What It’s Like to Write a Book Full of Books
James Mustich on Why He Wrote 1000 Books To Read Before You Die
James Mustich debuts this month with a book that reflects a lifetime among books. A Thousand Books To Read Before You Die, which arrive in bookstores this week, is no simple listicle; Mustich walks a fine line between literary critic and enthusiast, “a common reader” in other words. Which was the name of the book catalogue business that he ran back before the internet took off.
Jim has worked in and around books for all his adult life: in bookstores, as a publisher; and as editor of The Barnes and Noble Review. All of these experiences makes for a unique perspective—a book that doesn’t insist on anything canonical, but exults in the sheer joy of reading, and sharing those pleasures with others.
I’ve known Jim since we were high-school poets together over forty years ago, and we’ve kept in touch throughout the years through our mutual love of reading. I missed seeing him for the past decade, but that was largely because he wrote this massive book while also working a full-time job. So we caught up in this conversation held in the studio of listener-supported radio station WGXC, in Hudson, NY a few weeks ago. The following is an edited version of our chat.
Thomas DePietro: This is a big book.
James Mustich: It is—it’s almost a thousand pages, nearly 900 pages of text and then various indexes to help people navigate through the list that I’ve made. For each of the thousand books I’ve written a brief essay, and added endnotes with relevant information and lots of recommendations for further reading. Altogether, there are more than 5,000 books referenced in it.
TD: Your publisher has done other books—this is part of a series of 1,000 things to do before you die.
TD: Which accounts for part of the title. How did you become interested in doing it for books?
JM: The late Peter Workman started the series with a book by Patricia Schultz called 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, which was quite successful, and gave him the idea to do others like it. We had been friends for some time, and he always took an interest in the business that I had at that time called A Common Reader, a mail-order book catalog that I produced between 1986 and 2006. One day, while we were talking about books, as we frequently did, he said, “You know, I’d love to do a 1,000 Things book about books. Would you be interested?” And it took off from there.
TD: How many years ago was that?
JM: I signed the contract for this book 14 years ago. It’s been quite some time in the making.
TD: Right, and as you say, there are thousands of other books recommended, and notes, and various other addenda that you have to each entry. You haven’t published any books before, and you’re not in your twenties [laughter], what makes you qualified to write this book? Or let me rephrase that. What’s your background in the book world?
JM: One of my first jobs out of college (with an English degree) was in an independent bookstore, and I’ve been a bookseller of various stripes ever since then. In 1986, I started the catalog I referred to, A Common Reader, and for two decades we issued 15 to 17 catalogs a year—with the catalogs growing to about 144 pages each. I wrote about a lot of books for the catalog in that time, and it was a joy. You’ve worked in bookstores, so you know that in a bookstore setting, you don’t always spend your time selling the most interesting books. And you have to be there on Saturdays and when the weather is really nice, so the mail-order catalog was a way to pick the books that I wanted to sell and to share with readers. And also to write about them, which I loved doing.
So, in addition to my education, I’d say both the bookselling knowledge, from being in the store, and then doing A Common Reader for so long prepared me for the task of 1,000 Books, which is in some way a kind memorial version of the catalog.
TD: It’s not a “great books” list.
JM: No, not in the sense of a “canon.”
The idea is: What about books speaks to people? In general and then specifically. What has spoken to me in particular? There’s everything in here from, in terms of a reader’s lifetime, from Goodnight, Moon, to The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s book about grief. And chronologically it ranges from the Epic of Gilgamesh up to a book published last year called Life in Code, by Ellen Ullman.
TD: Among the many books you recommend, some were published by The Akadine Press, an offshoot of A Common Reader. I like to think that you put your money where your mouth is.
JM: To be clear, what we did was reissue books we loved that had gone out of print.
TD: And some of those books have showed up on your list.
JM: Yes, there are several in 1,000 Books. A Mass for the Dead, by William Gibson, is one. Not the William Gibson who wrote Neuromancer, and whose Pattern Recognition I have in the book; that William Gibson is a first-class and visionary science fiction writer. The William Gibson who wrote A Mass for the Dead is most famous as the playwright who wrote The Miracle Worker, the play about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, which later became a movie. A Mass for the Dead is his memoir of his parents, who were normal, non-descript people, growing up in the New York metropolitan area in the early 20th-century, and of his own growing up—how he, as he developed a literary vocation, kind of distanced himself from his roots and then came back to them as he started a family of his own. It’s just a very moving book.
“What about books speaks to people? In general and then specifically. What has spoken to me in particular? There’s everything in here from, in terms of a reader’s lifetime, from Goodnight, Moon, to The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s book about grief.”
There’s another one called The Zoom Trilogy, by Tim Wynne-Jones, with pictures by Eric Beddows. It’s a compendium of three picture books about a cat—picture books for toddlers. I remember my elder daughter Emma loved these books and when her sister, Iris, came along, she did too. And they went out of print. So we tracked them down and put all three together in one volume.
