Books Not Read

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Sam Solecki

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.

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Valley of the Dolls: 1966 edition

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’).

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Journey to the End of the Night

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.

 

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Gravity\s

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).

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Gravity’s Rainbow

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.

Screen Shot 2016-01-16 at 17.10.06.pngSam 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.  

 

 

7 Comments

  1. Charlotte Pickering Author

    Reblogged this on Charlotte Pickering UK Author and commented:
    This is just excellent. Well done Sam Solecki! At last, someone else who does not feel guilty about not reading the inscrutable Kant and Finnegan’s Wake. I feel terribly guilty that I haven’t read War and Peace, although I honestly intend to; and Titus Andronicus, which I will probably not read – ever. Goethe’s Faust Part 1, which I picked up from Oxfam two months ago, is still sitting, accusing and unopened, on my shelf. Similarly to Prof Solecki here who has a sneaky read of Morse and Chandler, I would read Agatha Christie over Agamemnon any day of the week. My failure to finish anything that Nietzche has written (in my view he had a profound personality disorder plus hallucinations which interfered with his philosophising no end!) has niggled me for about 237 days now.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. penlennart

    I’ve been meaning to make a similar list myself, but ironically that list is unfinished, much like my books. I agree with many of the points you make, but on the other hand I really wish I didn’t have this need to read everything in the canon (English lit in my case) AND books that come out every year that grab my interest. I end up reading about 30 books a year, and adding about the same amount each month to my neverending TBR list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tim

    Interesting piece. Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You haven’t Read is a great book about (not) reading, having half-read, having forgotten that one has read, and so on.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. melvyn new

    Parading one’s laziness is hardly worth one’s time unless one is an unredeemed egotist. As I told my own students about works such as Tristram Shandy, Clarissa, Death of Virgil, etc., the dullness, dear sirs and madams, is in you, not in the book. As for Ms. Pickering, until she learns how to spell Nietzsche correctly, she might refrain from her pop psychology. Most bothersome is that the attitude expressed in this exercise certainly filtered to the students who are much smarter, I suspect, than the professor, and who realize that he would rather be elsewhere. And we wonder why English majors are opting for business degrees instead.

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  5. Sam

    As an early PhD student, it’s so refreshing to see this perspective. It’s also great to know that I am not alone in that there are some books that, despite attacking repeatedly, I simply cannot get into. Those three ‘categories’ are spot on, too, as I’ve just spent the last ten minutes mentally organising my bookshelf into those exact sections with substantial success.
    The ‘hunch’ at the beginning – that only graduates and academics obsess over books they have not read – is, I think, also true. As an addendum, I’d also say that this obsessing over reading can, in fact, detract from the pleasure and/or insights that the books one actually has read can give. How much use can reading one book be if the very minute you finish it you are feeling guilty about the next one, the missed one, or the one that you’ve not read yet? The one you’ve just finished is already laid aside, forgotten, in favour of the next.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dr Ian McCormick (@PostFilm)

    Poor academics face the double whammy of hyper-specialization and arcane meta-theorizing. Nowadays the proliferation of journals is such that almost anything will be published eventually somewhere. Therefore general readers must cultivate a high degree of selectivity and develop a reading process that is less thorough than the traditional approach. So skimming and scanning are sadly the only strategies for survival when you’re faced with the deluge of hyper-textual hyper-reality. I’ve explored these problems in a paper: How do academics read so many books? https://www.academia.edu/12094297/How_do_academics_read_so_many_books
    Will you find time to glance in that direction?
    Otherwise, I’m recommending Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers; it’s a great European trilogy and comes with the critical endorsement of Milan Kundera, Stephen Spender, and Aldous Huxley. I’m also admitting that I had not read Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier until last week. Surprisingly, it’s full of wit and laughter and highly accessible. Two theorists I’m now retreating from are the two Jacques: Lacan and Derrida.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. cobrunstrom

    You’re aware that this game is played in David Lodge’s 1970s campus novel – “Changing Places”. Points are gained for the most outrageous claim made for a conspicuously unread classic. Eventually someone gets fired after claiming never to have read Hamlet.

    Liked by 1 person

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