Saturday, May 24, 2008

"1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:" Review

"1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:" Book Review

Peter Boxall edits this massive, handsomely designed, anthology. With its appeal to the quick eye more than the patient mind, perhaps it's better suited for browsing and delighting the quick skimmer than the owlish critic. Boxall explains in his eloquent introduction the reason for the volume. He links this Rizzoli compendium to Scheherezade, who kept her death nightly at bay by telling a story for a thousand-and-one nights. There's an unlimited, endless hint in such a great symbolic number; there's also "the mortal urgency" of her impending doom and her need for invention. In this tension between "the expansive and the contracted," and "the roomy and the constricted," over a hundred scholars suggest their small tales, urging you to seek out in their own "micro-event," a work (usually fiction, mostly novels-- or at least an imaginative memoir or prose-poem) that in three-hundred words encapsulates the experience of reading the whole work. Multiply this a thousand-fold, add graphics that often comment in their captions on the book jacket design's relevance to the work, toss in publicity photos of the author or illustrations of their characters, and you have a large tome that belies its free-wheeling, casual, and inviting nature.

The problem with such books of lists is that they often tilt towards the recent, the works enjoyed a year or two ago, and most of these being ones printed in the past generation. The table of contents takes from eighteen pages to cover all of pre-1700. The 18th century earns forty-two pages; the nineteenth a hundred and fifty. The twentieth expands from pp. 230-883, and the 2000s already occupy pp. 884-949. The sheer numbers, of course, of books now available may account for this embarrassment of contemporary riches, but I suspect that the reality of what remains in print from past centuries, and what lies unknown beyond in archives or museums known only to a few scholars-- and the levels of literacy and quality of what survives into our era--do show a history lesson of its own about vanity, ephemera, and how lucky we moderns are to have so much to choose from in our libraries and bookstores.

In "Volumes to Go Before You Die," William Grimes (May 23, 2008, New York Times) noted that: "Quintessence, the British publishers, later decided that 'books' worked better than “novels” in the title." Primo Levi's "The Drowned and the Saved," David Jones' "In Parenthesis," George Saunders' "Pastoralia," Swift's "A Modest Proposal," Olaudah Equiano's "The Interesting Narrative," or Rousseau's "Reveries of a Solitary Walker" may not fit into our tidy notion of a fictional work as a novel, but they are the exceptions to the rule. There's an awful lot of space given to illustrations, this being published by an press devoted to art. I might have preferred more than 300 words for descriptions for many of the inclusions, but the appeal of the graphic layout might have suffered. Charles Kingsley's "The Water-Babies" gets a great depiction by J.W. Smith; I miss Thackeray's own cartoons for his "Vanity Fair," on the other hand. As the centuries slide towards cinema, adaptations of narratives for film and the stage provide vivid posters. Jean de Bosschere's 1923 rendering for Apuleius' "The Golden Ass" astonishes with its frank sexuality, while a French 1958 sign for "The Horror of Dracula" film distills its own tension between sex, love, and death crudely but effectively.

I mention such pairings as they enrich the contents of the text. These may get overlooked, but the images arrest your flicking finger, and slow you down to attend to the printed captions, which in turn lure you into the summations of the stories. (There's also a clever frontispiece, "Vanitas" by Hans Holbein the Younger, that sums up the theme of the collection wittily.) Marlon Brando's daubed face as Kurtz juxtaposes with Conrad's mien and the "Heart of Darkness" entry; a few pages later, "Der Blaue Engel" with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jennings entices you to look at the source, "Professor Unrat" by Heinrich Mann, and thus you may discover, as I did, a novel by Thomas Mann's brother I never knew of. Anthony Perkins from Orson Welles' film of Kafka's "The Trial" gains his own expressionistic contrast in a well-chosen still. Gary Cooper scrutinizes his copy of "A Farewell to Arms" during a break in its filming; Wyndham Lewis' angular self-portrait garishly sums up "The Apes of God" so well you may never want to read it.

The contents tend, until recent decades, to be largely British or Continental. This again reflects what's available in translation and kept in print, so charges of ethnocentric bias, I counter, are misplaced. This is the reality of the industry, and what one will find on the shelf and probably not in the local chain bookstore. Anyone who opens this will find delight and disappointment in what's made the final cut and what's left out. I leave that individual encounter up to you. As an aide-memoire, this will goad you into making good on at least a few dozen titles you always meant to get to but never did, or hundreds that you have vaguely heard of, and perhaps as many you had no clue, no idea, or no reason to know about before.

(Posted to Amazon US May 25, 2008.) Image: Hans Holbein the Younger, 1543: Vanitas

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