The House of Life, by the ingenious Italian writer and critic Mario Praz, is in here. And A Palpable God, Reynolds Price’s revelatory translations of scripture. These were books that had been published by others first, but we brought them back into print because we loved and we wanted to sell them. Some of the books that we did have gone on to be picked up in The New York Review of Books Classics series or by David R. Godine in Boston.
TD: Let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of composing, of compiling, your book. I’m not even sure how to describe it, because it’s a massive project. When people open it they’ll see just how massive it is, in terms of not just 1,000 books recommended but of all the extra material. How did you begin?
JM: I started, by first going through all the Common Reader catalogs that I’d published for 20 years and making a list of titles from there.
TD: So as much as we’ve emphasized the uncharacteristic books, there’s still a lot in there about certain great authors, though not always what you might think.
JM: Yes. I haven’t done a count, but there’s probably, say, 250 of the 1,000 that are what are generally considered classics, so you can trace in what I’ve done a kind of course, if you wanted to, in literary history. As I said, it starts with the Greek and Roman stalwarts, and moves through Dante and Chaucer, etc., up through all of the English novel, Jane Austen, Dickens, and so on. Sometimes with a little bit of an offbeat selection.
Toward the end of the project, I begin to realize something that was motivating me, somewhat unwittingly. I have two daughters, who are both adults, in their twenties. They have always been readers, and they couldn’t walk out of their rooms in our house without tripping over a pile of books. But they don’t have the constant sense of the continuum of literature that was so important to me when I was growing up, which, frankly, I absorbed from spending so much time in bookstores in my formative years—not enough fresh air! So I’ve been reconstructing all of that by my own lights as a kind of record for them, I think. Again, that wasn’t a conscious thing, but I think it’s certainly part of what gives my book its shape.
The book, I should say, is arranged alphabetically by author, to give it a kind of serendipity, of undirected but purposeful browsing, that is one of the real joys of being in a bookstore—classification leavened by surprise. So, for example, in the T section, a reader will find D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s magnificent work of scientific observation, On Growth and Form, followed by Flora Thompson’s celebration of life in an English country village, Lark Rise to Candleford, then turn to Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Kay Thompson’s marvelous children’s book, Eloise at the Plaza. And that’s part of the fun.
TD: How did you deal with some of the categories? Military history. Sports. Were those already in your purview?
JM: I framed it for myself like this: what if I had a bookstore, and I could only have 1,000 books in it? I’d want to have classics, yes, but I’d also want to have something for anybody who walked in, and said, “I want a good mystery,” or ”I feel like reading something about golf.” Or medicine. Or theology. Or true crime.
One of the things I write about in my introduction is that inveterate readers read the way they eat: hot dogs one day, haute cuisine the next.
TD: Right, and you don’t want to turn off readers who would think that this is just a highbrow production.
JM: Yes, reading isn’t all high-mindedness.
“The book, I should say, is arranged alphabetically by author, to give it a kind of serendipity, of undirected but purposeful browsing, that is one of the real joys of being in a bookstore—classification leavened by surprise.”
TD: So getting back to the nuts and bolts again, I’m curious. You started with the catalogs; I assume you narrowed down the list. As it got closer to a thousand, it must have been difficult. Was it harder to keep out, or keep in?
JM: It was harder to keep in, at the end. You know, for a long time, 1,000 seemed like so many. But then when I got towards the end, it was too few, by half at least! There are just so many good books. And closing in on the 1,000 put a fine point on what, of course, had haunted me all along: there is so much I haven’t read. Through all the years I worked on the book, I tried to be thoughtful about it, but every week turned up books or authors I’d missed. And every conversation I had with a fellow reader seemed to add to that pile. As I’ve written in the book, once people know you’re writing a book called 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, you can never enjoy a dinner party in quite the same way you did before. But sooner or later, I had to draw a line.
TD: And it is in fact a work of literary criticism. Every choice is an implied work of criticism, and then you have to provide a paragraph or more, actually much more than a single paragraph, about why you think a book is worth recommending.
TD: Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a critic when you’re doing that?
JM: Oh absolutely. One of the things that takes so long is that you not only need to know enough about the book to have something to say, but you also need to know enough about a subject or an author to know what not to say.
TD: Can you give an example of that?
JM: If you’re going to write 500, 600 words about Darwin, or about Madame de Staël, or about Ishmael Reed, you want to know enough about the extent of their work to be able to judge what’s important, what to share with someone who may not have any context, and also know enough about the breadth and depth of their thinking to represent it credibly, especially if you’re dealing with someone outside one’s own tradition or one’s own education.
You want to be respectful of what you’re reading and you want to make sure that you have enough sensitivity and sensibility—or just enough sense with no suffix—to recognize that the work has its own existence whether you read it or not, no matter what you say about it, and to represent that in some way.