Author Features / Features

Discovery Channels: James Mustich, A Common Reader, and 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die

by Lisa Peet
1.

My mom was a reader, and would hand me books regularly. She also made the public library give me an adult card when I was about ten, so my books wouldn’t fill up her card and keep her from getting her own. Once the librarians figured out that I was really reading the books I checked out, they started making recommendations, too.—Mya R.

There are plenty of things readers of a certain age can blame on Internet book culture: shuttered standalone review sections, thoughtful literary analysis replaced by listicles, the death of any number of small bookstores. One of the quieter aspects of a reading life that has gone missing as well is the sense of an enduring path: where and how we first found the book that led to the next book that opened our eyes to the book after that.

We may well be living in a golden age of book discovery, with increasingly sophisticated data drawing on ever larger economies of scale, and platforms like Goodreads and LibraryThing building worldwide communities of fellow eager readers. But when a book recommendation is one of 25 or 50 friend- or algorithm-generated suggestions, that sense of recall—who pressed a book into your hands, what shelf you picked it from, on which library sale table did you take a chance on a 50¢ paperback because you liked the cover—goes missing from our mental maps.

What matters, of course, is that the book in question reached its reader at all. But remembering how it got there is a form of genealogy. And in the same way that knowing when our great-grandparents emigrated, and where they came from, helps situate us in our own contexts, tracing our personal literary tradition gives context to our reading lives in ways both large and small. Discovery is history; just ask any explorer with a flag.

2.

I had an uncle who would give us giant piles of books for Christmas and birthdays that he got from all over the place and I would read them all. Over my lifetime, he gave me hundreds of books—everything from novels to art books and in between. My favorite as a kid was a firsthand account of a Russian deep sea diver in the 1920s.—Sarah P.

James Mustich’s life in books has always been about discovery—and his reach, it turns out, has been impressive.

After earning an English degree at Princeton and putting in time as both a bookseller and catalog copywriter, Mustich decided he wanted to do something similar—working around books, but selling the ones he chose—and began thinking about how to put together his own hand-picked collection. In 1986, with some savings and access to warehouse space, Mustich and his colleague Alex Goulder launched A Common Reader, a mail order catalog that carried an eclectic collection of books they loved: volumes classic and obscure, popular and erudite, well-trafficked and sometimes so far off the beaten trail as to require reprinting by A Common Reader’s in-house imprint, Akadine Press.

The books, selected for a variety of ages, tastes, and interests, were all standouts. But it was the catalogs that made A Common Reader a dynamic resource. Published every three and a half weeks, they were a book browser’s paradise—organized into themes from philosophy to shipwrecks, with a section for reader recommendations, they listed several hundred books apiece, each accompanied by a small black-and-white illustration and a short, chatty description. The vibe was vaguely retro, and the blurbs—many written by Mustich—were contagious in their zeal for a good read.

These hundred-word spots were as carefully composed as any review, notes Mustich, but they weren’t critical appraisals. Rather, they were expressions of sheer enthusiasm, a way of telling an unseen acquaintance, “I discovered this great book about this thing I never knew,” he says, “and that was what really got people excited.”

The titles picked by Mustich and his staff mostly reflected their own interests, and they took recommendations from publishers, editors, customers, and—of course—readers. When he saw that people were drawn to certain topics, such as polar exploration, Mustich would search out even more esoteric books on the subject. He would suggest that publishers bring back particular titles, offering to take 1,000 copies up front, and Akadine Press eventually reprinted more than 150 books.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgA reader browsing each eagerly-awaited catalog, highlighter in hand, got recommendations with a point of view and a little personality, as if from a cheerful bookseller in their living room. This writer’s well-worn copies of Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, Edward E. Leslie‘s Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors, Sam R. Watkins’s Co. Aytch—an epistolary Civil War memoir—and Berton Roueché’s The Medical Detectives, among others, are testimony to the catalog’s gentle powers of persuasion.

