The holidays have gone, and with them the flurry of Yuletide catalogs that crowded mailboxes in the lead-up to Christmas. They briefly reminded us of a time when catalogs dominated commercial life throughout the year — so much so that a handful of them even aspired to be a kind of literature.
The J. Peterman apparel catalog, which is still around, though not as famous as it once was, became something of a sensation in the 1990s when it was parodied on “Sienfeld” for the extravagantly poetic prose that owner John Peterman used to describe his merchandise.
A Common Reader, a mail-order bookseller, also was celebrated for catalogs that, as more than one customer pointed out, seemed as much fun to read as the books that were being sold. Each catalog had a lovely watercolor image on the cover, and the copy inside, often written by A Common Reader co-founder James Mustich Jr., offered a brief and deeply personal review of each title. The books themselves were quirky but fun, the kind of stuff not easily found anywhere else.
Based in Pleasantville, New York, A Common Reader closed in 2006, its demise perhaps accelerated by the ascendance of Amazon.com. Although Amazon promotes books by touting customer rankings, nudging customers to order a book because everyone else is buying it, Mustich seemed to pick books to sell that he liked, then tried, through his miniature reviews, to make a market for them. Through him, readers learned about authors they might not otherwise have known. A Common Reader introduced me to Barbara Holland, for example, who wrote amusing and instructive books on dueling, drinking and the American presidency.
In a New York Times profile of Mustich in 1999, a customer confessed to “selfishly clutching” his catalog to her chest when it arrived, wanting to know how many other readers felt the same way. After A Common Reader closed, I kept one of its old catalogs around to remind me of Mustich’s memorable voice, which excelled at saying a lot in a small space. That’s also a useful virtue for a journalist, which is why I looked to Mustich’s copy as a model. I can say, with a straight face, that I read a catalog to help me write better.
A dozen years after the end of his mail-order business, Mustich is back before the public with the first book that he’s written himself, “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die.” It’s as big as a dictionary, with capsule summaries of classic books as well as others Mustich threw in because he wanted to.
“A good book,” he tells readers, “is the opposite of a selfie; the right book at the right time can expand our lives in the way love does.”
I doubt I’ll tackle his thousand books, or even a hundred of them, before I die. But in a new year, it’s nice to dream.