Readers, it’s a brand new year with twelve entire months of reading ahead, and I hope you’ll be joining me in pursuing some extra joy and ease in your reading life this year. To kick things off on the podcast for 2022, I invited back one of our all-time favorite guests.
Jim Mustich, who you may know as the author of 1000 Books to Read Before You Die, was also my guest back in January 2019 on Episode 165 (which shared a title with his book). That’s one of our most downloaded episodes, and if you missed it the first time around, it’s worth a listen to hear him describe the process of choosing those thousand books.
To kick off 2022, Jim and I discuss the struggle of choosing what to read when we’re faced with the challenge of so many books and so little time. It’s easy to know which books are generating the most buzz these days, but it’s harder to know whether those are the books we’ll actually enjoy reading.
In our conversation today, we’ll recommend a whole bundle of titles that have staying power, and we’ll also share some ideas to help you feel more confident in choosing your own next reads. I hope today’s episode inspires you to rediscover what you love most about being a reader, and sets you up for a year of enjoyable reading experiences.
JIM: I joked to her that it was kinda like while our two daughters were growing up, it was like the book was like the third child in the house. [ANNE LAUGHS] It was scrawled away in its own room.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 313.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Most weeks, we talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest. This week, though, we’ve invited a special return guest to talk about rediscovering the joy of reading and to share some recommendations for books that stand the test of time.
Readers, just before the holiday break, over on the Modern Mrs Darcy blog, I shared our intentions to not host a reading challenge in 2022, because you don’t need another challenge right now.
What many of us do need is an opportunity to reconnect with reading as a source of rest, discovery, and joy—not another source of stress or obligation. A permission slip to step off the treadmill of new releases, and to simply read what we love. As we enter 2022 you’ll notice our distinct posture of approaching reading with joy and ease.
To launch our year here on the podcast, I invited my friend Jim Mustich back onto the show, to join me in conversation about books that have staying power and offer the rich reading experience you’re seeking.
You may recognize Jim as the author of 1000 Books to Read Before You Die, and as my guest on Episode 165 of that same name back in January 2019. That’s one of our most downloaded episodes, and for good reason: Jim has been recommending books for a long time and listeners loved hearing him describe the process of choosing those thousand books.
In our conversation, Jim and I discuss the struggle of choosing what to read when we’re faced with the challenge of so many books and so little time. It’s easy to reach for the books that everyone seems to be talking about—but sometimes, those aren’t the books that we’ll actually enjoy reading the most.
It might feel like it takes more effort to look beyond bestsellers and new releases to find what to read next, but Jim and I are here to help, with recommended titles and ideas to help guide you in choosing your own next reads. I hope today’s episode inspires you to rediscover what first sparked that love of turning the page, and sets the stage for a delightful year of reading.
Let’s get to it.
Jim, welcome to the show.
JIM: Anne, thank you so much for having me again. I really look forward to speaking with you.
ANNE: Well it is mutual. And you know I can't believe that it has been three full years since we first talked on What Should I Read Next.
JIM: Yes, I think it was in January of 2019.
ANNE: It was indeed, and it hadn't been that long after both of us had books. Were both our books published the same day in 2018?
JIM: Mine was October 2nd. Yours was a little bit ahead, yeah.
ANNE: I just remember that we met at the Kentucky Book Festival in person, which was so lovely, but your behemoth of a book came out [JIM LAUGHS] in October 2018 called 1000 Books to Read Before You Die and you recommend books to me, that's episode 165 and readers, I highly recommend you go back and listen.
JIM: Well that was a wonderful conversation. I always enjoy talking to you.
ANNE: And we're going to revisit many of those same themes today because here we sit at the beginning of a new year when many readers, including myself, I imagine including you, are thinking about what they want from their reading lives and the year to come. I am so grateful to be working in the world of books, to have reading be a key component of my job, and yet something I really notice in 2021 was that I was excited about different aspects of my work and particularly different titles headed my way then I have in the past.
Like ten years ago, I couldn't think of anything better than to get my hands on new releases early so that I could enjoy today's titles, and I've always enjoyed a balance of old and new books, but I really loved and got excited by, energized by, the new. And just in recent years, there's still so many books coming down the pipeline in 2022 that I cannot wait to read, and yet I find myself really wanting to spend more of my precious and limited reading time on books that I know have staying power, that have been around for awhile now, that readers have been loving for years, if not decades, or even centuries in some cases. You have written extensively about 1000 of those books that have been around for awhile. I can't think of anyone I'd rather talk to about the, oh virtue makes it sound like broccoli, but really [JIM LAUGHS] the joy and excitement of reading books the ink is still not drying on.
JIM: Well I think it's a very important part of reading and what drew many of us to reading as an avocation to begin with as we find reading restorative or refreshing or inspiring, takes us to new places, but once you get on the treadmill of new releases, it becomes almost competitive in a way that it's like you're working out more than you should and you're not getting the kind of refreshment or the kind of real stretching that you need or that brought you to reading in the first place, so.
ANNE: So we're overtraining is what you're saying.
JIM: Yes. Yeah.
ANNE: Can you tell, I'm just bragging. I went back to the gym in 2021.
JIM: [LAUGHS] But that's a good metaphor for it and for me chasing all the new books, part of the fun of it, and you know this better than anyone, is that they're great conversations, you know. The new books are conversations with people, have you read this? What should I read next? To coin a phrase. [ANNE LAUGHS] That keeps that conversation going, and going back to older things, following your heart a little bit more, and they're more about that other conversation that reading feeds, which is the conversation with yourself, with the parts of yourself that in the business of living, you sometimes don't pay enough attention to. Getting between the covers of a book allows you to talk to yourself or the parts of yourself that you may have been ignoring or that life hasn't given you the breathing space to communicate with.
