When Dave Freeman, co-author of 100 Things To Do Before You Die, died last summer at the age of 47, having completed only half the items in his book, it was widely described as "ironic". This seemed harsh. Freeman's idea of a life well spent was one packed with exotic experiences (running with the bulls at Pamplona, a voodoo pilgrimage to Haiti), and he was busy living it; he never said the list was meaningful only if you got through the whole thing. No, let's be clear: "ironic" is writing a column critical of before-you-die lists in the Guardian, which has published around 1,001 of them recently. Still, here goes, because the phenomenon Freeman inspired is getting ridiculous.
In his wake came lists of albums to hear, movies to watch, artworks to see and then, subtly increasing the pressure, books of 1,001 foods you "must" taste, buildings you "must" visit. There are even parody gift books of things not to do before you die, a list that for me includes reading parody gift books. Oh, and there's 50 Places To Play Golf Before You Die, presumably of boredom.
The obvious objection to all this is that fulfilment isn't about ticking off hedonistic thrills or compulsively seeking novelty. "The most radical thing you can do is stay home," wrote the poet Gary Snyder, but there's now plenty of evidence that actively pursuing unfamiliar experiences keeps the brain limber, and makes time pass less fleetingly. The bigger problem is one that afflicts not just before-you-die lists, but also the lists of tips that now dominate self-help - 150 ways to destress your life, etc - which is that reading lists of things to do is often a seductive way to avoid doing them. It's vicarious spectatorhood. Tip-lists "actively get in the way of fundamental improvement", writes Merlin Mann at 43folders.com, "by obscuring the advice we need with the advice that we enjoy. And the advice that's easy to take is so rarely the advice that could really make a difference."
It's surprising that the phrase "before you die" gets tossed around like this in a culture so intent on avoiding thinking about death - or perhaps it's only because of that avoidance that we can use it so casually. Actually thinking about a time when we'll no longer be here is mindnumbing at best, terrifying at worst. In The Happiness Trap, the psychologist Russ Harris suggests a simple yet powerful perspective-shift that's slightly less scary, though it scared me enough. Imagine you're 80, then complete these sentences: "I spent too much time worrying about..." and "I spent too little time doing things such as..." (Apologies to octogenarian readers, who'll have to modify this.) Of course, you might conclude that voodoo pilgrimages are precisely your thing; Harris isn't trying to be prescriptive. The difference is that your conclusion won't be based on someone else's list. Dave Freeman spent his life doing his thing; the trick is not to spend your life doing Dave Freeman's thing.