3.
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The corner pharmacy as a kid in Puerto Rico, bored out of my mind for most of August, when Puerto Rican kids went back to school a month before I did. They had one of those spinning wire racks with novels and other books, mostly in English. I remember finding Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 there at the tender age of 11. I couldn’t understand a thing about that book. But I kept reading it anyway.—Charles B.

The business grew steadily, at its peak employing some 40 people, and over the course of two decades A Common Reader amassed a loyal and loving following. “It was like a big reading group, in a way,” says Mustich.

Writing for the catalog also freed his own voice, he adds. “I wrote and wrote and wrote, had a place for it to go, and had a place for it to be published where I could get reactions to it from customers,” he says. “I liked the idea of going straight from thinking about a book to being able to write about it in an experiential way: here’s how I discovered this book, here is where I was when I was reading it, this is who I talked to about it.” The catalog may have predated literary blogs by some 20 years, but it drew on the same idea of a personal voice sharing enthusiasm for a book.

The Internet ultimately caught up with A Common Reader, however. “We didn’t react quickly enough,” says Mustich, “or didn’t have the knowledge and the wherewithal to make the transition.” Even in Amazon’s early days, it was clear that people were showrooming—taking note of catalog titles and then purchasing them more cheaply online, he explains. Each page spread of A Common Reader featured a general category, such as “Personal Pleasures” or “Town & Country” or “They Have a Word for It,” a mix of eight to ten popular and little-known books. Mustich would scope out one of the more uncommon titles on Amazon only to see that its “Also Bought” section would feature all the books from that particular grouping—”Which couldn’t have been coincidence, because the other books were generally equally obscure.” Even after the company transitioned to a website, sales dropped off, unable to compete with Amazon’s prices and speed.

A couple of years ago, Mustich recalls, he was at his parents’ home, and his mother, perplexed, handed him the phone, saying, “I think this is for you.” It was a former subscriber living in Arizona, he recalls: “My father’s name is also James, and he’s in the phone book, so she had found this number. She said, ‘I just was home looking at a few of the old catalogs that I had, and I wanted to call you to tell you that I’m really sorry I didn’t buy more books.’”

4.

I got my first library card on a bookmobile. When we moved we could walk or bike to the small Carnegie library. I started reading the New York Times Book Review in high school—I picked up my preordered copy in a small drugstore in my West New York hometown.—Barbara G.

A Common Reader arguably set the wheels in motion for many readers who were eager for recommendations beyond what they could find in review sections, more targeted than browsing library or bookstore shelves, and farther-ranging than friends and family could offer. The catalog shut its doors in 2006, as the first literary blogs and forums were beginning to take hold in the wider world.

Mustich himself was an early adopter, however, going on to helm the online Barnes & Noble Review as well as helping develop recommendation engines for the Nook e-reader and B&N’s Browsery app. “It was a challenge, and exhilarating, to talk to smart people who spoke a totally different language—engineers and data scientists and product designers—and having to translate all of the assumptions that I had about book discovery for them,” he says.

Still, Mustich asserts, as much as he enjoyed his work in digital discovery, nothing ever approached the experience of walking into a well-curated bookstore.

“There’s something about the physical presence of the book, and the power of agency of your own attention,” he says. “It’s a very personal experience of discovery. There are very few other aspects of life in which you get that, in which that act of attention is so rich in reminding you of all the interests you have or have wanted to explore…. I don’t think anyone has come close to replicating that online.”

5.

In grade school, it was any book to be found on one of the shelves of the library. Also, Cricket Magazine. In high school, I used to pick books that were mentioned in the books I was reading. I think I first read Virgil because of a Martha Grimes mystery. In college, it was books that were being read by whomever I had a crush on at the time.—Nicki L.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgEven before A Common Reader mailed its last catalog, Mustich had been pondering the bookstore discovery conundrum. The late publisher Peter Workman, a friend and colleague, had hit a home run in 2003 with Patricia Schultz’s 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Workman wanted to do something similar with books, and Mustich seemed like the logical person to ask. “I said sure,” he recalls, “having no conception of what I was getting myself into.” In 2004 he began work on the project that would—14 years later—become 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List.

