authors get a superabundance of entries, and this comes at the expense of big authors who get few or none. For a list that clearly prides itself in its diversity, with popular junk novels rubbing elbows with experimental late Beckett, with both Anne Rice and Robert Musil, with H. Rider Haggard and Agatha Christie and George Bataille, this kind of narrow focus is fatal.
I like Ian McEwan as much as the next man, but he has ten books listed here. That’s 1% of the books you must read before you die! De Lillo gets 7, Ballard gets 8, and Graham Greene gets 9; Coetze gets 11, or I may have lost count. Some of these guys are good, but, frankly, no one is 1% good. I dug Pynchon’s Vineland, but I know well that I am almost alone in digging Pynchon’s Vineland—yet it’s there, as is every single other Pynchon novel released when this book came out. The bias is towards the late twentieth century, but not exclusively so: Virginia Woolf gets 9. In contrast, Mark Twain gets 1, and Herman Melville 2—and one of those is Billy Budd, and doesn’t count.
Now if I had to make a list of 1001 books, you can bet that there’d be a lot of repeat authors; Nabokov would have 20 books and Frederik Pohl another 20, because I love these authors and I’ve read a lot by them; and I would be desperately trying to fill up my list. It’s hard to think of 1001 things! But a book like this, with multiple editors and contributors, really has no excuse for 3 books by John Irving and 3 by…Brett Easton Ellis?!?
If Boxall chose to put John Wyndham instead of John Christopher, that’s just a difference of opinion, and I can respect it. But he puts in 3 books by John Wyndham! Makes me start to lobby a little harder (in my head) for some John Christopher.
As 1001BYMRBYD nears the present, more memoirs slip in, and an entry is more likely to start with a shamefaced disclaimer “this is assuredly not a novel” (Adjunct: An Undigest); but I’d put up with any of that if I didn’t have to see all the slots get gobbled up by Paul Auster so that we have no room left for a single Nabokov Russian novel.
Maybe things get better in later editions. I read the first edition. Some of the writeups were good and some of them were dull plot summaries with lots of spoilers, and at least one ended with “to read the novel is to experience the regaining of time” (Austerlitz); but that’s not how it felt to read this book. ...more