A softer title might have been “Books To Have On Your Bucket List”, but it wouldn’t carry the same weight or urgency as “1,000 Books To Read Before You Die: A Life Changing List”. If you’re as disinclined toward list compilations as I am, you might normally take a pass on picking up this volume yet alone taking it home. But James Mustich, a bibliophile who began his career as an independent bookseller, has done far more that assemble a list of his personal greatest hits.
For twenty years Mr. Mustich spearheaded an eclectic but acclaimed catalog, The Common Reader, championing the causes of poorly known or under-appreciated books. The catalog folded in 2006, leaving him with plenty of time to contemplate classic authors such as Virginia Woolf, whose title he’d borrowed as founder of his publication.
Mustich’s monumental work took 14 years to get to publication, and his insights scintillate in each of the thousand entries, averaging roughly 72 per year. It is fitting, of course that Virginia Woolf occupies a prominent entry. In The Common Reader (“How Should One Read a Book?”), Mustich writes: “‘The common reader’, Woolf explains, taking her cue from Samuel Johnson, differs from the the critic and scholar. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinion of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself …”
More than just an entry in this masterpiece, a quote from Woolf serves as the book’s frontispiece:
Mustich’s Introduction, “In The Company Of Books”, sets the tone for his obsession: “I surrounded myself with books, which spontaneously sprouted and grew into piles in whatever room I inhabited … Books are everywhere I look, and I like it that way.” He acknowledges how challenging it was to settle on his selections for this book, and then the more daunting task of deciding how to succinctly summarize each work in a few paragraphs. As Mustich muses: “My answers to all of the above questions almost certainly will not be yours. Even where we agree, my description of a book might not highlight the things that have made you love it. A text is never static. Every sentence wends its way into the ear and mind of one reader differently than it is welcomed, or invites itself , into those of another. Just as a musician brings a score to life, so a reader animates an author’s pages; as Emerson said, ‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book'”.
So what is the ultimate purpose of a collection of this nature and its accompanying commentary? Mustich explains: “It is meant to be an invitation to a conversation – even a merry argument – about the books and authors that are missing as well as the books and authors included, because the question of what to read next is the best prelude to even more important ones, like who to be and how to live. Such faith in reading’s power, and the learning and imagination it nourishes, is something I’ve been lucky enough to take for granted as both fact and freedom; it’s something I fear may be forgotten in the great amnesia of our in-the-moment news feeds and algorithmically defined identities, which hide from view the complexity of feelings that books demand we quietly, and determinedly, engage …”
“To get lost in a story, or even a study, is inherently to acknowledge the voice of another, to broaden one’s perspective beyond the confines of one’s own understanding. A good book is the opposite of a selfie; the right book at the right time can expand our lives in the way love does, making us more thoughtful, more generous, more brave, more alert to the world’s wonders and more pained by its inequities, more wise, more kind.”