1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich

37588678If there is anything better than a book, it’s a book about books.  The joy of reading is suffused with the anticipation of reading the amazing titles put before you.  Wishlists and bookshelves fill along with our literary hearts.

There are similarly titled books-on-books out there, sure, but I’m really liking this one. Let me list the reasons why:

  • Other tomes list what you should read, like literary brain veggies.  Mustich takes a different tack: if he had a bookstore that held exactly 1,000 books these would be the ones he includes.  There’s something for every reading mood – books to ponder over, books to gulp down whole, books for children, books for when you need an escape, and more.
  • Most people will likely dip in and out as the mood strikes but, me being me, I blew through the entire thing front to back.  It holds up!  The books are in alpha order by author, perfect for brushing up against a writer you’ve never heard of.
  • Unlike many of these lists about half of the selections are non-fiction of the well-wearing sort – memoirs, travelogues, nature writing, history, food writing, etc.  A large part of the TBR I assembled is nonfiction, to my pleasant surprise.
  • Each entry has a bevy of info attached – bibliographic details, related works, recommended editions and translations, adaptations, and more.  And if you’ve already read a book there’s several more by different authors to try.
  • As a result the one thousand main entries are the tip of the iceberg – six thousand more books are referenced throughout.  The index, it is epic.
  • While some picks are obvious, some are not.  Mustich will name check an author’s most famous work while highlighting another that he feels is underappreciated or a better entry point into their oeuvre.
  • Instead of espousing why the content of a book is important, we’re told why it’s a good read.  A touching memoir, thrilling mystery, a book that will stay with you for the rest of your life – hearing the why makes the selections even more alluring for me.

All of that being said, as you’d expect with any arbitrary selection of books, I have some quibbles.

  • The author is a well-meaning white guy and the list reflects that in many ways.  First, he obviously made an effort to include women and people of color, as well as dip into world literature, which is much appreciated. And I want to say up front – it’s hard to hold one thousand books in your head and I may be missing a few.  However.
    • By my estimate women only make up 20-25% of the authors listed in the thousand.  Out of the 45 authors with more than one book I only see six women, or 13%.  Better than the “expected” 8% mentioned in How to Suppress Women’s Writing but still well short of half.  Boo.
    • Looking at the books written by people of color, most by Western authors are squarely centered on the POC experience (James Baldwin’s Collected Essays, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, etc.).  These are all great and worthy books, but it perpetuates the myth that non-white people are only qualified to write about themselves.  I would have liked to see a larger range, maybe by throwing in fantasy like The Broken Earth series by N.K. Jemisin or a book by Octavia Butler.  (No, Butler is not on this list.  There are two Butlers but not her.  I know.)
    • In the same vein, LGBTQIA+ folks don’t get their full due.  Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is here, huzzah, but that’s about it.  Other than classic authors whose Queerness gets a passing mention (Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, etc.) I have a hard time remembering another book related to the gay experience.  With all the nonfiction how about And the Band Played On, about the AIDS epidemic, or Columbine, by a gay author?  Again, I may be missing a couple, but even then it’s slim pickings.
    • There are so. many. books. about. war.  The history of war, soldier memoirs, the politics and tactics of war… ugh.
    • Many of the travel books are about a white dude traveling to a place populated by black or brown people.  I just… no thank you.
  • While some genres are lovingly included (sci-fi, mysteries, thrillers), others are largely ignored.  There is precious little fantasy (and most is sword and sorcery at that), and there’s only one romance.  Huzzah for Georgette Heyer but considering the attempt at inclusiveness it made me sad.

Laid out like that my criticisms may look harsh but overall I really liked 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.  I’m planning on getting a hard copy and marking it up (in pencil!) with notes about the books I’ve read. There are also illustrations and pictures on almost every page, making the already impressive volume an attractive gift.

Curating a selection like this is an incredibly hard task and Mustich does better than many.  Perfect for readers who love books about books.

Thanks to Workman Publishing and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

4 thoughts on “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich

  1. This sounds like it has a lot to offer! But yikes at some of the falling short of inclusivity…seems like a good attempt was made but not quite there. Great review though, it does seem worth checking out.

    1. I built quite a TBR from reading it! A predominantly white and male TBR, but still. 😉 I had a digital copy and the pages were gorgeous on a screen, I can only imagine how nice they’d be on paper.

      1. Ooh good to know – I’m trying to better separate what’s best to read in ebook format and what’s better in a physical copy. Sounds good but I’m glad to know what I’d be getting into with the white male selections 🙂

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