If the reward of learning is to be a better person, do we mean "better than we were" or "better than other people"? This rather uncomfortable reflection occurred to me as I came to the end of the updated edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (edited by Peter Boxall), having carefully kept a score of those I'd already read. (The answer is that on this book's criteria I'm not half- or even quarter-educated, barely an eighth - and a fair number of those I have read were put into my hands by the Cornflower Book Group*). I could of course argue that such books exist to satisfy an entirely innocent desire for guidance in a world of proliferating choices; but there are less innocent desires where the ambition for broader experience and self-realisation shades into a competitive urge to get ahead of the pack by using measurable achievement as a badge of superiority. When I was a young man I had a young man's appetites and energies, but part of growing up (or, as my children put it, growing old) is the three-stage recognition that, first, you can't read every good book in the world, second, that the difference between what you know and all there is to be known is infinitely bigger than the difference between what you know and nothing, third, even if this is true, it is still right to read and do new and interesting things.
So on balance I think such lists can be helpful, but I suppose it's inevitable that they will all have their flaws. This one, although notionally devoted to the novel, has managed to sneak in some of the pet works of some faction on the editorial team, works which may be great books but which certainly aren't novels (e.g Thoreau's Walden, Swift's A Modest Proposal, Jung Chang's Wild Swans, Michael Herr's Dispatches). Although there is a valiant effort to represent a diverse range of cultures, works originally written in English strongly predominate. There is an equally strong bias towards the present day: I find it hard to accept that there have been almost exactly as many truly outstanding works of prose fiction published since the year 2000 as there were in all of the centuries before the year 1800.
I've been to restaurants with encyclopedic wine-lists, knowing I'm only going to sample a small fraction of the vintages on offer even if I come back regularly, but I rely to some extent on the descriptions to guide my choice. I prefer robust, complex reds and rich aromatic whites, so I steer away from words like 'fresh' and 'astringent' and towards words like 'deep' and 'powerful'. So it is with books like this; I now know for example that I'm much more likely to enjoy Peter Esterhazy's Celestial Harmonies than Michel Houllebecq's The Elementary Particles, and that avoidance of wasting time is in the end perhaps the most powerful recommendation for the book.
*(Edited to add: will anyone hazard a guess at which 14 CBG books are included? If you scroll down the right hand sidebar you'll see listed there all that we've read to date.)