ANNE: That's so interesting that you should say that right off because when I think about the older books that I've really enjoyed in recent years, even in recent months, it is that conversation with myself and the themes explored in those books and what they mean to me right now that has made those reading experiences so enriching.
But first I want to talk about the conversation with others because you touched on something that I hear from readers and from our listeners over and over again and that is one of the reasons they feel like they want to read the book that is all over Instagram at the moment, or the books on the new fiction table at their local bookstore, is they feel like those are the books that readers are talking about. It almost sounds like those are the only books readers are talking about right now and they want to be part of the conversation. That is well intentioned, but it’s not serving them well in their reading life.
JIM: Well I think it's keeping them from many richer experiences that they could find in the same bookstore if they went digging a little bit deeper, you know, beyond the front table.
ANNE: Yes, but Jim, that's hard.
ANNE: We're going to talk about that in just a moment, but also I'm really struck as we're speaking about this by the fact that this inclination towards community is actually resulting in a competitive, I have to catch up spirit. That's not at all what's intentioned here.
JIM: I think that's very insightful.
ANNE: I just finished reading Louise Erdrich, her new book The Sentence, and there's just a little quote I dotted in my journal that was something like ugh, the most well intentioned, this was actually mothering instincts, are the ones that can go the most badly wrong.
JIM: I think there's an abundance of titles being published and there's such an abundance of media around them, particularly social media, that you just get caught up in the discussion around books more than the books themselves. I think that's part of it, when you see on bookstagram, people posting wonderful creative pictures of their books and their reading and so on, it just sweeps you up into a different kind of conversation than the one you'd have within the pages of a book, and it's not so much about the matter of the book as the social presence of it. That's all well and good, I mean, I'd much rather have people talking about and talk myself about books than many other things that people go on about, but it can put you out of touch with the experience of reading itself, the kinda private experience that makes your public conversation richer, gives you a shortcut to pretending you're having that deeper conversation when you're not really doing that.
ANNE: And the conversation is wonderful, but we want you to be able to enjoy the book as well. You know, I have a post-it note. It's a quote from a book I read, Jim, believe it or not. [JIM LAUGHS] On my computer screen here. It says resist the allure of meddling priorities, and that often has to do with my calendar
JIM: [LAUGHS] Yup.
ANNE: But also with my reading life. I know you all are gonna ask, I think it's from 4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. But I feel that in my reading life as well because there's so much I want to read, and yet I know that I can't read every book that sounds good to me. It just doesn't. [LAUGHS] The pages don't fit in the hours in any given year, unfortunately.
JIM: Well there's a sentence from the literary critic Hugh Kenner, which I always anchor back to. It seems to me applicable to your relationships, your marriage, raising kids, Kenner once said that what you're taking for granted is always more important than whatever you have your mind fixed on. I think in reading that's true too. Your mind can be fixed on the table of shining new objects in front of you, but what you can end up taking for granted is the richness of the reading experience that makes that table interesting to you in the first place, that has you in the bookstore. How can you get back to that experience and the richness of it that made you a reader when you first became one? You know, a passionate reader.
ANNE: Oh, that's such a good way to put it because I absolutely take that for granted, which is why any given bookstore table can feel so laden with possibility because I can easily imagine what wonders I may find inside every one of those books.
JIM: So here's a book recommendation about someone who discovers what we passionate readers take for granted. There's a marvelous book by the British playwright Alan Bennett. It's a very short novella. It's called The Uncommon Reader. I don't know if you know that one.
ANNE: Oh, I do.
JIM: Yeah, and it's a story about a woman who follows her dogs that she has out for a walk, they escape from her, and they wander into ... It's a mobile bookstore and she finds herself browsing among these books. The woman happens to be Queen Elizabeth. She takes a book and she begins this relationship with a bookseller there. She's never really been a reader before, and she becomes a totally intoxicated reader and keeps coming back for obscure recommendations and it just kinda takes over her life in a way that's hilarious and enriching and validating for all of us who kinda live that way to begin with but in the setting of, you know, British royalty, it's particularly enjoyable, and it's a book that you can read in a sitting. You will read it in a sitting [ANNE LAUGHS] because it's just so enjoyable. This fictional version of Queen Elizabeth discovers how it can open the world to you, even if, you know, you're a queen.
ANNE: I remember Queen Elizabeth and her corgis and her salty vocabulary, which took me back a little bit the first ... I just was not expecting it, but how she's just flabbergasted that she's not the first one to discover the wonders of reading …
JIM: [LAUGHS] Right.
ANNE: 'Cause it's so new to her ... She thinks surely someone would have told her.
JIM: [LAUGHS] Exactly, right.
ANNE: I think one of the reasons that readers end up reading the books that have, you said abundance in media attention, that's such a good way to put that, is because they're easy to find. We see them.
ANNE: We hear about them. They're face out at our local bookstore. They're on the front table. They're featured and yet to find many of the books you and I are going to recommend today, it's like you have to know what you're looking for when you go into someplace like a bookstore. They're there on the shelves but they're harder to find.
