Yesterday I came across two or three posts (blog, tweet or facebook) pointing me towards a must-read item. Not the first time it's happened, obviously, but I took against it. I didn't want to read that particular must-read piece, and while I have no objection to being told what I might read or even what I should read, as a free citizen I decided to take exception to being told what I must read.
But, then, good sense and the calming influence of more than a thousand cricket books around the walls of my south Cambridge fastness worked their magic upon what I like to call my mind and I saw that there was no need to take exception. Logic rather than morality was the way forward.
Imagine a team of clever folk compiling a list of the world's must-read books. They start: The Bible, Shakespeare's Collected, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Pride and Prejudice, and so forth. Doesn't matter what you put on this list or leave off; just go, for now, with the idea of the exercise. The list gets bigger: all the great novels; collections of the works of great poets, Yeats, Auden, Eliot, etc; histories, biographies, dramas, works of science accessible to you and me (well, you anyway). Bigger and bigger. My hypothesis now is that any credible list of must-read volumes will get to be so big that very few normal people will be able to read all the items on it during a lifetime - especially given that they'll also be wanting to read non-great books that aren't must-reads.
From this it follows that for most, if not all, of us the proposition is true that we can't read all the must-read books there are, and that is to say nothing of how things stand once you add other items than books - like blogposts and newspaper columns. On the principle of 'ought' implies 'can', there are therefore no must-read items. For while for any single item a given individual can make time to read it, he or she can't have time for all the putative must-read items in existence. So we're free to choose among them.
I regret to have to admit that I have in the past occasionally used this ill-chosen adjective myself in a hortatory way. Not any more.