Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Wednesday, May 23, 2018: Maximum Shelf: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die

Workman Publishing: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich

Workman Publishing: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich

Workman Publishing: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich

Workman Publishing: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List

by James Mustich

Many avid readers have a "book bucket list": that hefty classic they've always meant to tackle, that series they'll get around to someday, that book their mother or husband or best friend loves that they've just never managed to try. But 1,000 books to read before you die? Sounds intimidating, to say the least.

Fear not. James Mustich, a longtime bookseller, voracious reader and a co-founder of the acclaimed book catalogue A Common Reader, has taken has taken on the task: he's compiled a massive, eclectic, surprisingly accessible list of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. The fifth installment in Workman Publishing's 1,000... Before You Die series, Mustich's book is an erudite, lively encyclopedia of gems from many genres. Organized alphabetically, it runs the gamut of taste and time: classic novels, myths and plays; beloved mysteries and children's books; acclaimed contemporary fiction; seminal works of cultural criticism and much more. But it is not, as Mustich insists in his introduction, a canon or a prescriptive list. Rather, it's an invitation to explore. Begin at the beginning, the end, or anywhere you like. Flip through the entries; search for your favorites or for what might be missing. And--almost certainly--enjoy a few moments of serendipity along the way. 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die will likely encourage booksellers and readers to participate in a communal conversation around the importance of books in our lives.

"A book about 1,000 books could take so many different shapes," Mustich admits in his introduction. The shape of this one is, essentially, a virtual bookstore. At once expansive and meticulously curated, it includes "not only books for all time but also books for the moment." As readers wander through its pages, Mustich hopes they will discover "a browser's version of paradise." He freely admits the challenges involved in compiling such a list: the need to include certain essential classics, the equally pressing need to draw in a diversity of voices from varied countries, eras and languages. And while the book is heavy on Western literature (classic and contemporary), it does include a number of voices that aren't standbys on English-class syllabuses.

The act of compiling a list like this, as Mustich notes, inevitably exposes the list-maker's own privileges, prejudices and omissions. But the final list is also--as it should be--"personal and sometimes peculiar." Readers will almost certainly find themselves inclined to argue about the inclusion of some texts and the omission of others, but that, Mustich exclaims joyfully, is the point. This is "an invitation to a conversation--even a merry argument", and avid readers will find plenty of material for both here.

The book is organized alphabetically, which leads to some strange bedfellows: Jean-Jacques Rousseau lands right next to J.K. Rowling, and Cormac McCarthy's grim post-apocalyptic novel The Road appears just before Robert McCloskey's classic picture book Make Way for Ducklings. But this system, in addition to being democratic, helps lend the book its feeling of wandering in a capacious yet well-curated bookstore. You never know what you might find on the shelves, but you can trust that many, if not most, of the essentials are here.

Mustich can't resist a bit of instruction along the way: he gives some authors--Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Simone de Beauvoir--their own mini-sections, with biographical sketches and brief entries on several of their best-known works. But even the shorter entries often contain surprising facts about the books, the authors and their respective histories. All of them are packed with helpful endnotes suggesting other worthy titles by the same author, or similar books for readers to try.

Mustich's joy in stories and storytelling is by no means limited to the printed word: he also recommends audiobooks, film and theatrical adaptations (where available). As if that weren't enough, dozens of entries contain handy cross-references to other entries in the book, making the compendium less overwhelming and more navigable. Occasionally, Mustich fits in a few more books under a topical heading, such as "Books on Books," "Heroic Fantasy" or "Space Opera," and at the very end, "A Miscellany of Special Lists." These mini-lists, in particular, read like a conversation with an enthusiastic bookseller who simply can't help recommending just one more book (or six).

The best way to use this book is, in fact, to wander: flip through a section or two, go back and forth looking for something you thought you saw. Read the endnotes, skip a few entries or whole sections, only to find them again later. In short, "Read at whim!" as the poet Randall Jarrell entreated his readers. Mustich invokes Jarrell in his introduction, and it's good advice: with a list this extensive, whimsy is not only enjoyable but absolutely necessary.

Thoughtful, often witty, informed and unfailingly enthusiastic, Mustich's collection fulfills one more aim of every bookstore worth its salt: inspiring readers to dive headfirst into a good book--especially one (or 12 or 50) they didn't know they were dying to read. --Katie Noah Gibson

Workman, $35, hardcover, 960p., 9781523504459, October 2, 2018

Workman Publishing: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich

James Mustich: A Book of Serendipitous Delights

photo: Trisha Keeler Photography

James Mustich is a longtime bookseller, and was the co-founder and publisher of the acclaimed book catalogue A Common Reader for two decades.

Tell us about the inspiration for 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.

I've been selling books for most of my adult life. In the 1980s, I had a mail-order catalogue called The Common Reader. We'd send it out to customers around the country, listing books and telling people about them. So I've been writing about books for many years.