JIM: That's very much true, yeah. And I also think there's an unfortunate kind of shadow cast on many people's reading lives by school. You know, they don't know if they're ready for this, if it's ... Say it's a classic, or something that may be a little bit out of the mainstream and they don't know if they're prepared, you know, to which I say pick it up, read a few pages. If it intrigues you, if you want to keep going, do it. You have the capacity to handle any book in that bookstore and you'll handle it by your own life, which is the only way, whatever's in the book will be illuminated for you anyway. Not so much hard to find as just hard to navigate through the vast piles of things because all the new books coming out every month pile up and you know [BOTH LAUGH] and so there's just a lot of stuff there.
So to have some kind of way forward, you know, that could be a friend, a good bookseller, librarian, you know, librarians are born to do this, to point us in the direction of things that the conversation of the moment has forgotten about, but still retain all the pleasures and the richness that you'd hope for in a book. We moved to an apartment from a house and you know, one of the traumatic experiences related to that was widowing down the books to you know, what would fit in the new space.
ANNE: Oh, Jim.
JIM: I made a pile of books as I was doing the culling of books that I wanted to go back to that I had remembered enjoying and never felt I had spent enough time with. Through the course of this year, the spring and summer into the fall, I read through a bunch of them. They were all big books, which is one of the reasons I didn't spend enough time with them when I first encountered them, and there was a biography of Emerson, which was just marvelous to read, and another two volume biography of Charles Darwin, which readers, the Darwin is not dry at all. It's written by a woman named Janet Browne and the first volume begins with the sentence along the lines of Charles Darwin was born into Jane Austen's England. [ANNE LAUGHS] And the second volume begins with If Darwin was born in Jane Austen's England, by the time he reached middle aged, he was in Anthony Trollope's England.
ANNE: I'm intrigued.
JIM: This is a wonderful social history as well as the life of Darwin, and then there was another book, a history by Simon Schama called Landscape and Memory and all of these books were 500 pages long. But going back to them now, it was so rich because I had been intrigued by the books when I first encountered them. Going back and spending more time with them made them even richer. I think I'm bringing this up to suggest to people, go back to your own interests or your own favorites if you want that enriching experience, there's a great book indoors because it holds up over time, but it will hold up over time for you in a way that will surprise you as you go back and find new things in it. You know, the first broad recommendation I'd have for readers looking for books beyond the bestsellers of the moment would be to remember the books that you love the most and go to those, see what they say to you now.
ANNE: You know, I've been thinking about reasons to read older titles that aren't do-gooder, straight-A student kinda reasons. [JIM LAUGHS] As I think about the books that I love that have been published in, you know, 2000 or 1960 or 1813, I realized that sometimes we'll come across a book as a reader that feels uniquely perfect for us, that writes about the themes that we want and need to read about in a way that just really resonates, and it may just happen that that specific book isn't available on the new release table right now but was already written in 2013 and it's there waiting for us and that's a good reason to go find it. Or sometimes there's a book that we need in our life right now. I like to think that books find their way to you when you need them, like perhaps you needed those 1995, that trio of biographies.
ANNE: Because of the way it puts a character in your mind or shows you how someone thought through an issue or just examines a nonfiction topic that is perfect for you to be reading about right now. I mean, often that book is already there for the finding, but you just need to find it, and I'm always hopeful that other readers will put these great books in my path as so often happens. But sometimes it's my own personal projects that sends me going back to author's backlists and we'll talk about that, but Jim, you picked up these books as you were doing your culling. Sounds like you came through on the other side of that. [JIM LAUGHS]
I'd love to hear, just in general, how you decide what to read? How do you decide what books are worth your reading time?
JIM: That should be a question that someone who's written a book called 1000 Books to Read Before You Die wouldn't have to pause to decide how to answer. [LAUGHS] But ... [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well I was just imagining, could I answer that question? [JIM LAUGHS] I might have to in a moment.
JIM: You know, things swim into your view for unexpected reasons and you should take advantage of that so these books ‘cause I happen to be handling them again, and I saw where I had left the bookmarks when I put the books down and I made a pile and I said I'm going to read these, and a few years ago when the pandemic began, I started saying, first thing in the morning, I'm going to read ten pages a day from some big book that I normally wouldn't have the time to invest in and just make sure I do that every day and so that helps me get through those.
So I've been looking for books to kinda give me that kinda almost devotional reading I kinda call it where every day for, and - and these have been on wildly different themes for fiction, nonfiction, so on, but these three books kinda fit that bill so I got through them over the course of weeks, the wonderful phrase of Darwins that I discovered in the biography where he talks about the small agencies and their cumulative effects. Reading is like that. If you make the time, even if it's a limited window, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour every day, you can get through libraries of stuff as you're going about the rest of your busy life, so that's important, but you know, another book I've just been reading. It's probably from 1910s, 1920s by G. K. Chesterton called Orthodoxy. It's about belief and about joy and I came to it because sadly a longtime friend of mine passed away a couple weeks ago.
ANNE: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that.
JIM: Oh, thank you. This was his favorite book. We had a kinda long running argument, not argument but [ANNE LAUGHS] his disappointment that I had not included it in 1000 Books was a theme that always came up. [ANNE LAUGHS] Only half in jest, but the book reminded me of him so much and I started to read it and I was looking for a particular sentence that I knew because it summed up this friend to me, and it was we need so to view the world as the combine the idea of wonder and the idea of welcome, and that made me feel good to find that and thinking about my friend and as I read through the book there are all kinds of other gems that I discovered, so that just you know, happened to pass my way.
