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1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die is a more marketing-savvy title than 1,000 Books I Liked. This is the ur-listicle, and a good one, from a knowledgeable authority that has pleasant reviews of these favorites, with copious name dropping of others. Should it really be a book? The author gives the predictable caveats that no such list could be complete, etc etc. It is intended to encourage discussion. It is maybe one of the best of these sorts of works, lovingly printed on high quality paper. I still think it’s a pass: two stars.

As such works mandate, one browses the pages and dives deeper at points, coming back up for air. Each entry gives some tips of similar works and other works by the author in question. I found a few books that got a little bump up in consciousness. Oh yeah, Zen in the Art of Archery…Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, sure one of these days. But when David Denby makes the cut, and gives a quote for the back of the book…well…maybe it is a little too heavily weighted to authors Mustich has met. 

In total though I wonder if these books have the opposite effect than intended; it’s just too overwhelming. It would be a better exercise to say what books you can safely skip. That takes editorial courage. If we can skip the second half of Goethe’s Faust as he admits, isn’t that enough of a ding to take it down just a notch. (Missed opportunity: what does Faust need to read before he dies, that would be a fun play.)

The book’s highlight is elevating children’s literature to its rightful place on such lists. Yeah, my kids should read The Phantom Tollbooth, thanks for the nudge. The heavy weighting of women and minority writers is de rigeur  for any such book written today. The virtue signalling gets a little tedious when we’re nudged to read the new versions of Nancy Drew because the first editions, though better stories, have stereotypes. OK. Remember, I’m on a clock here.

His choices from expected authors are a touch whimsical: Brideshead Revisited is clearly better than The Loved One, Death Comes to the Archbishop > O Pioneers, The Road doesn’t come close to Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. 

To list the works alphabetically is another forgone choice. I don’t need a ranking (“Montaigne is not in the top 150!? Outrage!”) but surely if you’re going to be a guide give more than just a list of locations. There is an afterthought appendix grouping a few of the works together which is mailed in. 

What books are missing that the publisher would really like me to fume about to create greater engagement with the work? OK, how about A Confederacy of Dunces by O’Toole, Witness by Whittaker Chambers, choose something from David Foster Wallace, Caesar’s Commentaries. Given the book’s success however we can be confident those left on the cutting room floor will show up in the inevitable sequel, 1000 More Books To Read Before You Die.

Post-script: A lasting effect from browsing this work, is it made me reconsider how I rate books. A 0-10 scale has too much needless granularity –is Max Boot’s just OK but heartfelt book a 2, 3 or 4?. The reviews themselves are thoughtful. A “4/10” doesn’t seem fair here. Two stars out of four (with rare fives or zeros) feels more useful of an evaluation. It suits its purpose but I wouldn’t offer a generic recommendation for the book. (It also would be easier to group these books by using such ratings as tags.)

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