My first reaction to this question was that it is unanswerable. Even if I could wrack my brain and come up with "one literary work" that I myself must read before I die (which after so much hard brain work might be any minute now), why should I believe, consider, have the hubris to suggest that this work is the one you must read before you die. Difficult as this question may be I think I have found an answer and I thank the Ladies at The Blue Bookcase and Debbie Nance for recommending the question for this week:
What one literary work must you read before you die?
After allowing my brain a few moments to cool down I decided that rather than choosing one of my favorites from the past (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) or the present (The Brothers Karamazov); or selecting one of my favorite heroines (Dorothea in Middlemarch) or heroes (Prince Andrei in War and Peace); I would select a very literary work about other literary works. One of my reading passions is reading books about other books and among those my bible is A Lifetime's Reading by Philip Ward. I encountered this work about twenty years ago and have used it as a guide to new and interesting reading ever since. The reasons for this are best described by the author himself in his Introduction where he explains that the "sheer richness of literary treasures that are waiting to be enjoyed" led to this book and he goes on to say:
"My heart has been touched by the magnitude of their choice. I long to offer them the plays of Euripides and the stories of Isaac Babel, the love songs of Dante and the wisdom of Mencius. But I know help must be given only when sought. A maturity that is bullied into life is not worth having."
So he wrote a literary guide to the "World's 500 Greatest Books" divided into fifty chapters or years which can be explored at any pace and in any order that a reader desires. While I enjoy a myriad of other sources of inspiration for reading and my own list of books would include a few that are not in Philip Ward's guide, I have found this to be an invaluable source for finding literary works to read. There is a wealth of literary works before us and I hope to read many more before I die. Philip Ward's book is the one literary work that I must read if I am to achieve that goal.
A Lifetime's Reading by Philip Ward. Stein and Day, New York. 1983 (1982)