And if you're reading a lot and listening to podcasts, books are mentioned and I always tried to do my best to seek them out and to find whatever intrigued me in the passing mention of it, and then sometimes that leads you into, you know, entire new avenues of reading that you had never discovered. My reading life is I like to call it promiscuous. I find many things alluring and I try to embrace them when I can. So it's not very methodical. Once I latch onto something, I can be a little more organized in my approach, but part of the pleasure of it is being reminded of your own interests. You have a great appreciation for a book called A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, if I remember.
ANNE: I do indeed.
JIM: And this is a book I love as well and I picked it up again when I read a mention of it in something you had written, and it's a book that I don't know how to easily describe but it is one of the most intellectually and even in a way almost spiritually provocative books I've ever read and enriching, but on the face of it, it's not a book that it is easily recommendable. How would you describe it?
ANNE: First of all, readers should know that it is enormous. It might actually be the size of a brick, though perhaps a little wider on the page. I mean, Jim, this is going to sound like the most boring description ever, [JIM LAUGHS] but it's almost like a dictionary. Or an encyclopedia, but it's not arranged alphabetically but by concept.
I mean, I found the book because of my fascination with urban planning. Alexander describes what makes spaces that feel right and comfortable for humans to live in and he talks about things as small as a nook with a window seat and things as large as the relationship of cities to the regions in which they sit. It's a whole way of seeing, and I just remember the first time I picked it up, reading his descriptions of how he felt that I believe a neighborhood should finger out into the farmlands. I'm picturing something that looks tentacle right now. Just I had to read it several times to be like he's describing a whole new way of seeing. I'm still struggling to put it on.
JIM: Yeah. And so a book like that, which it's a wonderful description that it describes a new way of seeing, and you just look at things differently. Those books are valuable, and that book can, I mean, I can pick it up, just open it anywhere and read ten pages and it's restorative to something in me.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I might do that later.
JIM: There's many different kinds of readings, you know, besides the ... Our new reading is focused on, you know, what's the novel of the moment and or what's the Reese pick, or the Jenna pick, or at the top of the bestseller list or what's been made into a movie and so on. All of which is fantastic. It's wonderfully engaging material, but books like the Christopher Alexander book, there's A Pattern Language, and there's another one called The Timeless Way of Building that are hard to categorize, hard to classify, hard to even to describe, but the effects of what they do on your perception linger in ways that are valuable beyond just any story that you might be reading at the moment.
ANNE: You bring up another interesting point, which is that Christopher Alexander's book was not the work of a year. That was a decade or maybe several of them, which is the same as your book, 1000 Books to Read Before You Die. Jim, do I remember you saying something funny like you thought you could write it in a couple of years and it ended up taking [JIM LAUGHS] what ten? Was it ten or more?
JIM: Fourteen. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’ll let you … Would you tell us more about that?
JIM: Yeah. It's a wonderful publisher and friend named Peter Workman who was the founder of Workman Publishing, and he had published a book called 1000 Places to See Before You Die, which was a tremendous success. Your readers may know it. It's by Patricia Schultz. And he wanted to do a series of these books and he wanted to do one about books, so he asked me if I would be interested. I said sure. I signed the contract for it. The delivery was in, I think it was in two years. [ANNE LAUGHS] Which seemed ambitious.
ANNE: Now that's funny. [LAUGHS]
JIM: And it just went on and on and on and on and on as readers can imagine because once you start to think about how to even pick a thousand, you know, walk into a bookstore, a library and say you're going to narrow this down to just a thousand titles, and then multiply that by looking back through all of history and it's kinda a daunting task. There are parts of me that are still not quite sure that I finished it, but I guess I did because [ANNE LAUGHS] I can see it on the shelf over there.
You know, reading for me has been the work of a lifetime as a bookseller and a writer and a reader. It's not something to end, you know, even in putting together that book, it's really meant to be a prompt to help people address the issue, which you laid out at the beginning of this podcast, which is, when I'm looking for something that's not, you know, on the front table in the bookstore, where can I go? Or if I've always been interested in reading Henry James, but I don't know where to start. What I've tried to do in the book is to give people an introduction, even an invitation to writers, and then to suggest other things they might read that are like it.
If you already know you like Henry James, I'd give suggestions to go in other directions, you know, towards say Elizabeth Bowen or other writers who deal with some of the same kind of themes as James does. But it's meant to be a kind of recommendation in a personal voice that tells you enough about the books described to make them sound enticing, and to make you feel completely capable of tackling them. That was a big effort. [LAUGHs] The way I call it. I call it the long …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] In more ways than one.
JIM: The longest homework assignment of all time. [LAUGHS] Margot, my wife who you know, and I joked to her that it was kinda like while our two daughters were growing up, it was like the book was like the third child in the house. [ANNE LAUGHS] It was scrawled away in its own room, and …
ANNE: It took almost as long to grow up and leave the house.
JIM: Yes, while ... Exactly. The night I finished it, I remember it was on a Sunday night and I finished writing the last entry, which I had left to be a book by John Williams called Stoner, a novel about an English professor who as a boy he grew up on a farm, became an English professor, fell in love with literature. It's a very modest but powerful story, and I saved that for last, you know, out of my own perverse sense of humor [ANNE LAUGHS] because the last scene is he is on his deathbed reaching for a copy of the one book that he had managed to write and publish during his lifetime. I thought this book, [ANNE LAUGHS] my book had taken me so long that's what I was going to end on. I finished it, the entry, I sent it off to my editor, Margot came in and said well how does it feel? And I say well to be honest it feels like you know when the kids left home. Part of me wants to cry and the other part wants to say go ahead, get out of the house. It's time. Go. [BOTH LAUGH]
So ... but you know, something you said about the Christopher Alexander books, about teaching you a new way of seeing, I think is that really run through all reading and not just books like his that are about seeing. When I finished the book a couple years after it, I picked a reading project for myself and this is much more methodical than I've ever been. I would always make New Year's resolutions about reading and then never keep them, but I said as I was writing about a couple of Henry James books for my book, I became more intrigued by his writing. Same thing with Virginia Woolf, so two years after the book was published, I spent a year reading as much Henry James as I could, the subsequent year reading as much Virginia Woolf as I could.
