If you visit the BookTrib.com website primarily for book discovery, we’re here to tell you about a book that can only be described as the consummate book discovery source. What’s so much fun about 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List (Workman Publishing) is you can start reading it on any of its almost 900 pages, and you don’t even have to finish it to thoroughly enjoy it.

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It took author and veteran bookseller James Mustich 14 years to compile and write 1,000 Books, which leads to an obvious question: why only 14 years?

Understand up front this was not conceived as a book of the 1,000 Greatest Hits of All Time. Sure, it is diverse and all encompassing, covering fiction, poetry, science and science fiction, memoir, travel writing, biography, children’s books, history and much more. And it offers concise critical insights into the books and the writers that have captured the imagination of the world.

But as Mustich, best associated with the acclaimed books catalog A Common Reader as its co-founder and guiding force, explains, “A book about 1,000 books could take so many different shapes. It could be a canon of classics; it could be a history of human thought, and a tour of its significant disciplines.”

“I wanted to make 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die expansive in its tastes, encompassing revered classics and commercial favorites, flights of escapist entertainment and enlightening works of erudition.”

“And since the project in its title invoked a lifetime, there had to be room for books for children and adolescents.” Although on this last point, it’s unlikely children and adolescents would be the first to grab this (just trust your parents!).

Mustich ponders, “What criteria could I apply to accommodate such a menagerie, to give plausibility to the idea that Where the Wild Things Are belongs in the same collection as In Search of Lost Time, that Aeneas and Sherlock Holmes could be companions?”

To determine how he would establish criteria, he says, “What if I had a bookstore that could only hold 1,000 volumes, and I wanted to ensure it held not only books for all time but also books for the moment, books to be savored or devoured in a night? A shop where any reading inclination might find reward?”

While Mustich says he tapped into teachers, friends, work associates, literary collaborators, correspondents, customers and acquaintances, he takes full ownership for the final choices.

The book is arranged alphabetically by author, starting with Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and ending with Carl Zuckmayer’s A Part of Myself. Some authors are represented by more than one title, for example: Jane Austen (6), Charles Dickens (8), George Orwell (5), Marcel Proust (7) and William Shakespeare (13 – ok, plays count!). This contrasts with some one-hit wonders, most notably Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (of course before the somewhat recent discovery of a second work).

Wondering how many titles are from:

  • Women authors? 230.
  • Diverse authors? 72.
  • LBTQ authors? 46
  • Southern authors? 27

Then there are a bunch of fun lists:

  • Books to read in one sitting
  • 12 books to read before you are 12
  • Books that represent “off-beat escapes”
  • Books somehow tied to “soul food”

The project was not without its effects on what had been routine activities in Mustich’s life. “Once people know you are writing a book called 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, you can never enjoy a dinner party in quite the way you did before. No matter how many books you’ve managed to consider, every conversation with a fellow reader is almost sure to provide new titles to seek out, or, more worryingly, to expose an egregious omission or a gap in your knowledge.”

In the end, Mustich reiterates that the list “is neither comprehensive nor authoritative, even if a good number of the titles would be on most lists of essential reading.”

Rather, ‘It is meant to be an invitation to a conversation – even a merry argument – about the books and authors that are missing as well as the books and authors included.”

And how long should it take someone to read these 1,000 books, which range from “one-sittings” to epics? Setting aside other life distractions like formal affairs, meals, brushing your teeth, work, watching football, visiting relatives, and posting on Instagram, let’s estimate the average book lover reads 17 books a year. (And we are not even including the reading of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die itself!)

If you start tomorrow, let’s make a date to compare notes in July of 2077.

1,000 Books to Read Before you Die is now available to purchase.


James Mustich, a bookseller all his life, co-founded and was for two decades the guiding force and voice of the acclaimed books catalog A Common Reader. He is currently the Vice President for Digital Sales at Barnes & Noble.