James Mustich’s involvement with the book business stretches back nearly four decades and has included not only time as an executive with Barnes & Noble but a lengthy stint publishing his own marvelous mail order book catalog, A Common Reader. And if I were as erudite, entertaining, insightful, and articulate as he is, I could have come up with 1,000 reasons to buy his book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die (Workman, $35). But here’s at least one: Whether you’re looking for something to read for personal edification or fun, for escapism or relevance, you can survey the literary world with Mustich as an experienced, enthusiastic guide. His work is an essential resource for anyone anywhere plagued by that infernal question: What do I read next? As the headline of a Washington Post review put it, the book is “the ultimate literary bucket list.”
In Senegal one talks about a death by saying the person’s “library has burned,” reflecting how each life is an irreplaceable collection of experiences and emotions. This folk saying crystalizes the central themes of The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, $28), Susan Orlean’s passionate and wide-ranging look at the place libraries hold in our culture, our communities, and in our very hearts. Orlean re-discovered how integral libraries were to her personally when she moved to Los Angeles. Introducing her son to the public library, she became absorbed in the tale of the Los Angeles public library system itself. Its most dramatic moment occurred on April 29, 1986, when the main branch caught fire. The building burned for more than seven hours; a million books were destroyed and 700,000 damaged. Orlean recreates the conflagration in unforgettable detail, then traces the investigation. It was “almost certainly” arson (a judgment that’s since been revised), though the library’s aging structure had fire code violations, and the one suspect was never convicted. Meanwhile, how to save the damaged books? They were stored in food warehouses where they stayed frozen for two years, then vacuum dried, cleaned, fumigated, rebound, and shelved—a process that took some thirty-six months. No one questioned the value of this project, and the city partnered with corporations and private citizens to restore the library’s former glory.
Written and brilliantly illustrated by Jane Mount, Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany (Chronicle, $24.95) houses lists and illustrations of all things bookish. A booklover’s dream, there are book lists that cover mortality, short stories, sports, even “Technothrills and Cyberpunks.” Beautiful artwork maps books from around the world, breaks down the various parts of the physical book, and depicts the furry likeness of bookstore cats from Chilliwack to Baltimore. While undeniably lovely and fun, Mount’s work is especially endearing because it reveals that the book world does not lie solely between Chapter One and The End. Books build magnificent libraries, inspire film and music, and keep safe our favorite recipes and dishes. Mount, with her many lists and illustrations, does not hesitate to show this. What’s more, she lists Politics and Prose as a “Beloved Bookstore” on page fifteen. If nothing else, she has great taste. Gibs Ramm