Remembering “A Common Reader”

“…A stimulant: yes, the word is apt. To read these catalogues is like drinking wine in the middle of the morning;”

Rose Macaulay “Booksellers’ Catalogues”

My life at my day job is both restricted and nomadic. Though I spend most days in a cubicle where my fastest companions are a phone and a computer, I have had to move from one cubicle to another on multiple occasions. No need to fold up a cubicle; you can simply abandon it.

Each time I move I am reminded that there is no time like the present for cleaning out my desk and traveling a bit lighter. During my last move I unearthed a book mark from “A Common Reader.” For those of you not blessed enough to have received this lovely publication, I should explain that “A Common Reader” was a book catalog that featured a fabulously eclectic selection. Most months I just wanted to send in a note that said, “I’ll have one of each.”

James Mustich, the wizard responsible for “A Common Reader,” proved himself to be a person of taste and discernment. (I know this because we loved so many of the same books.) In a chatty two paragraphs or so, he would describe a book and convince you that life would not be worth living if you neglected to read it.

While I’m sure he introduced many readers to writers they may not have known (the critic Guy Davenport, the memoirist Diana Athill) he wasn’t afraid of a straightforward yarn. You see, Mr. Mustich shared with us that he recommended many tomes of exquisite subtlety to his wife and she would reply, “But I want something I can read read.” Thus she became known to all of us as “She Who Would Read Read” and we knew that in making her happy her husband would probably make the rest of us happy as well. Thus did I learn about “Emerald” by Elizabeth Luard, the story of what might have happened if Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor had had a daughter. And then there were all those Wilkie Collins novels. Yes, “The Moonstone” and “The Woman in White” are fabulous but until you’ve read “Armadale…” You won’t be the same once you’ve experienced Lydia Gwilt.

The mystery collection was extensive, Mr. Mustich having once confessed that he could not live without the Inspector Maigret novels. I became a devotee of Leo Bruce, Reginald Hill, Arthur Upfield and the menacing novels of Patricia Highsmith.

And the employees of “A Common Reader” were marvelous as well. I once woke up on a morning after a blizzard determined that I would own “The Last Cuckoo: The Very Best Letters to the Times Since 1900.” (That would be the London Times). I could not have it soon enough so I called the office but was sure there would be no one there. I knew that more snow had fallen in New York than Pennsylvania. I wouldn’t go out in such weather. How could I expect other people to persevere? Luckily someone had and didn’t seem to think it at all odd that I needed an obscure volume of letters immediately.

But one of my friends has the best story. She received a package from “A Common Reader” with a hand written note: “Dear Sue: Thanks so much for your continued interest in our selection. When you have a minute could you write us a check for the books enclosed? It comes to $21.50.”

Stephanie Patterson