Books Not Read
Unlike the majority of the population, academics tend to be compulsive neurotics about reading. If you pause to think about it, you realize almost immediately that there are many readers who never worry about the books they haven’t read. My hunch is that only university graduates—nurtured on course lists—and academics obsess about unread books.
When in graduate school in the 1960s, I pinned a cartoon over my desk showing a student reading at a table and surrounded by high shelves filled with books that kept whispering to him, ‘You’ll never read us all, never.” By contrast, people whose canon is constituted by successive best seller lists probably only worry about certain unread books until these drop off the list: nobody worries today about having missed Anthony Adverse or Peyton Place or Valley of the Dolls. Academics are a special class because they sign a lifetime contract to a discipline and its canon. If they have any self-respect, they also tend to read across boundaries in other intellectual areas: English professors will read other literatures, history, philosophy, intellectual history etc. There’s a self-selecting process at work here since academics tend to take into account only ranking contenders in the various groups: I may admit to an occasional mystery (Inspector Morse, Philip Marlowe) but I know that Dickens is more important than Chandler, Thucydides than Toynbee; Heidegger than von Hartmann; George Eliot than George Sand etc. For a self-respecting academic there’s guilt associated with not having read, or at least having attempted to read the essential ‘great’ books. That we still assume that certain books should be read and others ignored indicates that despite the death of God we continue to believe in a canon (= Greek ‘rule’ or ‘measure’).
I have three classes of unread books. First are those like Kant’s three critiques that have never been opened. Second and slightly more interesting are books that have never been finished, in some cases despite several attempts. These include Hobbes’s Leviathan, Sterne’s dull dull dull Tristram Shandy, Richardson’s Clarissa, Goethe’s Faust, Darwin’s Origin of Species, several Trollope novels, Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.
The third, perhaps most interesting group is made up of novels that I have read but which I continue to consider unread because even as I was working my way through them I knew that I had forgotten what I had read the previous day. Can we claim to have read a book if the file has been wiped clean? With the following you could have put a gun to my head an hour after I had turned the last page and asked me to describe the events and I would have had a difficult time answering: Broch’s The Death of Virgil, Anne Carson’s Red Doc (I’m a fan but couldn’t find my way into this one’s world); Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (I taught it twice in seminar and still consider it unread, unfinished; like the novels of William Gaddis and William Gass it suffers from the ‘monster gene’ that periodically infects American writers); Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (I remember it as ‘The Novel Without Interests’); Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel (three efforts over three decades and none made it past chapter 58 ‘The Prophetic Riddle’. Like Spenser and Browning, he is an author to be studied rather than read).
Speaking of Browning, The Ring and the Book, his novel in verse has been reprimanding me for half a century. And while we’re on the subject of difficulty, let’s not forget Joyce’s hugely overrated Finnegans Wake which I studied with Northrop Frye half a century ago. The only parts of the book that show a human presence are those bearing Frye’s comments. On those increasingly rare occasions when I am tempted to open any of these books, I remember Josef Skvorecky’s comment on an avant-garde Czech film-maker who, he said, experimented more with his patience than with her art.
You may recall that Sartre’s No Exit suggests that hell is a room in which we are trapped with two other people. My version of this would be a room in which I am trapped with two people and the library of books I failed to finish and don’t intend to take on again. Give me Inspector Morse any time. Maybe it’s only in the afterlife that pleasure finally trumps duty.
Sam Solecki is emeritus professor of English at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is A Truffault Notebook (McGill-Queens University Press, 2015).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is by Alexandre Dulaunoy.