Noteworthy Titles for Every Interest
By some estimates, more than 300 million books have been published in the modern era, and that doesn’t include the myriad self-published titles that often fall under the radar. With so many options, how can you find the books most worthy of your time?
To answer that question, publishing veteran James Mustich dug through countless works over the past three decades. He lays out his recommendations in the newly released 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.
“While I started writing this book in the early 2000s, its genesis really goes back to the mid-1980s,” he shares. “That’s when I started the mail-order catalog A Common Reader, for which I wrote about books for two decades.” When his publisher approached him about writing this book, he framed the project with a simple question: “What if I had a bookstore that could only stock 1,000 titles, yet needed to have something for every reading appetite and age?”
The resulting suggestions are equally weighted between fiction and nonfiction, and span nearly 4,000 years.
“A great fiction book begins with a good story,” Mustich observes. “It revolves around a story that, quite simply, makes you want to find out what happens next. It also sets a strong atmosphere, be it a physical place or period in someone’s life that resonates with the reader. And it combines good writing with interesting voices.”
As for non-fiction, Mustich says the best books are built around what he calls an intriguing “verve” that grabs the reader’s attention. “The verve might be in the narrative, or it could be in the style of the writing or even unique idea of the story,” he explains. “There’s a great little title on my list by John McPhee called Oranges, which is a totally fascinating story about citrus fruit! Once you read it, you’ll never look at oranges the same way again.”
To narrow the list, we asked Mustich to select his 10 personal favorites. His picks are listed below in alphabetical order, along with his thoughts on what makes each one so special:
Aké: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka
“This book is by a Nigerian author and winner of the Nobel Prize,” Mustich says. “It’s a magical story about childhood. The perceptions it presents are steeped in the way children look at the world, where everything is kind of magical because it’s being seen for the first time. The way Soyinka is able to capture this as an adult is remarkable.”
The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth by Roy Andries de Groot
“This is a great travel and food book,” Mustich raves. “Author Roy Andries de Groot was an excellent food writer and wine connoisseur in the 1950s and 1960s. One day he was having dinner in a Greenwich Village restaurant and ordered a glass of Chartreuse, the after-dinner drink. The waiter brought over the bottle, and de Groot began reading it. The label said the wine was made by Carthusian monks in an alpine valley of France. De Groot decided to go there to find out how it was made. His book is the story of how he met the two French sisters who ran the inn — the Auberge — which supplies the title. He keeps going back season after season to find their local recipes. It’s an absolutely transporting book.”
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
“”This novel, released in 2004, in written in the form of a memoir,” Mustich explains. “It’s about an aging minister who got married later in life, in his 70s. He is writing the memoir for his young son because he doesn’t expect to live to see his child’s growth to adulthood. His reflections encompass American history, and especially the Civil War, through the lens of his family. It’s a gentle, deeply moving book that’s beautifully expressed with a meditative calm that I think we’d all like to have in looking back on our lives.”
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
“This is an enormous novel of around 3,000 pages,” Mustich points out. “But once you get into it, you’re swimming through an enormous ocean in which the tide carries you along. The remarkable thing about Proust’s masterpiece is that it’s a profound book, but in an odd way. It’s filled with situations you recognize as familiar, involving memory, love, jealousy or social relations. And as you read, you find yourself saying: ‘I’ve always felt this way, but I’ve never been able to articulate it.’ Proust takes the time to think about even the simplest things in a way that yields insights that aren’t so much ingenious as they are familiar, and all the more profound for being so.”
Life in Code by Ellen Ullman
“The most recent book on my list, Life in Code, was published in 2017,” Mustich says. “The author was a computer software engineer in the early days of Silicon Valley, and one of the few women in that role at the time. In a series of essays, Ullman writes brilliantly about what life is like in the world made for us by technology. It’s a stunning book, and probably the one I’ve given away the most to others over the past year.”
Middlemarch by George Eliot
“I first read Middlemarch in college when I was 19,” Mustich recalls. “I try to re-read it once every five years or so because it gets wiser each time I do so. It’s about a young woman in mid-19th-century Britain trying to find her way in the world. Eliot’s intelligence so permeates the book that, as you read it, you find yourself asking what’s going to happen next to the character, Dorothea, and what shape your own life is taking at the same time.”
The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban
“I often say this is my favorite book on the list,” Mustich says. “It’s written for 12-year-olds, but it’s a full-length novel that repays the attention of any reader, whatever the age. The story is about a wind-up toy that gets thrown out of the toy shop where it’s been happy and has to learn how to navigate the cruel world outside. No kidding, it has more to say about the experience of being alive on this earth than any book I’ve ever read.”
The Oresteia by Aeschylus
“The Oresteia is the only surviving complete trilogy of tragedies from ancient Greece, and it deals with all the fundamental issues of human culture in one handy volume,” Mustich says. “The trilogy’s wisdom looms like an awesome natural wonder over the philosophical reasoning that Plato and Aristotle would leave in its wake. The truths the book tells are as ineluctable as fate, and just as enduring.”
Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley
“This is a novel about an itinerant bookseller who has a mobile book cart,” Mustich notes. “Written in the early 20th century, it is a love letter to books and bookselling. It’s nicely paired with Morley’s sequel, The Haunted Bookshop.”
Time and the Art of Living by Robert Grudin
“Grudin’s volume is a series of numbered meditations on time, be it alarm clock time, calendar time, or philosophical time,” Mustich explains. “It really makes one more thoughtful about this dimension in which we live. It helps to make your life more full of meaning as you read and ponder it, bit by bit.”
Mustich also selected his favorite books in six different categories for us: From the 21st Century, Offbeat Adventures, Money and Enterprise, Food and Travel, Thrillers/Mysteries and War Stories. You’ll find them in the sidebar above.
The above article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.