Some years ago, the reader and former bookseller James Mustich asked himself: “What if I had a bookstore that could hold only 1,000 volumes, and I wanted to ensure it held not only books for all time but also books for the moment, books to be savored or devoured in a night? A shop where any reading inclination — be it for thrillers or theology, or theological thrillers — might find reward.” This, he concluded, would be “a browser’s version of paradise.” It would also be an apt description of his deeply impressive “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.”
I can legitimately say “deeply impressive” because I’ve read three-quarters of Mustich’s chosen titles and because — shuffles feet modestly — I’ve written my own (very different) guides to good reading in my essay collections “Classics for Pleasure” and “Bound to Please,” the latter generously described here under the category “books on books.” In the interests of what is usually called full disclosure, I should also add that I’m quoted several times in these pages and have occasionally contributed essays about neglected classics to the online Barnes & Noble Review, which Mustich once edited.
What first strikes anyone who picks up “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die” is the freshness of what its subtitle calls this “life-changing list.” According to Oscar Wilde, only an auctioneer can appreciate all forms of art, but Mustich comes a close second. Who else would have included Madeleine Kamman’s “When French Women Cook,” Eugen Herrigel’s “Zen in the Art of Archery” and “The 9/11 Commission Report”?
There have been plenty of previous guides for readers, though these have generally concentrated on long-established authors and titles. Think of Charles W. Eliot’s Harvard Classics, Clifton Fadiman’s “The Lifetime Reading Plan,” Mortimer J. Adler’s often-mocked “Great Books of the Western World” and, confusingly, “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die,” edited by Peter Boxall with the help of many contributors. More personal, and the better for it, are Martin Seymour-Smith’s exceptionally lively “The New Guide to Modern World Literature” and eminent critic Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon,” while John Sutherland’s “How To Be Well Read” risks becoming almost too breezy in its otherwise awe-inspiring familiarity with 500 great novels.
Still, Mustich’s “1,000 Books” more than holds its own against these distinguished predecessors, largely because of its scope and diversity. Here one finds children’s classics, such as William Steig’s “Abel’s Island” and Ruth Krauss’s “A Hole is to Dig,” masterpieces of science fiction (the novels of Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany’s “Nova”), polemics by Jane Jacobs, Betty Friedan and Ta-Nehisi Coates, high spots of modern fantasy (Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea,” John Crowley’s “Little, Big”), science popularizations such as Paul de Kruif’s “Microbe Hunters” and Stephen Jay Gould’s “The Panda’s Thumb,” intellectual and military histories (Elaine Pagels’s “The Gnostic Gospels,” Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War,” John Keegan’s “The Face of Battle”) and inimitable humor from James Thurber, S.J. Perelman and Dawn Powell.
Let me quickly stress, though, that Mustich doesn’t neglect the usual golden oldies, such as Plato’s dialogues, Shakespeare’s plays and Jane Austen’s novels. He does favor modern Anglo-American literature and certain once-trendy bestsellers, but he also celebrates dozens of idiosyncratic titles, among them some of my favorite books. For instance, he includes James Lees-Milne’s hilarious autobiography, “Another Self,” Cyril Connolly’s reflections on the writing life, “Enemies of Promise,” Robert K. Merton’s Tristam Shandyish history of the phrase “On the Shoulders of Giants,” that great American novel about literary failure, Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes” and even the best of all comic mysteries, Edmund Crispin’s “The Moving Toyshop.” Most surprising of all, there’s an entry on the six volumes of the addictive, deliciously bookish correspondence between retired Eton teacher George Lyttelton and publisher Rupert Hart-Davis.
Organized alphabetically by author’s name and enlivened with numerous illustrations (author photos, jacket covers), “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die” devotes three or four paragraphs to describing each chosen title. Doubtless the desire to save space explains why so few of these mini-essays proffer quotations to illustrate a particular book’s distinctive style or charm. What Mustich says is invariably intelligent, but one frequently yearns to hear an author’s actual voice. Some entries could also use a bit more salt. Mustich occasionally resorts to the desperate reviewer’s go-to epithets, “compelling,” “gripping” and “mesmerizing.”
That said, most people will find that “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die” invites rapturous browsing even while eliciting, and expecting, argument. Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Paul Valéry, Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda and many other major poets somehow didn’t make the cut. Nor did the inimitable comic fantasist Terry Pratchett. The critic Hugh Kenner is featured, but not the far more influential (and equally readable) William Empson and Northrop Frye. Shouldn’t the magnificent Persian epic “The Shahnameh” be among the elect? And isn’t “The Time Machine” the H.G. Wells masterpiece to highlight rather than the structurally disjointed and tonally unstable “The Invisible Man”? Surely Penelope Fitzgerald ought to be represented by “The Blue Flower” rather than “Offshore” and W.G. Sebald by “Austerlitz” instead of “The Emigrants”?
Picky, picky — especially considering just how much is packed into these tightly filled pages. Each entry is even followed by a short list of additional titles by the same author or on the same subject.
All in all, the literate public — what novelist Robertson Davies dubbed the clerisy — can only be grateful for, and awed by, this product of 14 years of reading and research, most of it clearly undertaken by Mustich himself, though he did enlist some specialist advisors and the assistance of co-authors Margot Greenbaum Mustich, Thomas Meagher and Karen Templer.
Still, all that effort paid off: It’s hard to imagine that such a massive compendium could have been done better or demonstrate a more supple and catholic taste.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By James Mustich with Margot Greenbaum Mustitch, Thomas Meagher and Karen Templer
Workman. 948 pp. $35