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2006-12, 352, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, Literature

Book Review- 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Ed. Peter Boxall (ABC Books) 960pp. $65.00

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is a sumptuously illustrated book of nearly one thousand pages, which chronicles the novel from antiquity to the present day. However, the vast majority of the books selected by over 100 contributors date from after 1900.

Peter Boxall, the general editor, is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Sussex. He has largely chosen a number of his colleagues at that university to contribute the summaries and critical appreciations of the novels. Most books have a one or two page entry including author and publication details and a summaryof the book. Most also have an illustration of either the book or the author, many of which are in full colour.

Boxall acknowledges that many novels cannot be easily summarised but then argues that this brevity is the “book’s greatest strength”, forcing on contributors the “cramped urgency of a death bed confession”! Hyperbole apart, many of the entries will stir readers into seeking out books that are unfamiliar to them and rereading old favourites.

Books begin with Aesop’s Fables and end with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. All selections in such ‘Best of’ are necessarily subjective, but part of the fun is to debate such choices. Having said that, Australia does not fare well. One could argue that some minor northern hemisphere writers should be deleted to allow, say, David Malouf or TimWinton to be included. English novelist and critic Philip Hensher has highlighted the “surprising gaps… ‘no Henry Handel Richardson, no Marcus Clarke, no Miles Franklin’ ”.

This Australian edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die drops the UK introduction by Peter Ackroyd and replaces it with one from TV book show host and journalist, Jennifer Byrne. Byrne, perhaps anticipating criticism of the relative lack of Australian authors, indicates that selection is the beginning of a debate rather than a closure. Byrne reflects that “the great enemy of reading is snobbery”, so this compilation includes authors such as Elmore Leonard and Mario Puzo.

Perhaps part of that inclusion debate will be the definition of ‘Australian’ writers and writing. Reviewers have identified variously three, four and five Australian authors. The AustLit database (http://www.austlit.edu.au/) believes the ‘Australian’ inclusions comprise the following list:

-The Middle Parts of Fortune: Somme and Ancre, 1916 (Her Privates We) by the Sydney-born and educated Frederic Manning.

The Living and the Dead and Voss by Patrick White.

A Town Like Alice by Englishman Nevil Shute. (Shute’s visit to Australia in the late 1940s provided the inspiration for A Town Like Alice. He returned a decade later and, continuing to write, spent the last ten years of his life on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula.)

Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally.

Oscar and Lucinda and Jack Maggs by expatriate Peter Carey.

Under the Skin by Australian-raised Michel Faber, and

Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man by J M Coetzee, both published since Coetzee settled in Australia”.

Maybe the next step is an Australian authors’ best list. In the meantime read on before you die!

Colin Steele

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