Sunday, 29 June 2014

501 Must Read Books - Emma Beare [editor] (2007)

When you love books there is perhaps nothing better than a book about books, which is just about as meta as you can get. I’ve been reading a number of different books lately that are taking some time to get through because they are either massive tomes, or are time consuming non-fiction. 501 Must Read Books is one I’ve been dipping in and out of lately and not only is it a beautiful book to hold and behold, it is also a superb guide to all things bibliographic.

Most book enthusiasts would have at least seen 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (2006). Well 501 Must Read Books is far superior; for a start it has a better title. I’ve always found the 1001 title concept to be very off putting, cliched and slightly condescending. The former book comprises almost entirely of fiction arranged chronologically both in sections according to era and then by the year the books were published. There are some impressive novels amongst them, but the selections are mostly predictable with a smattering of obscurities to pique the interest of bibliophiles. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die is by no means a worthless guide to fiction, but 501 Must Read Books has so much more going for it in terms of layout and book selection.

501 Must Read Books arranges the books by genre, including children’s fiction, classic fiction, history, memoirs, modern fiction, science fiction, thrillers and travel writing. Throughout these sections there are well written reviews that contain biographical information about the author, the book’s cultural context and impact and detail about the book’s literary significance. There are brilliant photographs throughout and plentiful reproductions of original cover art. Each book featured also has an extra list of the author’s other significant works, which is very handy.

Whilst 501 Must Read Books contains acknowledged greats such as Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964) and Don Delillo’s Underworld (1997), there are many obscure treasures (to me at least), which is what you really want and expect from a book like this. On the same page as Herzog there is the Regeneration Trilogy of novels by Pat Barker, all published in 1991. Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road explore homosexuality in WWI Britain and involves Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. A few pages before that there is Russian author Isaak Babel’s Tales of Odessa, published in 1916. Tales of Odessa is a series of joined novellas exploring life in Jewish ghettos. The review mentions that Babel is one of the greatest short story writers of all time, which is news to me. One of the great things about 501 Must Read Books is that it features many non English novels, such as Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and her Two Husbands (1966) and West Indian writer George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953).

A good test of this book for me is the science fiction section, which is a genre I know a great deal about. There are some notable absences, such as any of Iain M. Banks novels, in fact there are no Iain Banks novels in the modern literature section either - what were they thinking? Despite this the selection of science fiction novels is a fine one, with well known works such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) making an appearance.  However it is the less well known I’m impressed with, such as Curt Siodmak’s Donvan’s Brain (1942) and Clifford D. Simak’s City (1952), both of which are new to me and sound excellent. This section is also a great reminder of novels I’ve been meaning to read, such as the great Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962). 

Overall there’s much to recommend about 501 Must Read Books. It is in many ways a quality alternative to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Its series of genre sections is its great strength, providing a great guide for those who would like to move away from just reading novels. The memoir and travel writing sections are enticing for me for these very reasons. When there is a guide book about which are the best book guide books, 501 Must Read Books will definitely feature, in fact maybe that’s a section it could add for its own future editions, how meta would that be!


  1. Haha yes, that would indeed be very meta! A great review, as always Jeremy. I don't really like 'must read' lists because I think they make things boring - in the end only a tiny percentage of books end up being read by a vast majority of people, and the vast majority of books are read by only a tiny percentage. But I like the sound of this book because it sounds like it stretches the boundaries quite a bit with some little-known titles, and books in translation etc. For me it is much more exciting to discover an underrated treasure than to read the same book everyone else is reading. I cam't remember who said it but there is a great quote which says "if you only read what everyone else is reading, you'll only be able to think what everyone else is thinking'.

    1. Thanks Annabel! There's so many obscure books and authors in the guide, it's really inspiring. Great quote - I agree....:)