It took 14 years for author James Mustich to compile a list of his top 1,000 books... how many NI writers did he include?
James Mustich's personal top three novels ... and the one that he deems over-rated
Read for an hour a day and walk half an hour a day, and you'll have better mental and physical health, according to the latest research published in the Medium online forum.
But you might have to read for more than an hour to get through the 1,000 books James Mustich has chosen for his new book entitled 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.
Going by the author's calculation of reading 20 books a year for 50 years to notch up 1,000, that means getting a move on for most if us. But for James, a New Yorker in his 60s, it is a goal surpassed. As a former bookseller, he had read considerably more than 1,000 titles in his lifetime and is well into collating his next 500.
"I read all the time and there are so many books I wish I could have in that list of 1,000," he says, speaking from his home in Connecticut.
"It took me 14 years to write it - it was a difficult task to decide which works to include. It's a thankless, endless task. Not easy. In the end I had to go by my own taste and having something to say about each choice.
"It is not meant to be a prescriptive list from start to end, of what book are you going to read next. I'm inviting the reader to browse in my book like you would in a library, with that same sense of serendipity when something connects."
The weighty 948-page tome of fiction and non-fiction titles hit the bookshelves late last year when print book sales were on the increase - 5% up on 2017. This summer, however, UK sales of physical books fell by £168m, (5.4%), while audio book sales surged by 43%.
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James Mustich (a southern Italian name pronounced 'Mustik') doesn't mind which format you choose - he simply would like to remind us that reading broadens the mind, and, in many cases, changes our outlook for the better. He has been an insatiable reader since his mother made the public library give him an adult card when he was 10.
He started his career 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, and the inspiration for 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die.
The eclectic collection encompasses fiction, poetry, science and science fiction, memoir, travel writing, biography, children's book, history and miscellaneous, each title described with a subjective - but learned - enthusiasm.
It includes classics authors such as Jane Austen, Virgil, Dante, Dickens and Tolstoy, Franz Kafka and Simone de Beauvoir, but also highlights contemporary and unexpected titles like Friday Night Lights, A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, The Day of the Jackal and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
Belfast-born writer CS Lewis features, although not in the children's category. Instead, James chose Lewis's reflective A Grief Observed, written after the death of his wife Joy Davidman (their love story was the subject of the award-winning film Shadowlands).
"I wanted to select something that was a good introduction to Lewis' writing beyond the Narnia series," he explains. "I know how eloquently he has spoken to many in the midst of grief.
"His opening line: 'No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear' - so many have said that resonates with their experience, with what you are feeling. I once compiled a catalogue of books on death and I know this one has been particularly meaningful to people."
Lewis developed a heart condition and died three years after Joy.
"He writes of how his faith stumbled when he lost Joy," James adds. "But he then came to realise that faith is faith, and it consists of doubt in some parts. His faith became enriched."
Confronting the monstrous is a theme in quite a few of James' chosen written works from these shores, most literally in Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf (right), the elegiac narrative of the adventures of a Scandanavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and his mother.
"I'm a fan of Seamus Heaney but never met him, unfortunately," he remarks. "Heaney made Beowulf accessible, he brought an elegant grittiness to it. It connects with the theme, in his poetry, of life emerging from the bog.
"He was a terrific translator, as well. He refuses to be unduly reverent to the original sources, which reinvigorates the writing for other readers. He uses very fresh language, he goes where other translators are afraid to go."
In this vein, perhaps The Portrait of Dorian Gray would have been an apt choice for Oscar Wilde's entry, but James choose the comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, from the Fermanagh-schooled writer.
"It was so important for me to choose which of the books works as the most obvious introduction to the writer and the most obvious invitation to the reader," he says. "Dorian Gray is a wonderful book, too, but I chose The Importance of Being Earnest for its repartee, the wittiness and the quips. I have a soft spot for Earnest, the kinda inspired silliness."
The humour in Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes - currently a hit stage show - is what attracted James to the Limerick-born author, who taught some friends of his in New York. He acknowledges that it is the factor that made the memoir stand out from the swathes of misery-lit published in Ireland over the last 40 years.
"The difference is the humour - from the first paragraph, the readers know this is a funny book," he says.
"You're asking, how can all this misery and suffering be funny? He deflects and absorbs all of his experiences with a sense of humour which transcends the physical and emotional sorrow. This one was interesting to me because he wrote it very late in life. I have some friends who were in his classes, they were all surprised when the book came out.
"They loved his classes. He had a great way of teaching, laced with storytelling. Standing up in front of a class all those years, he learned how to communicate."
Ultimately, for James, the most important ingredient in a book is soul - or 'heart' in the cheesy modern American vernacular. He quotes one of his all-time favourite passages, this one narrated by a hitherto cold and secretive character from The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter (he also recommends the 2007 film adaptation starring Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear).
"And then we were making love... and my soul - I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's what happened - became visible to me. My soul was a large and not particularly attractive waiting room, just like in a Victorian train station with people going in and out... my soul was not particularly attractive, but the surprise was that it was there, that I had one."
Again, he references CS Lewis.
"I think a novel has to have soul because a good book reminds us that we have souls ourselves - they can help heal us from what CS Lewis called 'the pain we know we have' or make us familiar with it," he says.
"The longest conversations in your life are those you have you have in your head when we are talking to ourselves. Stories and poems feed that conversation."
Predictably, he has been swamped with suggestions for books to add to list - dinner parties will never be the same again, he laments jokingly. As a result, he has set up a website, 1000bookstoread.com, where readers can add their own choices. Every two weeks, he sends a newsletter with an update and adds a new book he has discovered.
One of the literary works he wishes he could have included in the published anthology is Autumn Journal by Belfast-born Louis McNiece (an autobiographical long poem on the author's state of mind in the run-up to World War Two).
"Another one is Constellations by Sinead Gleeson (a collection of personal essays on her experience with leukaemia and hip problems), which is extraordinarily powerful," he concludes.
"I'm always coming upon more new books I'm sorry I didn't include but I'm happy to discover them, so I'm adding to my list all the time. Needless to say, all suggestions are welcome!"
1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, by James Mustich, published by Workman Publishing, £26.99. James Mustich will be discussing 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die at two special events at the Aspects Irish Literature Festival this week: Tonight at 6pm, North Down Museum, Town Hall, The Castle, Bangor BT20 4BT. Tickets cost £7, book online at www.aspectsfestival.com or in person at the North Down Museum, Ards Arts Centre or Ards and North Down visitor information centres. Sunday at 2pm, in conversation with local author Jan Carson at Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Bellaghy, Magherafelt. Tickets cost £8, from www.seamusheaneyhome.com or tel: 7938 7444
James Mustich’s personal top three novels ... and the one that he deems over-rated
1. Middlemarch (A Study Of Provincial Life) by George Eliot
"Middlemarch has always been a favourite of mine. I first read it in college more than 40 years ago and I re-read it every 10 years, and it just gets richer and richer. I want to make sure it's still valid in every way."
2. Russell Hoban, The Mouse and his Child (1967)
"This is a children's classic, aimed at 12-year-olds, but to me it has more to say about what it means to be alive than any other book ever."
3. Robert Grudin, Time and the Art of Living (1982).
"It's a meditation on time and the journey through it, living in the present, even while waiting on a train.
Most over-rated: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (author of The Fountainhead), a philosophical opus set in a dystopian, overly regulated capitalist society. "I don't think it delivers the resonance it is supposed to but I'm hesitant to speak about that category of crafted books, because you can always come back to a book with your blinkers off."