1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List, by the American author James Mustich, is best understood less as a book, more as a kind of imaginary book shop: a place of pleasurable discovery, open to readers of all tastes and ages, where you can browse at will – perhaps emerging, hours later, clutching a volume you didn't even know existed when you walked in.
When Mustich began the project 14 years ago, he was initially overwhelmed by the gargantuan scale of it, despite his decades of experience as a hands-on book-seller. Mustich, who has been an insatiable reader since childhood, started his professional life in books at an independent bookstore in Briarcliff Manor, New York, and subsequently became the founding editor-in-chief of the Barnes & Noble Review. For two decades, from 1986, he published a catalogue called The Common Reader – a monthly commentary on books old and new – which was clearly the precursor to 1,000 Books.
"Yes, it took a while to get my head around the idea," he says, speaking from his home in Connecticut. "A book about 1,000 books can be so many different things: the most important, the best-selling, it could cover every discipline of human thought. But I knew I wanted to make something that was more than a list, or a static reference book. It had to be a tool for exploration, with some serendipity and surprises thrown in, and I also wanted it to be fun for readers." It was at this point he conceived the idea of the book-as-bookshop. It came via a passage from the critic Edmund Wilson, describing "the miscellaneous learning of the bookstore, unorganised by any larger purpose, the undisciplined undirected curiosity of the indolent lover of reading".
What if, Mustich thought, he had a bookstore that could hold only 1,000 volumes? Not just books for the ages, but books for the immediate moment, the kind to be picked up and devoured in just one night? There should be something there for everyone who might stroll in: Greek tragedy, a gripping thriller, a great picture book for kids. It could be a kind of “cradle to grave reader’s companion”. And with that, he realised he had the key to the whole enterprise.
“Inveterate readers read the way they eat,” says Mustich. “They might have hotdogs one day, a fancy meal the next night, and maybe a health binge after that. Books provide nourishment, indulgence, distraction, sometimes even moments of transcendence. So this is not a prescriptive list. It’s more like an invitation or, to continue the food analogy, a menu.”
The end result is an informed, engaging itinerary of literary culture, beautifully presented, which ranges from Aeschylus to Zadie Smith, with everything in between. In chronological terms, it begins with The Epic of Gilgamesh, encoded on tablets in Babylon 4,000 years ago, and ends with Ellen Ullman's Life in Code: a Personal History of Technology.
1,000 Books is ordered alphabetically which, as Mustich intended, leads to some intriguing juxtapositions. "I wanted to make it easy for people to find their way around, but also to provide that element of surprise. I knew if I arranged it chronologically, or by genre, people might not read certain areas. There's a sequence in the 'T' section that I particularly love. You have On Growth and Form, written at the end of the 19th century by the zoologist, mathematician and classicist D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, which is followed by Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson, a celebration of life in an English country village, so evocative, lovely and gentle. And then you have Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, to which of course none of the above words apply. After that, there is Eloise at the Plaza, by Kay Thompson, a marvellous illustrated children's book originally published in 1955. I think that sequence of Thompsons really shows the range of the whole book."
Although there were certain books that Mustich always knew that he would include, others suggested themselves along the way. One of these was The Little Red Chairs, a novel by the Irish author Edna O'Brien, published in 2015, when she was 85 years old. "I was totally astonished by that one. Such an ambitious and skilled work. Music critics sometimes talk about a composer's 'late style', and how it can so much freer and more alive. This novel shows the same kind of mastery." Mustich considers O'Brien one of the most accomplished fiction writers in English of the past 100 years.
He describes how her story “moves with startling speed and surety from the lovely lanes of Irish provincial life into the bloodstained terrain of the Balkan War, spinning a web of fear, violence, and displacement as human decency is driven from domestic certainty and transformed into something lost and wandering. Reaching for beauty from roots of terror, it reads like a sacrament, with all the uncanny truths and consequences a sacrament invokes.”
Overall, Irish writers have a healthy showing. James Joyce, of course, is there, as well as Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Flann O'Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor and Frank O'Connor. Mustich has a special regard for the Kilkenny essayist and sometime Irish Times contributor Hubert Butler, whom he catalogues as "a chronicler of local culture, an amateur archaeologist, an astute student of Irish history and politics, a traveller and a peripatetic conscience observing the tragedy of life in Central Europe in the abysmal middle of the last century."
Once people know you're writing a book like this, dinner parties are never the same again
Perhaps inevitably, one of the most challenging parts of the project was deciding which books to leave out. “Oh, there were hundreds!” exclaims Mustich. “I spent 14 years writing this and I know that I’m going to spend the next 14 years hearing from people what should have been in it.” Even during the research stage, he was inundated with suggestions. “Once people know you’re writing a book like this, dinner parties are never the same again. People can be very passionate about their own choices.”
Mustich is keenly aware that the compendium is bound to be intensely subjective, the product of his own taste, at a particular moment in time. He acknowledges that even when people agree with him about the inclusion of a certain book, they might not like it for the same reasons. This is why 1,000 Books has an accompanying website, 1000bookstoread.com, where readers can nominate their own favourites.
And although Mustich initially quailed at the thought of compiling such an extensive list – it seemed like “far too many [books]to get my head around,” as he admits in the introduction – he eventually came to the conclusion that 1,000 was actually too few. “I would love to be able to produce a new volume of the book every couple of years,” he says, “so that I could include works that have just been published, as well as suggestions from readers.”
Family has always played an important part in Mustich’s reading life. “This project was entirely inspired by my mother, Annette, who is just about to turn 90,” he says. “She has always been an indefatigable reader, with a constant passion for books, and she remains an abiding influence. She modelled reading for me: we were always popping into bookstores, traipsing off to book sales.” Both mother and son were never happier than when browsing in a book shop, as Mustich says, “indulging our curiosity in a congenial environment”.
It was a lot of work. Sometimes it felt like it was the longest homework assignment of all time
Each entry in the compendium comes with its own end notes, with salient details such as genre, date of publication, as well as further reading suggestions: other books to try if you like that particular one. It sounds like a cross-referencing nightmare. Was it? “Well, it was a lot of work. Sometimes it felt like it was the longest homework assignment of all time. There are 5,500 books in the index alone, and here I must credit the support of my wife Margot, because she organised all that. I had all this knowledge on slips of paper and she built and managed a database to capture it.”
1,000 Books to Read Before You Die is more than a compendium, it's a celebration of the life-affirming, life-expanding act of reading. "The question of what to read next is a prelude to who to be and how to live", says Mustich. "In an age where most of our experiences are ephemeral and mediated through digital means, reading allows us to immerse ourselves in our own thoughts and imaginations. What I hope is for people to open books and lose themselves in them. That's how we discover important things about ourselves and the world.
And Mustich thinks that e-books simply don’t deliver the same experience. “The physical book – how it feels and smells and looks – is often a resonant souvenir of the period in which we read it, the thoughts it provoked at the time. The book is not just a content provider. It’s a talisman of life and learning.”
1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List, by James Mustich, published by Workman Publishing, is out now, £26.99