It was Justin Zackham who gave us the phrase. He wrote a movie called The Bucket List about two terminally ill men who come up with a list of things they want to do before they die – before they, in other words, kick the bucket. Now you can’t go anywhere without someone asking about your bucket list – what’s on your list? What do you want to do before you die?
The world is suddenly full of brave, ambitious souls planning to swim with the dolphins, climb the Eiffel Tower, and see the Great Pyramids at sunrise. That is when they’re not volunteering at Romanian orphanages, kayaking down the Zambezi, or parachuting out of airplanes.
There are bucket list travel books, bucket list movie books, bucket list blogs that tell you how to create your own bucket list. Any day now someone’s going to come up with 1001 Lists You Must Make Before You Die.
The suggestions range from the mundane-but-achievable – like walking barefoot on the grass or taking a new route to work – to the highly unlikely (waking up next to Brad Pitt, for example, which would probably give both of us a shock. I don’t know what Brad looks like in the morning but I need two cups of coffee and a shower before I can face the day.)
A lot of these lists have to do with getting off your butt and going somewhere – preferably somewhere far from home that involves a certain amount of discomfort. Soaking up the sun in Cancun doesn’t cut it anymore – you’ve got to be hiking Lake Titicaca or exploring the Glowworm Caves of New Zealand.
I’m left with the sense there are all these people out there hustling from one destination to the next just so they can tick it off in their journals: “Great Wall of China – good – done that. Off to the Serengeti.” It sounds a little . . . obnoxious.
One of the more realistic books is 50 Things to do When You Turn 50, which includes down-to-earth goals like paying off your mortgage and getting a colonoscopy. Not as inspiring as seeing the Great Pyramids, I suppose, but perhaps as satisfying in the end (pun intended).
Personally I’d like to make it through the night without having to get up to use the bathroom. I’d also like a tattoo, but only if I could wash it off in the morning.
The thing about these bucket lists – or life lists, if you prefer – is that they’re based on the premise that if you get to do all these things you’ll go to your reward with no regrets, having done everything you wanted to do and had a fulfilling, adventurous life.
Well, maybe. I’m not sure it works that way. Life is about making decisions, and choosing to do one thing usually means choosing not to do something else. So you’re bound, at some point, to have the odd regret about “the path not taken” – even if you’re pretty happy about the path you took.
Anyway, here I am, solidly on the side of the anti-bucketers, and I come across this terrific book: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. OMG! A thousand and one novels, beginning with The Thousand and One Nights, written around 850 AD, and ending up, almost a thousand pages later, with A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, published in 2009.*
I got out the calculator: if I was to read one of these books a week I could have them all read in 19.25 years.
I’ve decided to try. I won’t read them in chronological order… in fact, the first one on my list, which I’m halfway through at the moment, is The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, published in 1860. I have it on my bookshelf so I’ve decided to make it Number 1.
It won’t be easy. James Joyce, of course, is on the list. I remember trying to get through Ulysses 40 years ago – I got to chapter 3, the one that’s called “Proteus”, and gave up. Life is short, I decided. I have better things to do. Maybe I should learn to knit. One day, I figured, when I’m old and decrepit and have no other claims on my time, I’ll go back to Ulysses and give it another try.
Since then, I’ve lived a Joyce-free existence, and I can’t say I’ve suffered for it.
Still, it’s on the list. It will have to be read. War and Peace will be a nightmare – half a million words and almost as many characters. I did read it once, back in university. Do I have to do it again? Proust may finish me off; am I up to seven volumes of Proust? Is anybody?
But what fun to have an excuse to re-read David Copperfield. And The Catcher in the Rye. And The Diviners.
You see, the whole point of the bucket list – I say this, having come over to the pro-bucket side – is not the act of ticking off the books or the movies or the must-see destinations. It’s what the list says about you: Who are you, really? And what is it you still want to do?
What I am, when it comes right down to it, is a reader. It’s what I did as a kid when I should have been out learning to skate or building a snow fort. It’s what I did all through high school and university, right up to when my children were born and reading books took a back seat to car-pooling, laundry, and stripping wallpaper. Oh, yes – and work.One of these days, I used to think, I’ll get back to reading. One of these days, I’ll read all those terrific novels that have been written since I left school. One of these days, when I get time, I’ll catch up.
Well, the clock is ticking.
I don’t know that I’ll be any happier for it or more fulfilled or whether I’ll always enjoy the experience. I may wear out my eyeballs ploughing through Joyce and I know I won’t finish in 19.25 years.
But it’s what I want to do.
We don’t all want to swim with the dolphins . . . which is probably a good thing for the dolphins. Do they want to swim with us, I wonder? Isn’t it possible they see us as just a wee bit of an intrusion? Call me cranky, but I’ll bet we’re not on their bucket lists.
*Just a note: This piece is based on the 2010 edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. There’ve been two more editions since then.