Mustich began by making multiple lists of his own, featuring everything he thought might warrant inclusion. He went through all 300 of the Common Reader catalogs, solicited input from friends and colleagues, and looked at similar best-of books. The first draft ran to 7,000 titles.

To help cull that list and still maintain the sense of serendipity and discovery he was after, Mustich’s guiding precept was an imaginary bookstore that could only hold 1,000 volumes. “I wanted to have something for anybody who came in with a particular appetite, rather than a desire to read all the most important books in the world,” he explains. “Someone might say, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to read Greek tragedy.’ Or, ‘I’ve never read Dickens—where should I start?’ Or, ‘I’m getting on a plane tomorrow and I want a thriller that’s going to zone me out and absorb my attention.’ Or, ‘I want picture books for my grandkids.’ I wanted to have answers to all those kinds of questions.” He also envisioned a book that people could open anywhere “and find something that they knew next to something they never heard of next to something they didn’t expect to see.”

The first ten years of work, he says, felt like “the longest homework assignment of all time.” Although the pace picked up once he hit the 750 mark, he recalls, the list was also a moving target as new material caught his fancy. He recalibrated as he went, keeping a balance between fiction and nonfiction, adult and children’s books, the fun and the serious, and making sure his list included solid representation of women and LGBTQ authors, writers of color, and works in translation. He admits the selection skews somewhat toward older material, as that’s where his experience and expertise as a bookseller lies, but he also pushed at the last minute for newly published work he discovered and loved.

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThus Claudia Rankine’s 2014 Citizen: An American Lyric abuts Arthur Ransome’s 1930 children’s classic Swallows and Amazons; Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy) shares a spread with Gustave Flaubert; and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander (1970), Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs (2015), and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) find themselves on the same “shelf” (pp. 594-595). The Kings—Martin Luther and Stephen—are amicable neighbors. Each entry is supported by the same type of brief yet expansive mini-essay that enchanted Common Reader subscribers, followed by a few notes on the author’s other works or additional selections to try. And all are enticing—take, for instance, the entry for Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, which opens:

Tell me you’re not intrigued by a novel that begins, “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.”

6.

I loved yard sales and secondhand stores, which would always have books for sale. People would sell used books on the street—you could get books for a quarter or fifty cents. There used to be a guy in the Village, I think around West 4th, who would stand outside of the basement apartment of a brownstone, and he would whisper, “books, books, used books,” in the same discreet way that pot dealers at the time would walk by you and whisper ”smoke, smoke.”—Lori G.

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die is not meant to be approached as an authoritative work or a canon, Mustich insists. It is not comprehensive. Rather, he wrote the book as a conversation starter, in hopes that people will not only take recommendations from it but will jump in with their own. “Open it anywhere, find something that intrigues you, read that, come back and find something else,” he suggests.

At every stop on the book tour, he has asked the audience to tell him what he left out, and the book’s companion website, www.1000bookstoread.com, encourages visitors to chime in online.

Not only have readers accommodated his wishes—politely but with gusto, he reports—but at every stop on the book tour, former subscribers to A Common Reader have stepped forward to tell Mustich how much those black-and-white catalogs meant to them, what books they discovered there, and which books those led to in turn. The intervening years have clearly done nothing to blur the remembered path from one discovery to another.

“I really wanted the book to speak to a reading life,” Mustich says. “It’s not a prescription. It’s a big menu.” In the age of the online all-you-can-eat book buffet, a menu is a welcome guide—and a guide like 1,000 Books makes for a valuable map.

Bloom Post End

Lisa Peet is the News Editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.

Photo of James Mustich © Trisha Keeler Photography

Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features

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