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Thursday, 29 July 2010

1001 books you might like to read

You may well have read or at least come across the literary reference book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Without getting too far into what sort of 'must' is being used in the title (presumably must meaning strongly advised rather than required), I'd like to put down a few thoughts about the book, or more specifically, the list in the book. The 'books' in the title, incidentally, refers to works of fiction.

Since the book appeared, there has inevitably been a fair amount of disagreement about what was on the list and what left off. In the healthily disputatious world of reading and writing, where ever serious reader has a shed full of opinions they are eager to share, such disagreement is about as inevitable as night following day.

One of the main criticisms of the list was that there were too many English language writers and some of these authors were over-represented. Perhaps to address this criticism, a new edition of the book has recently been brought out, still with 1001 titles, but with a different mix of novels. Some of the additions were published since the original edition, for example Ali Smith's The Accidental and Ngo Chimamanda's Half of a Yellow Sun. But the greatest number of additions are older books not written in English. Under Satan's Sun, written in French by Georges Bernanos and published in 1926, is now included. From Egypt comes Nawal al Sadaawi's Woman at Point Zero. And from Japan, there is Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki. Carlos Fuentes is now on the list, with his book, The Death of Artemio Cruz.

To accommodate these changes, other writers are now represented by fewer books; Charles Dickens has gone from 10 to 4, Graham Greene from 8 to 5, Ian McEwan from 8 to 3, Margaret Atwood from 6 to 3, and J M Coetzee from 10 to 5. Not that all this will end the arguments. Admirers of Dickens and McEwan will no doubt feel they've been done. And only one book from Carlos Fuentes? Where's the justice in that? And quite right, too. It's all an excellent source of pub discussion for those who don't greatly care whether England plays the 4-4-2 formation or who replaces Maradona, and especially for those who have no idea what 4-4-2 or Maradona are.

But does the inevitable disagreement reduce these lists to irrelevance? I don't think so. I've come across several books on them that I might not have found otherwise and they've prompted me to read people who I already knew about but had not got around to exploring.

Incidentally, the writer of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is a professor at Sussex University. In today's Guardian Gabriel Josipovici, also a professor at Sussex and formerly a professor of comparative literature at Oxford, is reported to have said many of the most prominent contemporary British writers - the likes of Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie - are unworthy of their prominence and virtually indistinguishable. Josipovici seems not be a fan of creative writing masters programmes either. Perhaps he could be persuaded to give us his list of novels not to be missed.

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