For some, a list of 1001 books you "must" read is no mere suggestion. Jeremy Dauber explains his addiction to lists ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Something there may be that doesn't love a wall, as Robert Frost almost observed. For me there's nothing that doesn't love a list. Not of chores, mind you, but of books, films, records and so on. Show me a set of titles branded as "The Top Fifty Novels of the Nineteenth Century" or "The 42 Greatest Singles of the Motown Era" and my fingers practically reach of their own accord towards my Amazon account or Rhapsody playlist. I suspect I'm not alone, given the way such lists choke the web like kudzu. Nor am I the only one who has stashed away files of these lists, ambitiously started, rarely completed. But based on the attestations of my wife, my friends and everyone else I know, I may be more assiduous about list-following than most.
Looking at the books double-stacked on shelves in my office, I can check off their provenance one by one: New York Times 10 Best Books of 2010; 500 Essential Graphic Novels; Harold Bloom’s guide at the end of The Western Canon; the awards list at the Locus Index to Science Fiction Awards; and the National Yiddish Book Centre’s 100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature. The stacks include the occasional recommendation of a friend or an impulse buy, but those are the exceptions to the list-derived rule.
Recently my enabler of choice has been the “1001” series from Quintessence Editions, which list the top 1001 things you “must” see, read, listen to, play golf at, etc, before you die. These are big, honking volumes—the "1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die", for example, comes in at 960 pages. Like the old slogan for the board game Othello (remember?), these lists take minutes to scan and a lifetime to finish. For me, finding them ranked somewhere between first looking into Chapman’s Homer and discovering that it wasn’t just TV, it was HBO: in short, a pretty big deal.
There are pros and cons to these books, though it’s sometimes hard to know which is which: they’re not ranked, so readers have less guidance even as the publishes enjoy more freedom to include “essential” works that are interesting, rather than good; their size makes them unwieldy (but impressively aspirational!); and, of course, they’re subjective (four works by Dostoevsky crack the “1001 Books” list—“The Brothers Karamozov” is not among them).
For all their flaws the “1001” series is, for my money, the paragon of lists: a perfect end-product of their fundamental appeal. For purposes of thematic congruence, I'll outline their allure, along with those of other lists, in numbered, ordered form.
1. They offer the imprimatur of authority (albeit of authorities I know nothing about). The beauty of the lists—unlike browsing the Strand’s bargain bin, or throwing darts in the Fiction & Literature section of the local Barnes & Noble—is that essentially anonymous “experts” have been polled to compile them. The fact that I have no idea who these people are or whether their opinions are any good doesn’t matter. The list works its authoritative magic in some large part by confirming my own knowledge and prejudices. Everyone who's reading these lists knows enough to be suspicious if, say, “Citizen Kane” is absent from one, or “Madame Bovary” from another. The best lists combine comfortingly familiar works (that I may not have yet seen, read or heard) with refreshingly unknown and kind-of known ones. And so…
2. They provide necessary middle- to highbrow intellectual fortitude for recalcitrant reading. How many of us, and by us I mean me, are ever going to get around to reading Samuel Richardson's “Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded” (appearing prominently and early in “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die”)? Yes, I know it's important—it sounds vaguely familiar from classes in English literature; something about the rise of the novel, epistolary 18th-century fiction, fundamental, and so on. But it’s not so simple to say, “Yes, the new Stieg Larsson [or Ann Beattie, etc] beckons, but let me just hoist this slab of a novel first, which may very well be illuminating as well as historically significant.” What makes it easier—maybe even exciting!—is when “Pamela” is the 76th entry on a list of 100 and you’ve read the first 75. Or it’s the first on the list, and you’re bright-eyed and feeling full of pep. Like other regimens and resolutions, lists have the capacity to nudge you to do what you supposedly want to do. More specifically, they encourage you to do what you wish to have already done.