That was an interesting experience because it revealed to me how reading can extend our capacity for appreciating things. When people would ask me well what Henry James books would you recommend, or what novel by Virginia Woolf should I read? You know, what's the one I should read? I realize that, you know, I could make a recommendation, but having been immersed in their words and their minds for so long, it was different than just reading a book. I mean, the real value of it was like if you go to Italy for, you know, three weeks and you are really immersed in observing and tasting and absorbing the culture, you come back, you know, whether it's to Connecticut or Kentucky, and you see things differently.
Being immersed in a writer for a long time, it's not so much about the books as about the environment that they create, the mental environment they create and the language with which they wrap experience, so that you really see things differently. It's like the same way a kind of deep travel experience can alter your appreciation for what you have around you when you get back to your regular life, the same thing is true about those kinds of journeys into authors.
ANNE: This is really ringing true for me because unbeknownst to you, my 2022 intention, which I began in the summer of 2021, is to be a more frequent completist of the authors I really enjoy, so for example I just finished reading all the works of Maggie O'Farrell, a contemporary author. I have just loved her more recent reads. This Must Be the Place that came out in 2017 is one of my lifetime favorite books and I don't foresee that changing anytime soon.
But I don't remember what sold me on the idea, but I thought well the obvious thing to do is to read all of these in order and I really thought hard, Jim. Now this is the abundance of media you were referencing, especially social media, about reading her lowest rated book. Like do I really want to read that? Cause a lot of people on Goodreads really hate it, but I thought no, I'm going to be a completist. I'm going to read it anyway and I'm so glad I did.
But I hear what you're saying, and I wouldn't have anticipated being so thoroughly immersed in one author's works would really alter the way that I read any book, but I absolutely am finding that to be true, so I'm making my list of the authors I want to complete in 2022. Or at least complete in so far as I can at this time 'cause some are still living and I certainly hope they're putting out more books.
JIM: That's wonderful and I like what you said about reading a book that isn't necessarily the author's best. There was Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, once wrote an appreciation of Hemingway's later novel, Across the River and into the Trees. He essentially says when a great author is not at their best, you really appreciate what's [LAUGHS] true to them and it's almost like saying this isn't one of his best novels, but I enjoyed it all the more for some reason by enjoying him at less than his best because it kinda made what was singular about Hemingway more apparent.
ANNE: Every week when you're not on, Jim, I ask a guest three books they love, one book they don't, and what they're reading now.
ANNE: And the reason we talk about the book a reader doesn't enjoy is because you can learn so much about your reading taste by seeing what doesn't work and not just what does.
ANNE: But when you read a ... Let's just say like a less fully realized work from an author, it really makes me realize when their style sings what they're getting right.
ANNE: Like why, why it works, and I love to know the why as a reader. I mean, not only am I glad I read the story because I did really enjoy the story that was slammed quite a bit on Goodreads [LAUGHS] but it also made me see what she was so great at when it was great.
ANNE: Who are you going to read next, you know?
JIM: Well right now Margot and I've just begun to read Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne because I've never read it, neither one of us has read it. Let me give a bit of backstory now, which you know about our Battles of the Books.
ANNE: I do! I do.
JIM: Because you participated in one with Cuyahoga County Public Library in Ohio. When the book 1000 Books To Read Before You Die came out I traveled around talking about it and of course as I expected and welcomed, many of the conversations at author events were about books that I had left out, you know, why did you leave out this book? Or what about this author? Part of the whole idea of it for me was to promote that kind of conversation so I loved it, and Margot came up with the idea of actually making that an event where we'd have five people, they could be writers. They could be business owners. They could be television hosts. Would speak to a local audience about a book that they loved that I had left out, make a pitch for why everybody should read it.
You participated in the event in Cuyahoga County and you talked about the Wallace Stegner book which was not Angle of Repose, which was what I’d included, but Crossing to Safety which and the audience agreed with you, and you won that event. In one of the events that we did at a local bookstore in Connecticut, the book that won was Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. So
JIM: With that had been on our list of we should really read this sometime, so we're doing that, and Margot and I always try to find the book that we're reading at the same time ‘cause it makes for great conversations. It kinda pulls us through it. Which started some years ago now, when we both read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which was a big project.
ANNE: Yeah, I might need moral support for that one.
JIM: That's exactly why. [ANNE LAUGHS] The moral support was important. Turned out to be one of the richest reading experiences of both of our lives and I started reading that. It's kinda now that I think of it, it's apropo given our subject today, I had been doing a lot of work in the digital world at that time in my professional life. I was worried that I was losing the ability to concentrate because I was so immersed in quickly responding to emails and processing information, and so on and so forth. I missed the kind of deeper literary attention, which I was giving short shift at the time.