I'd known Peter Workman, the founder of Workman Publishing, for a long time. When he published 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, we said, "It’d be great to do something like this about books." The project took more than a decade to come to fruition. Peter and I had lots of conversations about what the book would be. We wanted something that was personal, but also gave a kind of survey of literature. Not in the college course sense, but in the sense that you might look around at a good bookstore, and ask, "What are the books I'd like to read, or to tell other people about?"

How did you decide what to include in the compilation?

I did a lot of research, and I wrote about each book to the best of my ability. I want to share my enthusiasm about books people love, or books readers may know about but might not have taken the plunge into. I've been a bookseller for many years, so I've also had lots of conversations with book buyers. All of that mixed with some degree of literary style is built into the entries in the book. It's not a canon or a prescriptive list, but more of an invitation: Here's a big bookshelf of interesting things. Find something that interests you and pull it off.

Book lists are flourishing in our culture--from the Pulitzer winners to BuzzFeed listicles and every outlet in between. How do you expect people will react to this particular (long!) list?

I've spent 14 years writing this book, and I expect to spend the next 14 months traveling the country on book tour, having people tell me what I left out! But I'm excited about that. The book is meant to engage people's passions. It's an invitation to engage with your own shelves and start conversations around what books people should be reading. We can lose a lot of that in the book business, or in online bookselling, which is more transactional. But when you walk into a bookstore, you're walking into this big conversation, and I wanted to capture some of that here.

How do you hope people will engage with the book?

I don't expect that people will read it from beginning to end. I expect them to look for things they love, things they're interested in, and look for the things that aren't there. It's funny: I had all these conversations with friends about the book, what we could do to promote it. We didn't get very far. And then we all went out to dinner and argued for hours about the books we would read, the books we would include. Which is the whole point--it's an invitation to a conversation!

I hope the book will also be a resource for people who will flip through it and think, for example, that they always wanted to read Faulkner, and it will give them some encouragement in that direction. Or a nudge to explore newer writers, like Ali Smith or Elena Ferrante. It's not meant to be prescriptive. It's about browsing, and discovery and serendipity. The book is arranged alphabetically on purpose. Chronologically can be a snooze, and if you do it by genre, people get stuck where they already are, sometimes.

Conversation is definitely what it’s about.

Yes. And that sense of discovery. I quote the poet Randall Jarrell in my introduction: "Read at whim!" I think that's so important. I love to discover what's meaningful to people through the books they love to talk about. I have eight file cabinets filled with letters from when we had The Common Reader. I would get letters from people living in the woods, and from navy officers living on aircraft carriers, telling me about the books they read to their kids when they were home. This book is an outcome of all of that, across the years, knowing countless readers and how passionate they are about books.

How did you ever narrow down the list?

I thought of it in a couple of ways. One: we read the way we eat. One day we want a hot dog, and the next day we want to go to a fancy restaurant. Or sometimes both on the same day! And I also kept imagining: If I had a bookstore with a thousand books in it, and I wanted to have all the books I love, plus the usual suspects of classics and so on, plus something surprising for everyone who came in, how would I put that together? That kind of organized it for me.

Are there any books you love that you absolutely couldn't squeeze in?

There's a picture book called Burnt Toast on Davenport Street by Tim Egan. I was in Books of Wonder, a fantastic children's bookstore in Manhattan, with my younger daughter, Iris, who was maybe three or four. She marched over to the shelf and said, "Daddy, I want this one." We took it home, and I subsequently read it to her several hundred times. She made a great choice. And I couldn't get that one in here. But that's another book, where I'd like to write about those books that have been meaningful to me emotionally.

This book is a kind of virtual bookstore. Are there any real-life bookstores that embody the spirit of a well-curated, surprising, specific list like this?

Three Lives and Company in the West Village, for sure. You walk into Three Lives, and you feel smarter and more cultured, more interesting to yourself than you were before you walked in. The curation is so great, and there's always something surprising that you didn't know you were interested in.

Of course, there are great bookstores all across the country, and part of this book is a salute to booksellers. There's a great bookstore in Ann Arbor, Literati Bookstore, that opened maybe five years ago. (I think I'd read about it in Shelf Awareness!) My daughter had just started at the University of Michigan, and I went to visit her there. I walked in and I was blown away. Every time I go to Ann Arbor, I go back to Literati. The intelligence of the curation, the enthusiasm of the staff picks--I walk in there and I spend $200, and I'm totally happy to do it.

What else would you like people to know about the book?

It's not actually just 1,000 books, if you can believe it. There are endnotes for each book, with other works by that author, or other things to try. There are more than 5,000 books cited within the book. This could have been a book of 2,000 books to read before you die, but I would have died before I finished writing it! --Katie Noah Gibson

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