M.J. Nicholls’ previous novel The House Of Writers was, as the title suggests, a book on and about writers and writing, but it was so much more. He has followed it with The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die which, as the title suggests, concentrates on readers and reading, but to say it is so much more than that would be understatement of the highest order. It is a love-letter to literature, but one which casts a delightfully cynical and often incredulous eye over all the hype and hoopla which surrounds the publishing industry. From writers, through agents, festivals and their organisers, literary panels and prizes, book sellers, publishers, and critics, to you, dear readers, (and me), Nicholls is coruscating in his condemnation, but remains droll and darkly comedic throughout, his tongue just far enough in his cheek for us to get the joke.
It begins with a Legal Disclaimer which reads, “The Scottish Arts Council strongly repudiate all the claims made in this novel.”. This sets the tone for a fantastically inventive novel where fiction meets fact, and while the lines between the two are mostly clear, it is surprisingly exciting to read a novel where living and breathing writers mix with each other, and with Nicholls’ characters, building to some unforgettable scenes. In lesser hands the amount of referencing of authors, writers, and other cultural touchstones could have been a distraction, or an exercise in showing how clever the writer is, but here it all feels a necessary part of the bigger picture.
The novel introduces us to Marcus Schott who, after leaving his job at E-Z Monee Loans, decides he is going to immerse himself in literature, not entirely for reasons of his intellectual betterment. Moving to Orkney to make his way through the novels named in Dr. Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, he works out in detail the time, budget and itinerary required, as long as there are no hidden costs to complicate matters. Marcus soon discovers that life is little but hidden costs. As Marcus’ story continues ‘the author’ makes regular appearances in chapters which are there to explain the greater whole, in a manner not dissimilar to Alasdair Gray’s appearance in Lanark. Both strands work together where they could have pulled the reader in different directions, and it is to Nicholls’ credit that he succeeds.
The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die asks you to consider just what it means to be a reader. Can it be called a pastime? What, if anything, can a writer expect, or even demand, from readers? Can you experience “reader’s block”? It also asks questions about why we read, (I can recommend early nights with The Brothers Karamazov for taking your mind of a broken heart. Well, perhaps “recommend” is the wrong word.) Do you read more keenly when the rest of your life is less than satisfying? If the pram in the hall is the enemy of good art, does the same fate befall the ‘good reader’? And, ultimately, does it matter? While reading The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die I was reminded of Bill Shankly’s quotation, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” Nicholl’s novel seems to take a similar fundamentalist stance towards literature, and how you feel about that will go a long way to deciding what you feel about Nicholls’ novel.
In his essay ‘What Is Literature?’, Jean Paul Sartre writes about “committed literature”, specifically prose, which should always be engaged with the present day. Does this mean the reader is required to be equally as committed for this to exist? Surely it must, otherwise there seems little point. That idea gets to the heart of The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die. It will make you examine how you read, why you read, and even who you read for. There is no doubt a combative and challenging edge, (there’s a surprising amount of spitting encouraged), and you’ll find yourself disagreeing as well as agreeing, often in the same sentence. That is part of the point. Nicholls makes you confront your own truths and prejudices, asking if you really believe or are simply falling in line with the consensus.
The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die is a comic novel which takes its subject matter very seriously, and demands to be read in the same manner. It is a literary undertaking which needs the reader to engage fully. To do otherwise would be to miss out on what is, at times, an exhilarating experience. Although there are other Scottish novels which come to mind, such as Kevin McNeill’s The Brilliant & Forever, Alice Thompson’s Burnt Island, and Graham Lironi’s Oh, Marina Girl, M.J. Nicholls is doing something which feels and reads as new and exciting. If you love books then The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die is one to read, before it’s too late.
The Glasgow launch for The 1002nd Book To Read Before You Die has M.J. Nicholls talking to writer Kevin MacNeil at Waterstones Argyle Street on 27th June. The Edinburgh launch at Blackwells on 28th June sees Nicholls in conversation with SWH!’s own Ali Braidwood. Tickets for both events are free, but book to avoid disappointment.