So I decided being a book recommender that I was going to self-medicate and in order to deal with my waning attention span, I was going to read Marcel Proust and so I said to Margot, do you want to read it with me? We'll read ten pages a day and so we don't feel like it's a burden, and we did it. It tooks us the better part of a year, about ten months, but we got through all 3,000 pages of the book and as we got into it, the moral support was key because, you know, it's like working out. You flag on certain days, then it's harder to get back into it, and Proust, while he is bewitching, is not always welcoming. You need to get a little head of speed up to get into it sometimes, but you know, she would pull ahead a little bit and say wait til you get to this scene. Have you gotten to this scene yet? And then I would do the same.
But that was just a wonderful experience to go into a world so far removed from our own that was imagined entire that like Christopher Alexander in a totally different way, instructed you how to see things differently because the greatness about Proust is not that his perceptions are so singular, it's that they're very close to perceptions you've had fleetingly yourself, and instead of rushing past them he lingers over them and studies them and reveals folds upon folds of intelligence and emotion in those perceptions that we, without his patience at untangling things, just kinda take for granted. So it is kinda a conversation with yourself, and Margot and I found that marvelous. So we went on to you know, all the books we wanted to read or reread War and Peace, which is a totally different kind of experience because it's just a great story, you know, there's a romantic story. There's a historical story, but like a world that you enter and you're living in it while you're reading the book. I think it was the Russian writer Isaac Babel who said about War and Peace that if the world could write itself it would write like Tolstoy.
ANNE: That's lovely.
JIM: Yeah. [LAUGHS] And so that's another enormous book that's kinda daunting to look at, but if you give yourself the permission to be patient and take it slowly, you can get through it, and not only do you get through it, you live in it in a way that's kinda like a parallel life for the time you're within the book and it stays with you. Around the World in 80 Days is a different kettle of fish entirely, you know. [ANNE LAUGHS] It's just a great story, but that's how I got to that one.
And I am also reading a lot of an author called Sylvia Townsend Warner. I'd say her career as a writer from 1920 to 1970. A wonderful short story writer and a wonderful novelist. Her novel Lolly Willows, which is about a woman who's a witch, really, and another one called A Corner that Held Them, which is a historical novel about nuns in the middle ages. She just has such a fine mind and she's a marvelous writer that I'm reading her letters and diaries, which are terrific and they just kinda, there ... Her alertness is so keen, even though she's writing in her letters and her diaries about people you never heard of, they kinda bring your own world into focus somehow. So she's another current interest.
ANNE: Those sound like such interesting reading, and Jim, that is the most enticing invitation I've ever received to read Proust, so. [JIM LAUGHS] Thank you for that.
JIM: Take it, give yourself permission, take it a bit of a time and this goes back to what I was saying before about the shadow of school, people want to have just kinda internalized this ... I have to understand everything that I'm reading while I'm reading it. My advice is just keep going. [ANNE LAUGHS] Because it is … It's like you're walking into an ocean and you're not going to be able to see everything. Just keep going, one step at a time, and eventually the world, which seems opaque will become clear because of the kind of atmosphere that he is creating around everything that he’s describing. So you have to be easy on yourself, giving oneself permission to not understand something, to maybe even not like something, but if you're intrigued enough to keep going, just keep going. You'll figure it out. You'll be able to take from it what you need.
ANNE: That is such perfect advice that applies to my own reading experience of one of the books I want to share before we go today. I'd love to hear a couple of books that are a few years old to a few centuries old, that you find yourself recommending to readers all the time. I have two I brought today but I'm going to start with a Shirley Hazzard novel, called The Transit of Venus.
JIM: Uh huh.
ANNE: Which feels particularly appropriate right now because it always takes her a decade to write a novel and it seems like that's a theme we have going this episode. I read this at the recommendation of a writer friend who said it is a masterclass in writing a novel, and I was really glad she told me that because otherwise I don't think I would have kept going through the first 75 pages. I did not understand what was going on. I was frequently bored and I couldn't understand what she was up to.
It also sounds like a good pick for today because the plot is very reminiscent of a Henry James storyline, it's at its center about two beautiful Australian sisters who are young. They're orphaned. They move from Australia to post-war London and then meet men who turn out to be very influential in their lives. I finally had to make notes in the front 'cause I couldn't keep them straight personality wise. I'm like Shirley Hazzard, throw me a bone. But I kept going and at a certain point like I realized oh, I understand the story and I want to know what happens next and how could I not keep Grace and Carol apart? That wasn't hard, Anne, but of course it was in the early pages for me.
I love a book with a meaningful title. One of the characters in this book is an astronomer, which is how you get the title the Transit of Venus, which is an extremely rare astronomical event when two bodies intersect. I love a book that doesn't feel to give up its whole story or all its secrets on the first read and I was so intrigued by something that I did read before I began. Shirley Hazzard’s own husband commented at one point, oh pity the fool who ... I mean, he didn't actually quote Mr. T, but [JIM LAUGHS] he said like oh, like no one should have to read that book for the first time, like it's just.
JIM: [LAUGHS] Oh that's a great saying. Yeah.
ANNE: Isn't it though? Cause I just didn't understand what she was up to. It begins with a storm, which of course I didn't realize at the time that the first paragraph was basically telling me everything that would happen in the novel, and she does the same thing that I love that Maggie O'Farrell does, which is drop in little lines that say oh, 30 years from now you know, Ted Tyce, your character here is going, this is going to happen to him. [LAUGHS] Nobody's going to know that for forever, so it gets my attention as a reader and I feel like it gives me a reason to keep going and I also love knowing a little bit more about what's going to happen to the characters than they do. I got to the end of this book, which has just a jaw dropping ending, and then wanted to flip back to the beginning to start reading again immediately knowing what I now knew about the story, which is one of my favorite kind of books.
