It was, appropriately enough, a series of conversations more than a decade ago between author Jim Mustich, currently v-p of digital product at Barnes and Noble, and his longtime friend Peter Workman (the late founder and publisher of Workman Publishing) that started Mustich on a 14-year journey (“the longest homework assignment in history,” he says) to complete 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die (Workman, Oct.).
Mustich was founder of A Common Reader, a mail-order book catalogue, focusing on eclectic and little-known literary classics, and Peter was a big fan. “We talked about books all the time,” says Mustich. After the success of Workman’s 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, the two men decided to publish a similar volume on books. Mustich knew narrowing down his choices would be a struggle.
“I joked with Workman [that] maybe we should call it ‘1,000 Books to Argue About Before You Die,’ ” Mustich says, noting an experience he had shortly after signing his contract. “I was meeting the writer Pete Hamill for lunch. And we’re standing outside the restaurant, and Peter Workman happened by.” Mustich introduced Workman as his publisher, and Hamill said, “ ‘I didn’t know you were writing a book. What is it?’ I told him, and that night, about 11:30, I got an e-mail from Pete Hamill listing 20 books, saying, ‘I hope these are going to be in there.’ ”
Mustich’s 1,000 titles are arranged alphabetically, with extensive endnotes for each entry that lead readers to other, similar books they may find interesting. “It’s really meant to be a browser’s paradise so that people just come upon things that they may remember in the back of their mind, things that they’ve always wanted to read,” Mustich says.
There is, however, another dimension to the book: “Having been a bookseller for most of my adult life, there’s a larger sense in which this is important,” he adds. “For me, this is a tool for bookstores and booksellers, a way for them to embrace their vocation, to be recommenders and conversation starters among their clientele, and to really bring to the fore the things that books can do that so often in our culture are lost—thoughtfulness, and nuance.” Things, Mustich concludes, that are often forgotten in the great amnesia of our in-the-moment newsfeeds.