After 14 years, James Mustich’s “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die” offers 960 pages of essential recommendations. Here’s what he had to say about what did (and didn’t) make it into the book.
If you think assembling the perfect library is a dream project, try working on a book titled “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die” and fielding suggestions on what should make the cut. You’ll never run out of recommendations, says author James Mustich, and “you’ll never experience a dinner party in the same way again.”
After 14 years, Mustich completed his herculean task, and his book has just been published by Workman, the fifth in a series that includes titles such as “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.” Mustich’s recommendations are breathtaking in their range and erudition, ranging from religious texts to memoirs, history to novels, kids books to mysteries, the Epic of Gilgamesh (2100 B.C.) to Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” (2016).
And he’s already apologizing for what got left out. “You’re the second person in 24 hours to tell me I should have included Dorothy Sayers,” he said apologetically.
A veteran bookseller who ran the mail-order book catalog A Common Reader for 20 years, Mustich will discuss his project with me Monday, Oct. 29, at Folio Seattle. I asked him some questions about his method and tried not to give him a hard time — NO KATE ATKINSON?!
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Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
Q: The thought of reading 1,000 books before I die is daunting, and I’m guessing that the older you are, the more daunting that prospect is. How should readers approach your recommendations?
A: The book is intended to be a resource for what to read next — I don’t imagine or expect anyone to read all 1,000. It’s a record of books I’ve loved reading, and what I’ve learned in my four decades as a bookseller. I hope readers will open the book, see some book they already know and love, and then explore other things to read.
Q: I expect there was a tension between choosing books you love and think people ought to read and books people might actually read. What drove your choices?
A: I wanted to create a record of what I’ve read and talked about as a reader, and give a particular sense of context that I’m not sure is as readily available anymore. I was committed to delivering that sense of context … for example, I discovered that “The Secret of the Old Clock,” the first Nancy Drew novel by Carolyn Keene, was cited by the first three women to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States (Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor). When they were asked what set them on their path to the law, they all said Nancy Drew.
Q: Was the final cut the toughest?
A: The closer I got to the end, the more poignant the choices seemed to get. I tried to go with the framework of “a bookstore with 1,000 books” — something for every reader — but there’s another 200 books I could easily have chosen. Knowing what I’ve left out, there’s a part of every day where I feel like a slacker.
Q: Readers are generally a civil lot, but I guarantee you’re going to hear about the ones you left out. What will you do with that information?
A: We have built a website where people can go in, look at the list and say “We agree with that one,” or “No, life is too short to read that book,” and add their own. It’s at 1000bookstoread.com.
Q: Have you read all 1,000 books? If not, who helped you with your choices?
A: I’ve read the vast majority of them … For 20 years I had a book catalog called A Common Reader, and we had such a marvelous correspondence with readers. If we recommended John Keegan’s “The Face of Battle,” we would get correspondence from readers with another dozen recommendations. My initial list of recommendations was seeded with all those suggestions from readers and colleagues.
Q: Here’s a question I have about reading older books, and I’ll use one of your recommendations, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” as an example. It was published in the late 1770s. However well written, how can its conclusions not be overtaken by another 250 years of anthropological and historical research?
A: It’s good reading. The prose is glorious — Roman history is filled with examples of hubris and mistaken purpose that are extremely relevant today. It gives a sense of the pageant of Roman history … a lot of times we get too purposeful in our reading. We want to be up-to-date with the latest scholarship, and we lose track of what makes books meaningful.
Q: You recommend books by several Seattle authors, including Sherman Alexie, Ivan Doig, Nancy Pearl and Neal Stephenson. Can you choose a couple and tell why you included them?
A: Neal Stephenson’s “Quicksilver” really opened the door to a spectrum of fiction for me. He’s such a great storyteller, and the intellectual intricacy of his thought is married to a playfulness that’s so extraordinary. After I read “Quicksilver,” the rest of the series (Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle) was just catnip to me.
Ivan Doig’s memoir “This House of Sky” has always been a favorite — the beauty and the evocation of that hardscrabble life. I’m a kid from the Bronx, but he made it so extraordinary to me.
James Mustich’s Shortlist of Novel Recommendations
“Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood
“The Sweet Hereafter” by Russell Banks
“The Feast of Love” by Charles Baxter
“Possession” by A.S. Byatt
“Spartina” by John Casey
“Clear Light of Day” by Anita Desai
“The Game of Kings” by Dorothy Dunnett
“A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan
“An Infamous Army” by Georgette Heyer
“Epitaph of a Small Winner” by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
“The Wicked Pavilion” by Dawn Powell
“1,000 Books to Read Before You Die” by James Mustich, Workman Publishing, 960 pp., $35
James Mustich will discuss “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die” in conversation with Mary Ann Gwinn at 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 29, at Folio Seattle in Pike Place Market, 93 Pike St., Seattle; $10 ($8 for Folio members); folioseattle.org.