Tuesday, 5 June 2012

1001 Books: Now you can fail with me!

So. This 1001 Books List of mine. Up till now I've just been blithely assuming that you all know exactly what I'm talking about every time I mention it, but, judging by recent questions put to me (by my friend Boadicea and also two people from the internet) this is not at all the case.

You (all three of you) overwhelmingly want to know what it is, what it does and how you, too, may set yourselves up to fail, and so, in response to your questions, here is my super-quick guide to the 1001 Books List.

1. What is it?

1001 Books is, actually, a book. It's part of a series on Things To Do Before You Die (there's also one that covers films, one for cities and one, for the alcoholically inclined, on beers). It was first published (in England) in 2006 and there's been a new edition roughly every two years - the most recent is 2010 but a 2012 edition will be out soon.

2. What's in it?

Obvious things first: it's a list of 1001 (allegedly) must-read books. It's compiled by a large group of people who are supposed to know their literary stuff; professors and editors and so on. The list changes with every edition because new things get published and older things fall out of fashion.

From this you may see one of its flaws, and the reason why I'm not trying to read everything on it: especially where newer titles are concerned, the List is incredibly subject to industry trends. Memoirs of a Geisha got on in 2006 because it was THE cool book that year, but by 2008 it was uncool and so was bumped off to make way for White Tiger, which got on in turn because that year it won the Booker. Don't get me wrong, both of those books are good, but if I had died without reading them I don't think I'd be spinning in my grave right now.

What I try to use the List for, and where I think it comes into its own, is as a spur to read classics with daunting reputations (like Moby Dick or War and Peace) or to try well-respected but not particularly cool authors (like Isherwood or Iris Murdoch). All of those, by the way, I now LOVE, and I'm not sure if I ever would have read them without the List.

3. How do I get hold of it?

You could always buy the book (that's a link to the forthcoming 2012 edition), but if you're not afraid of computers or you have weak wrists I would heartily recommend Arukiyomi's brilliantly geeky spreadsheet. This glorious document contains the 2006, 2008 and 2010 Lists, so you can pick and choose which one you're working from (or if you're hardcore you can do all three) and it's got a lovely stats page so you can see how well (or badly) you're doing. You could get the lite edition, which is free, but believe me, the paid version is the one you want. It's excellent value and you won't regret forking out. (NB: Arukiyomi informs me that the List now comes in handy iPhone format, so you will never have to be without your book bible again).

4. So, how's your own challenge going?

Terribly, dear readers. TERRIBLY. People keep publishing new books that, obviously, are not on the list, and then I go into bookshops and they're on three-for-two offer... and you can guess the rest. Also (fair warning to fellow nerds) sci fi and fantasy are horribly under-represented on the List, as are crime novels and historical fiction. I tell you, if that List was mine for the compiling, it would be a whole lot more fun and a whole lot less about James Joyce. And do we need every book Dickens ever wrote? Do we really? I don't think we do.

At the moment, I'm on 19.58% of the 2008 List (which is the edition I have a physical copy of, although I try not to look at it because it has American Psycho on its front cover). My friend Boadicea gave me a large pile of the shortest books on the List to help speed me along, and I was going to start reading them, but then I picked up Mary Renault's Alexander Trilogy instead and it's so excellent (all 700 pages of it) that I want to go live inside it for ever. And I've got that dissertation to write...

Nevertheless, you can still triumph! Now that I have given you the information you need to succeed, go forth and download (or purchase) your copy, pick a (*SENSIBLE) target and start your reading.

You can thank me later. (?)


  1. Later? No, I'm going to thank you NOW!: thank so much for linking to my spreadsheet! Just one small correction, I may be brilliant but I'm a geek not a nerd. Huuuuge difference! ANyway, just wondered if you were aware that there's an iPhone app for the list too now...

    1. Thank you right back! I've been using your sheet for years and I love it.

      'Nerdy' has gone as if it had never been, and I've also put up a link to the iPhone app. By the way, can we expect an updated spreadsheet when the 2012 edition comes out?

  2. My dad has that book. I think it's nonsense. I'd rather make my own list of maybe 200 really exciting and interesting books and read them. Then again I'm just not as motivated as you for this :P If it were 1001 songs to learn and sing before you die, I'd be all over it. :)

    1. There are songs, but the kind you listen to rather than interact with. A failure on their part!

      In a way it totally is nonsense, but the kind of nonsense you can subvert to your own ends. And since it's all about great books, I can't hate :P