3. They fight a rigorous holding action in the battle against cultural entropy and chaos. In this magpie cultural age, texts are presented in a dizzying array and are hard to get purchase on. Context is of course available—via Wikipedia and a panoply of other internet-based resources—but such sources are themselves often contextless, floating in the crowd-sourced ether. A well-ranked list, however, can have all of the intellectual heft of a graduate seminar without the pain of that final paper, and at a much cheaper price. Reading, for example, "Joseph Andrews" right after "Pamela", thanks to the nudging of the folks at “1001” (who, while not ranking the works, helpfully provide them in chronological order on their website), I can see how one satirises the other. It also becomes clear how both books, in their own ways, take on the happy-go-lucky Moll Flanders in their portraits of female virtue and its questionable rewards. I’m not sure I would have noticed these connections had I read these tomes independently of the guidance from Quintessence Editions. Were they not so invitingly, so authoritatively, side by side on that list, I’d surely have allowed years to pass between reading them, if I read them at all.
4. They catalyse your creative ingenuity. I don’t quite mean the inspiration that comes from reading/seeing/listening to something new, though of course there’s that. What I am referring to here is the ingenuity required just to get your hands on the stuff in the first place. It’s easy enough to find a copy of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (from “1001 Albums”). But often lists—like the Locus Science Fiction Awards, with titles long out of print; or even the “1001 Movies”—send you into more remote territory, far from the good people at Amazon and well beyond Netflix. So you stretch. I’ve found myself checking auction sites for old graphic novels; downloading various programs to read public-domain texts of 18th-century fiction; relying on the stoutheartedness of the librarians to track down paperback science-fiction originals from the 1960s, and the like.
This can lead to all sorts of accidental and delightful discoveries. For example, my fervour to get started on the next item on my “1001 Books” list required getting “Pamela” right away. (Skipping around on these lists, while permissible, is surely frowned upon by the authorities.) So I downloaded a free version from Kindle onto my smartphone and was off to the races. It turns out that reading 18th-century novels digitally can yield some interesting surprises.
For one thing, heftier public-domain novels, such as “Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady” (unofficial title: one of the longest freaking novels ever written in the English language, about a woman whose family—we discover at great length—doesn’t deserve her), are often at the Kindle store in individual volumes, just as these early books were when they were first published. So although I am reading this novel on the same device I use to play “Angry Birds”, I still must wait patiently for the next volume after finishing the previous one, like my earliest literary predecessors (though in my case the wait has been reduced from months or weeks to the length of time it takes for my 4G network to appear).
Also, books on the Kindle (or Kindle app) lack page numbers. Rather, a number at the bottom of the screen indicates the percentage of the book a reader has read. This affords a unique quantitative literary analysis. For example: “Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded” is a story about a woman named Pamela whose virtue is ultimately rewarded. Without spoiling the story (a job surely managed by its title), I’ll merely say she wins the love of a newly reformed man. This love comes about some 52% of the way into the book. Given that 48% of the book was still left, I figured the story couldn’t possibly be over; that there must’ve been twists and turns left (in the way the man fingered as the murderer 35 minutes into an episode of "CSI" can't possibly be the killer). But guess what: Pamela spent the next 48% of the book reaping the rewards of her virtue, largely unhindered. Though this didn’t make for a fascinating read, it did teach me a lesson about how the art of the novel has developed over time (for which, it must be said, I’m most grateful). And for every "Pamela", there’s something like D.W. Griffith’s "Intolerance" from "1001 Movies", which I began watching dutifully only to become enraptured, open-mouthed at the spectacles on the screen; or Louis Prima’s "The Wildest!", which was just as fun to listen to as its entry promised in “1001 Albums”.
5. They are fundamentally optimistic. The mildly superstitious part of me isn’t so keen to get to the end of these "before you die" lists. (Fanciful images of a wizened version of myself on a deathbed, surrounded by loved ones, making a final check mark on a long sheet of paper with 1001 items on it come to mind.) But, like with Achilles and that annoying tortoise, the time it takes to finish the list means that there are ever more items to add to it—there’s already been a second edition of the 1001 Albums book, for example, updating it with the latest three years of albums (sorry to see you go, Christina Aguilera; hello, LCD Soundsystem).
The lists give the impression of finitude, of the possibility of completion and coherence. Yet the prospect of completing them seems designed to be impossible. Not only are these lists dauntingly comprehensive, but also there are alternative lists, and revisions and amendments. There is comfort in this—in what is always enticingly beyond reach. It is a sense of youth and humility that keeps you on your toes, which is nice when you’ve still, as in my case, got about 955 books to go.
Jeremy Dauber is a professor of literature at Columbia University. His book, "The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem", will be published next year with Nextbook Press. Picture credit: sahlgoode, someToast (both via Flickr)