ANNE: There's so much here about real life even though the story doesn't resemble my own, like it's about love and family, relationships and power, fraught familial and romantic relationships and watching characters avidly pursue their own devastation. Fascinating as a reading experience, but again those first 75 pages, they were so rough. Thank you for telling future reading Anne and readers everywhere that sometimes you just keep going. Just keep going.
JIM: Yeah. There are two books that are at the top of my list to recommend. One is Middlemarch by George Eliot. A great 19th century English novel, and the second is a book written for young readers, twelve year olds or so, by Russell Hoban called The Mouse and His Child.
ANNE: I don't know that one.
JIM: I suspect I talked about Middlemarch in our last episode 'cause I'm always [ANNE LAUGHS] prattling on about it, so readers can go, listeners can go to episode 165 and hear what I have to say about that. I'll just say it's the wisest book I've ever read. I thought so when I read it at 19. I'm 66 now and I read it every five years because that's how rich it is, so if you haven't read Middlemarch, you should. It's a long, slow moving Victorian novel, but go easy on yourself, get an audiobook. That's the way I went through it last time. It's a wonderful audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson.
ANNE: Yes, that's the one I listened to.
JIM: That's great. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. Russell Hoban is an interesting character. Readers may know him as the author of the Frances books, ... Bread and Jam for Frances, children's picture books. There's a whole series of those which are marvelous and still around today. Later in his career he was a novelist of great speculative fiction. I think Riddley Walker may be the most famous book in that vein, but his first full length novel was a book called the Mouse and His Child, which is about a windup toy. A father mouse who's holding hands with a child mouse. You turn a key in the back of the father mouse and they dance around in a circle and he's lifting the child up and down. They're the main characters, though there are lots of other characters. It starts in a toy shop where they're very happy with all their toy friends. They go to a home, are played with, you know, affectionalty, get stuck in the attic and finally end up in the city dump which is where these harrowing adventures begin.
All I will say is if you are twelve years old or if you are 65 years old, or anywhere in between, this book to me has as much to say about what it means to be alive on the earth as any book I've ever read. I can't recommend it more highly than that. Reading with our children, you know, I have two adult children now, but you discover all kinds of books that you might have missed, Abel's Island by Williams Steig is another short novel. It's another book about a mouse. I must have a mouse thing. [ANNE LAUGHS]
He's having a picnic with his wife and is interrupted by a violent hurricane and this dapper little mouse is forced to discover tremendous resourcefulness in himself. It's a book about nobility, fortitude, steadfastness and love and it's just marvelous and inspiring. So if you have let's say eight and up, an eight year old in your orbit, whether it's a child or a grandchild or a friend, a niece or nephew, read it to them as an excuse for reading it yourself. It's just a wonderful fable about civilization that will make you glad to embrace the things that you treasure, no matter how old you are.
ANNE: I appreciate the recommendation, both for my own sake and because I have a soon to be twelve year old in the house.
JIM: Very good. Try the Mouse and His Child 'cause it's wonderfully scary and everything, right? I recommend it. [ANNE LAUGHS]
There's a couple other writers if we have time that I'll mention that might be of interest in this vein that I go back to. There's a writer called M. F. K. Fisher, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, wrote about food through most of the 20th century. While food was her ostensible subject, her real theme was human hunger. She once wrote that our three basic needs for food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So while she's writing about food, she is really talking about the emotional tenner of lives and her books are marvelous. There's five short ones collected in a book called The Art of Eating. It's about a lot more than eating, and I go back to her all the time because she has a big shelf of books, and a lot of it the occasional writing, you know, essays and pieces for periodicals but her voice is really something that I find restorative.
ANNE: I'm glad to hear that. I've only read an essay or two, but my strongest memories of M. F. K Fisher come from Ruth Reichl's books.
JIM: Ah ha, yes!
ANNE: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But it's been awhile since I've read either author so I've forgotten, Jim, and I'm thankful for conversations like this that remind me of the books I want to read.
JIM: And let me give you one more novel. Actually two. One of which I go back to when I just want a good read that is transporting and reminds me why I loved reading in the first place. It's a book called I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith. It was published in 1948. Now Dodie Smith, her most famous book is actually the original of 101 Dalmatians which she wrote as a novel and then was bought and made into a movie. But I Capture The Castle is a book that's hard to describe. It's not really a YA book, but it certainly would appeal to that age group, but it's hard to classify. But it's wonderful.
The narrator is a 17 year English girl named Cassandra and her first sentence is I write this sitting in the kitchen sink, which kinda [ANNE LAUGHS] hooks you, and it goes on to describe her life with her family. They live impoverished, eccentricity, in the ruins of a 600 year old castle in Suffolk, in England. Cassandra has a sister named Rose and their father with one successful and lionized writer whose creativity has been blocked for years. I think, Anne, you'll appreciate this sentence. Cassandra says to her brother at one point about their father, you can't trammel the creative mind [ANNE LAUGHS] and her brother replies why not? His creative mind's been untrammeled for years without doing a hand's turn. Let's see what trammeling does for it. [BOTH LAUGH] So that's wonderful. The second book is The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. Do you know that one?
ANNE: No, I haven't read that one.
JIM: Published in 1993 and it's the only novel ever to win both the Pulitzer prize and Canada's Governor General's Award.
ANNE: [GASPS] Jim, this is the book I accidentally came home with two copies of the same Penguin orange spined edition from the local used book sale a couple years ago, and at the time I joked that it was a sign.
