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The rise of ‘before you die-ism’

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Angel memorial
The man who wrote 100 Things to Do Before You Die, which sparked a publishing phenomenon, has died in the US. But why do 'before you die' books have such appeal to us?

This is not an article you have to read before you die, just one you might like to read if you have a spare five minutes.

In this respect it differs from the 100 Belgian beers, 50 fish to catch, 101 places to have sex and 50 places to play golf. All before you die, of course.

Amazon lists more than 150 before-you-die books, plus many more with a shorter but more anxiety-inducing time span, like 40 Things to Do Before You're 40.

The man who is thought to have got there first, co-writing the best-selling adventure travel guide 100 Things to Do (you know the rest) in 1999 was Dave Freeman, who has died in California aged 47.

The 'before you die' element risks being a vulgarism, implying that knowledge should be consumed voraciously
Mark Irving
Editor of 1,001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die

But his legacy is still felt indirectly in the bestseller book charts, although it's starting to wane. But why did "before you die-ism" become so popular?

Part of its appeal is its simplicity, what they call in Hollywood "high-concept", says Jon Howells of Waterstones.

"It's something people are going to grasp from the cover. It does what it says on the tin and it's quite aspirational. A thousand is a big number but it's not unreachable.

"And they are great dipping-into books. You can pick them up, dip in and then put them down. Sometimes they might inspire you to go out and see a movie but sometime they won't."

Orders

It's not just the book industry that has felt the force of this phenomenon. The Guardian newspaper recently published 1,000 Films to See Before You Die and Channel 4 broadcast a similar format with the less-ambitious 50 films.

The concept was dramatised on screen this year when Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman played two terminally-ill men fulfilling a wish-list, in the film The Bucket List.

Dave Freeman
Freeman ticked off about half of his list

But how sincere are these edicts for everyone to drop everything and start a new mission? Mr Freeman himself had only got halfway through his own list, even though the success of the idea had given him the means and freedom to pursue it.

The title shouldn't be taken too literally, says Mark Irving, who edited 1,001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die. He believes it's a note of insistence, rather than an instruction, but he did have second thoughts about endorsing it.

"The 'before you die' element risks being a vulgarism, implying that knowledge should be consumed voraciously. However, I took the view that putting these buildings together in a list would implicitly reveal their comparative strengths and weaknesses."

The titles that have 101 or 1001, rather than the round figure, signify that it is an incomplete list, he says.

"It derives from the Arabic classic 'The 1,001 Nights' and implies the endless potential of storytelling as well as the absurdity of limiting the knowable."

The risk of having 100 things to do can become a distraction
Philosopher Mark Vernon

Philosopher Mark Vernon says the concept has echoes of Socrates, who said that to philosophise is to learn how to die, and this has been a recurring theme in philosophy ever since, because thinking about your death brings life into greater focus.

The key difference is that the philosopher - who famously rarely left the city walls of Athens - believed fulfilment came not through what you did but who you were. Contemplating death is about reflecting on the kind of person you are and reaching your own potential, rather than ticking off a checklist of activities.

"It's not the number of things you do in life," says Mr Vernon. "If you do one thing really well then that can make a life. Finding a cure for cancer, for example, is one thing but a very good thing. That would be the advice of the Greek philosophers."

Socrates thought that by paying attention to what's in front of you, you really get to grips with life.

"The risk of having 100 things to do can become a distraction and you only skate across the surface. They become 100 distractions rather than 100 things lived for.

"It's an implicit critique of consumerism, that life is lived by consuming more rather than living well."


Below is a selection of your comments.

Yesterday marked a year since a (40-year-old) mate of mine passed away quite unexpectedly. I don't need a book to tell me what constitutes a successful life - I'd rather follow my mate's example; just try and make everything you do fun. Simple.
Paul M, Manchester, UK

Why all the fuss about doing things before you die. It just about sums up this present bunch of must haves. Just be glad you're alive and stop worrying about what I must do. Just take life as it comes.
Roger McDermaid, Edinburgh

There's a wealthy businessman in Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time novel series called Sir Magnus Donners. He realises in late middle age that he has no idea about culture at all, so commissions someone to list for him the 100 most important books of all time so he can catch up. The joke is that such a task is as impossible as it is futile. Achievements and experiences are a personal journey, and nothing to do with lists.
Guy Matthews, UK

I like Jimmy Carr's inclusion of things to do before you die: "shout for help"
Matt, Leeds

That's quite freaky - I had literally just emailed my cousin, currently in New Zealand, and said that NZ was definitely on my list of 'places to visit before I die'. As far as I can remember it's the first time I've ever used this phrase (not being a particular fan of 'before I die' lists and just using it as an expression of enthusiasm in this case) - and whaddya know, then I stumble on this article. Maybe someone is trying to tell me something...!
Catherine, Leicester

I haven't read the late Dave Freeman's book - but now I will. I hope in his list of 100 Things to Do before Dying - he included preparing for his afterlife. Someone said: We are not ready to live until we are ready to die. Another person said: Make sure when you come to die, that's all you have to do. The Bible says: Prepare to meet your God (Amos 4:12)
Peter Ramsay, Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada

My wife has a job list for me called "101 things to do before you go to bed". Now I know that I only need do one of these providing I do it well. Oh, thank you Socrates, thank you BBC!!!
Rob, Hull

Well, we all need something to do on the weekends, and doing something from the '100 things to do before you die' list sounds more exciting than washing your car.
Nona, London


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