Where do you start when writing a book about a thousand books? After much thought, James Mustich ’77 landed on the idea: “what if I had a bookstore in which I could only have a thousand books?” At “TigerTalks in the City: The Journey of 1,000 Books Starts With My Own”, a fireside chat co-hosted by Princeton Entrepreneurs’ Network, Mustich walked attendees through his comprehensive 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List, which includes something for every reader, from Greek tragedies, to thrillers to read on a plane, to picture books for kids.
Mustich also discussed his experience publishing the gone-but-not-forgotten book catalog, A Common Reader, and his career in digital at Barnes & Noble.
On A Common Reader, one of the first online book catalogs:
“I thought that there was the opportunity to build a community of readers around book discovery and reading, and to build it by writing about books in a highly personal way. It sounds like a book blog, it sounds like a social media community, but unfortunately Al Gore had yet to invent the internet,” joked Mustich. “So we did this all the old-fashioned way: we had a mail order catalog.”
The format of A Common Reader provided an entrepreneurial angle, “with the idea that you could scale something.” The personal recommendation style of A Common Reader worked in an independent bookstore, “but an independent bookstore was in one place.” Mustich started A Common Reader in 1986 as a mail order catalog, which could reach beyond the physical bookstore to more people in different places. “We made money when we sold books. We ran the catalog for ten years before the internet became a part of people’s lives, and then we went online.” (A Common Reader closed in 2006.)
On data, book discovery and customer experience:
After A Common Reader closed, Mustich moved on to Barnes & Noble. After a chance elevator ride with future CEO William Lynch, he was tasked with improving the book recommendations on the bn.com website. With B&N’s data scientists, they sketched out an early version of the “recommended if you like” model, similar to how good booksellers in a store could name 12 other books that spoke to “what the reader experienced, in the kind of reader-ly dimension of a book,” according to Mustich. Through reader categories and data matching, he and the team built a successful model combining bookseller savvy and data science.
Where does a reader start?
“I wanted to write something easy for people to use, but could also get lost in, the way they might in a library or a bookstore...where they might come into the book looking for one thing, but then find many other things,” prefaced Mustich.
Out of the many books to start with, Mustich’s first pick was Russell Hoban’s first novel The Mouse and His Child. Although it was written for 12-year olds, in Mustich’s estimation, “it has more to say about being alive on this earth than any other book I’ve read.” His second pick is Middle March by George Eliot, a book he first read at Princeton in a course on the modern novel taught then and now by Maria DiBattista, the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English. “I read it at 19 and I thought it was the wisest book I’d ever read. Then at 39 and 49 and 59, George Eliot just gets wiser and wiser, as one gets older.”
On the subject of the promotional book tour:
“The vibrancy of the conversations [around the book] in bookstores and libraries across the country has been fantastic. One of the things about writing this book that motivated me, was to give a tool to bookstores and libraries to help promote that,” said Mustich, who then joked, “I spent 14 years writing this book, and I expect to spend the next 14 going around to bookstores and libraries having people tell me what I got wrong.”
One more thing about Princeton:
Mustich’s crafting of the book was inspired by something written by Edmund Wilson, the great social and literary critic and Princeton graduate from the Class of 1916. Wilson wrote of the French writer Anatole France’s experiences growing up in his father’s bookstore, “the miscellaneous learning of the bookstore, unorganized by any larger principle.”
Princeton Entrepreneurship Council thanks Julia Macalaster ’12 of PEN and Def Method for hosting our event, and the author and Workman Publishing for donating three copies of the book for the evening’s raffle.