JIM: Yes, well, do ..
ANNE: But have I read it yet?
JIM: Well there you go.
ANNE: No I have not even though I can see - I can see the book on my bookshelf right here.
JIM: It tells the story, it recounts the life of a woman named Daisy Goodwill Flett. Begins with her birth in 1905, goes through the 20th century, her two marriages … Adolescence, growing up, two marriages, raising her children, her career in journalism, and then old age. Shields is a wonderful writer. She's good at representing the difficult blessings of ordinary life, you know, in an authentic way and more cheeringly than you might have imagined possible. I say in my book that The Stone Diaries, showing us how we piece together our prayer of being, she may even help us answer it, you know I think that's true. That book has stayed with me a long time.
In going back and thinking about books that talk about today, that's one I too would like to reread, so send me one of the two copies you got. [ANNE LAUGHS] 'Cause I've packed mine up in a box a few months ago when we moved. [LAUGHS] So there's, you know, an endless number of books and my advice to readers is to be patient with books. Give themselves permission to go back to things that they love and to listen to audiobooks if they can. It's a great way to keep momentum going because the richness of reading and nourishing that conversation with yourself is the most important thing, and it's more important than keeping up with whatever the latest release is because next month there’s going to be another latest release that's just as compelling.
ANNE: I'm going to close with one more recommendation. I'm glad you didn't put a psychological thriller out there.
ANNE: And readers, you have heard me mention this book on the show before but I really want to give it the spotlight here. It is Passing by Nella Larson, and Jim, I checked. Neither The Transit of Venus nor Passing are in 1000 Books to Read before You Die.
ANNE: This is a bonus two picks on those thousand, readers.
ANNE: I chose this because it's so often so surprising to readers, and I recommend it all the time. Not just as a great book, but I find a lot of readers have this misconception that hundred year old books are boring. This is such a page turner, and not just because it's a short novel, like you could absolutely read this in one less than two hour sitting, but it was written in 1929. It takes place during the jazz age in Harlem and it's the story of two childhood friends who reconnect after they've chosen very different paths in life.
If you pick up the beautiful, oh I wish I knew the name of the series. It - it might be a Norton series. They're small format, pale blue and gold. That's my edition of Passing. The introduction is really excellent, so please read that if you get that edition. But both women are Black and light skinned, and one of them, Clare, has chosen to pass as white, and is even married to a white man who knows nothing of her heritage or her history. Oh, some of the things he says in the story, not knowing that he is married to a Black woman are stomach turning. Her old friend Irene is married to a successful Black physician who lives in Harlem and as the women reconnect and end up spending more time together, Clare gets involved in Irene's life, but it can't really go both ways without Clare's husband and her whole life unraveling as her secret is revealed.
Irene's life, prominent Harlem physician's family, starts looking really good to Clare and she starts regretting the path she chose. But she's not really up front about that, so what unfolds is a battle of wits and a story that really does read like a psychological thriller and like the other book I chose today has a just jaw dropping ending. So the story is a hundred years old, but it feels so fresh. I couldn't believe it was written nearly a hundred years ago. I felt much in the same way that Middlemarch, they're references everywhere to Middlemarch in literature that you just don't have a clue about if you haven't read the book. I just didn't realize how often characters were referred to as like Casaubons before I understood that's a man, and that is a bad thing.
JIM: [LAUGHS] You're right. Yes.
ANNE: Nella Larson's work was so foundational to literature and Black literature in particular that if you love knowing the history and heritage and literary references embedded in the books you're still reading today, that's just another reason to read this excellent story.
JIM: Well those are two terrific recommendations. On my list.
ANNE: Alright. I'll submit them for the next 1000 books.
JIM: [LAUGHS] Excellent.
ANNE: Jim, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking about old books and your reading life and books we may want to consider reading next today. You've certainly added to my list and I'm grateful for it.
JIM: Well thank you, Anne. It's always a pleasure to talk to you and to speak with your listeners. I know you have a marvelous community you've built and it is a tribute to you and also to the power of books and reading.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Jim, and I’d love to hear which of our recommendations YOU want to read next. Connect with Jim on his website 1000bookstoread.com, on Instagram at 1000bookstoreadbeforeyoudie or on Twitter & Facebook at jamesmustich. That's M-U-S-T-I-C-H. To see all of the titles we discussed today, check out the show notes at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/313
Our What Should I Read Next newsletter is the best way to keep up with our new episodes, and each week I also share a few things I’m loving in the world of books. Sign up for your free delivery at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter.
Follow us on Instagram at whatshouldireadnext, where we share insights into the show and connect with guests and readers. And for fun peeks into life at What Should I Read Next HQ, follow me on Instagram at annebogel, Anne with an E, B as in books, O-G-E-L.
If you enjoy the show, we’d love it if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts! Five-star reviews are our love language, and they also help spread the book love by helping new listeners find the show.
Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.
• 1000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich
• The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
• The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
• Charles Darwin: Voyaging by E. Janet Browne
• Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama
• Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
• A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander
• The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander
• 1,000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz
• Stoner by John Williams
• Henry James (Try The Turn of the Screw)
• Virginia Woolf (Try Mrs. Dalloway)
• This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
• One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
• Across the River and Into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway
• Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
• Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
• In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
• War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
• Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
• The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
• The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
• Middlemarch by George Eliot (audio version narrated by Juliet Stevenson)
• The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban
• Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban
• Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
• Abel’s Island by William Steig
• The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher
• I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
• 101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith
• The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
• Passing by Nella Larsen