John Mutter began his book career at Publishers Weekly, where over a 24-year span he worked in the news department, was paperback review editor and was executive editor of bookselling. In 2005, he co-founded Shelf Awareness. In writing a Reading with... column, he has used his power as editor-in-chief to toss out all the usual questions and make up his own.
Sign of working in the book business foretold:
At Klein's, one of the two bookstores (both long gone) in my hometown, Westport, Conn., all backlist was shelved by publisher, which I thought was normal and which gave me an early appreciation for imprints, particularly Vintage, Modern Library, Scribner and Schocken.
First book ever special ordered (from the Remarkable Book Shop in Westport):
During high school, The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The First Forty-Nine Stories with a Brief Preface by the Author from Scribner, because his early stories were so finely crafted they made me want to write.
Biggest regret/most embarrassing moment in my book career:
Declining to review Maus by Art Spiegelman. In my meager defense, it was the 1980s, and many people didn't know what a graphic novel was--or appreciate it.
Authors who have been wonderful to meet (and have written some pretty good books, too):
Reginald Dwayne Betts, Paul Rusesabagina, Barack Obama, Katherine Applegate, Isabel Allende, Keith Hernandez.
The joys and perils of meeting authors:
On one hand, hearing Eudora Welty read aloud "Why I Live at the P.O." at an AAUP meeting in New Orleans in the 1980s made the story come alive and enabled me finally to finish it--and read her other wonderful work with her voice in my mind. On the other hand, because I was a fan, I looked forward to having to ask John Updike some work questions after he won the National Book Award for fiction in 1982, but he so turned me off (he was tall but his nose didn't have to be so upturned...) that I never read another book by him.
Odd connection with one of the best writers of our time:
My sole one-on-one conversation with Margaret Atwood consisted of her in earnest salesperson mode telling me about the wonders of the LongPen, her remote signing invention, at the London Book Fair in 2007. I didn't realize how witty and hilarious she is until hearing her speak at the ABA's Winter Institute in January 2019.
Odd book reading experience and achievement:
Knowing by heart the very beginning and very ending of Ulysses by James Joyce but not having read much in between.
Unusual book club I've belonged to:
What we called the Bookless Book Club whose two criteria of membership were never having belonged to or been invited to join a "real" book club and no assigned reading (although our conversations usually involved a lot of discussions about books--while sipping wine).
Most memorable press conferences ever attended (both at the Frankfurt Book Fair), in rooms with hundreds of overactive journalists:
One, in 1998, featured Jose Saramago, the only calm person in the place, who a few hours earlier was boarding a flight to return to Spain when it was announced he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, leading fair organizers to bring him back for the impromptu press conference; and in 2000, Leni Riefenstahl, at age 98, coy and mysterious and way too glib about crimes against humanity.
Favorite kids' books as a child:
Norman the Doorman by Don Freeman (which became especially resonant during the years my wife was an editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art); The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings, Homer Price and Centerburg Tales by Robert McCloskey; Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell; and (not a book but about books) the Authors Card Game.
Favorite kids' books as an adult reading to his children:
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf, Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson and Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss.
Major children's book disaster:
Attempting to read aloud The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss to two young animal lovers.
Christopher Isherwood, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster and Doris Lessing. Also, many Russians, but only some of The Russians: Leo Tolstoy (I've read Anna Karenina in English and German and wish I could read it in Russian), Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev, Mikhail Lermontov, Isaac Babel, Mikhail Sholokhov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Leon Trotsky (not sure I agree with all his politics, but he had a flair for writing).
Favorite works of history and nonfiction:
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies by Jared M. Diamond; To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson; Let History Judge by Roy A. Medvedev; The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding by Robert Hughes; Down Under (published in the U.S. as In a Sunburned Country) by Bill Bryson; Apollo 13: Lost Moon (originally Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13) by Jim Lovell; The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy; The Hot Zone by Richard Preston; Longitude by Dava Sobel; Cod by Mark Kurlansky; The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict; An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood by Neal Gabler; Billy Wilder in Hollywood by Maurice Zolotow; Haywire by Brooke Hayward; Italian Neighbors by Tim Parks; I Will Bear Witness by Victor Klemperer; Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor; and The Shortest History of Germany by James Hawes.
Favorite mystery authors, mysteries and espionage tales:
The Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (this couple created Scandinavian noir and I can't recommend their 10 joint titles enough); the Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell; the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr; John le Carré's George Smiley books; Dashiell Hammett; Raymond Chandler; Agatha Christie; Patricia Highsmith; Ben Pastor; Stieg Larsson; Joseph Kanon (excellent publisher makes excellent writer!).
Favorite screenwriter (oh and director):
Billy Wilder (so many wonderful films with amazing dialogue).
Recommended books by book world friends:
Former bookseller Suzy Staubach whose latest book, A Garden Miscellany: An Illustrated Guide to the Elements of the Garden, is appearing in October; former bookseller Marina Antropow Cramer, whose Roads: A Novel I was lucky enough to read in parts as it was being created; book publicist Kim Dower, aka Kim-from-LA, whose poetry (her most recent title, Sunbathing on Tyrone Power's Grave, was published in March) is stunning.