Books I haven't Read

Italo Calvino
Italo Calvino

Christmas Eve I read Umberto Eco's Six Walks in the Fictional Woods while waiting for my boy to fall asleep. Christmas Eve for the disorganized parent is a rush to fit in all the necessary wrapping, stuffing, and hiding of gifts necessary to Christmas morning. In my case, the preparation for my son's awakening lasted until 6 a.m. He got up 45 minutes after I went to bed, and, although my wife tried to entertain him away from his loot, that could not be, and so I was up and witnessing his joy within an hour of going to "sleep". 45 minutes is not actually long enough for me to get to sleep, only long enough to reach that border where you wish you were really asleep but have not quite crossed the border. Voices are distant, situations lack urgency, but you have had no real rest.

Anyway, I read Eco, and Eco mentioned Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler . I enjoy Calvino, and it's been a few years since I had read that particular novel, so I decided to pick it up again, plucking it from the line of Calvino books I have stored in my office bookshelves. I immediately remembered why I love this book and was prompted to the following exercise in listing.

If on a winter's night a traveler begins with the purchase of the new book by acclaimed author Italo Calvino from a bookshop. As the purchaser makes his way through the bookstore to the prize, the narrator has him watched by Books I Have Not Read.

you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres…

A listing of various categories of Books not Read follows.

Books You Needn't Read

Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading

Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written

Books That If You Had More than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days are Numbered

Books You Mean to Read But There are Others You Must Read First

Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They Come Out In Remainder

ditto When They Come Out In Paperback

Books You Can Borrow From Somebody

Books That Everybody's Read So It's as if You Had Read Them, Too

Books You've Been Planning to Read for Ages

Books You've Been Hunting for Years without Success

Books Dealing With Something You're Working on At the Moment

Books You Want to Own So They'll Be Handy Just in Case

Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer

Books You Need to go with Other Books on Your Shelves

Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified

Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time to Reread

Books You've Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It's Time to Sit down and Really Read Them

Naturally, I started thinking what such a list might look like for me with all the categories filled in. That's what I'm going to do here: fill in the categories.

Stephen King.
Stephen King.

Books I Needn't Read

As readers, we are all guided by our particular interests and temperaments. There are many fields of writing that just do not interest me in the least. With no compelling reason to do so, I need not read those books. Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins, the Twilight series, and David Foster Wallace all fit into this category. I could read them, but I do not feel compelled to do so, and I can't summon sufficient interest to drift towards them. Also in this category are most books of "political" commentary published by the ubiquitous talk show gurus and "newscasters" of CNN, Fox, MSNBC and other "let me tell you what to think" radio and television programming. I can do my thinking on my own, thank you, and whatever you have to say to me I have probably heard you spout and judged. I don't need to buy a book of the stuff.

Books Made for Purposes Other Than Reading

Art books are damn expensive, but beautiful, objects. I own very few of them. Usually, I browse them in the store, looking at the pictures, which is what I would do with them if they were in my house, too. My handy-dandy reference book of calculations, data tables, and conversion formulas I use, but I don't read it. It wasn't meant to be read as a text, but is itself a tool, like an encyclopedia, which some people, usually prodigies of trivia and obscure information, have read straight through, but that is not its purpose. I do own all sorts of encyclopedias though: world biographies, world history reference encyclopedias, an old book of biographies of famous musicians, a reference book on clothing through the ages and another of arms and armament. All useful, but not the sort of thing to take the chill out of a night.

Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong to the Category of Books Read Before Being Written

I take this category to include all genre fiction that fails to escape the formula of the genre. Every trend-starter is followed by a wave of formulaic attempts to capitalize upon the success of the trend, and often they follow their chosen pattern so closely that to have read one is to have read them all. They are the pulp spit out by the machine, devoured by those who appreciate the comfort of a book which demands little from them, whose outline is always clear, and the plot of which will follow expected lines. My father, one of the most intelligent men I have ever known, has his favorite genre novels, his escape hatches from the buzzing of his own brain--Star Trek, O'Brien's boat books, and historical fiction are his vices. I have my own escape hatches, mainly old science fiction, fantasy, and P. N. Elrod's Vampire Detective series. But I don't read romances, which have a very clear formula, provide millions of women a fantasy in which they may escape reality for a time, and rarely break with their readers' expectations. Here would be found the Harry Potter series. I actually read the first three (my younger brother was hooked on the series), but then the formula, the repetition of Snapes is evil, no he's on the good side, followed in the next novel by the same misjudgment for the very same reasons as it had been made in the last grew incredibly tiresome. After the third, I watched the movies instead. When I watch a movie I know I'm going to waste a few hours, so it doesn't bother me to do so.

I used to read and enjoy Stephen King, but something happened there. Either I grew up and began to grow tired of the rhythm of his novels, a rhythm that does not appear to change, and the simplicity of good and evil presented in his work, or Stephen King began in churning out his later works with such rapidity to lose force as a writer. I am not sure which, but I am no longer tempted by a new King novel. Nowadays, I feel I know him too well, and he did not become a better companion with age and intimacy, but dull and disappointing. I suppose the previously mentioned books of "political" commentary fall into this category as well, for my very objection to them is that I have heard what they had to say before and do not need the printed repetition of it.

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco

Books That If You Had More than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days are Numbered

There are quite a few of these. Thackerey, for example. St. Thomas Aquinas for historical interest and his influence on the Catholic church, especially in education. Every Nobel Prize winner just to see if they deserved the award. Ditto for the Booker and the Pulitzer. The complete letters of particular founding fathers: Monroe, Jefferson, Adams, Madison. More Octavio Paz than I have already read. More Nabokov, more Plato, more Aristotle, more, more and more. I will never read everything I wish I could, which is why bad books upset me so much. They stole time from other, more worthy, contenders and, being mortal, this time lost to me completely.

Books You Mean to Read But There are Others You Must Read First

Some authors require preparation. For example, before you read Nietzsche it doesn't hurt to have some Kant, Plato, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard under your belt. Before diving into interpretive history, or local history, it is a good idea to have some grounding in the objective realities the interpretation addresses, or the national and international context in which local events occur and to which they relate. I follow this rule in reading literary criticism: read the author who is the critic's subject before you read the criticism. Literary criticism can help you understand an author or work, may state in a more discerning way problems you encountered in a text, or reveal problems you missed in a text; it can help contextualize what you have read. Literary criticism cannot, however, replace reading the text itself. Therefore, criticism must follow firsthand experience, so that your first encounter with the text is not polluted with second-hand opinions and preconceptions as to quality and meaning. Read Moby Dick, then worry, if you wish, about the symbolic weight of the whale and the knots.

Reading historical texts is completely different. Because the past is past and we are no longer active participants in it, the facts of a given situation--say the Peloponnesian War or World War I--are not in our heads. These events are not part of our present reality, although we may be able to trace through time reverberations and parallels. Therefore, before hitting the primary documents, which have a tendency to remain opaque without further information from outside the texts themselves, one should seek a base level understanding of the sequence of events, the major players and social realities before diving in to the witness of those contemporary to the events.

Right now, I am pursuing an interest in the rise of the KKK both within the years of Reconstruction and its twentieth century revival. Before I could look at the KKK, I had to gain an understanding of the events and politics of Reconstruction, the economic position of the South, the social and political rivalries at play, and the condition of the people, white and black, in that region. If I did not, and took on only primary sources, I would find myself trapped between two extremes: the pro-Klan testaments that are really hagiographies of hate and the primarily black reporting and response to Klan activities. I would not be able to judge accurately, or make critical assessments of, the information, opinions, and positions represented in these texts. I would be at a disadvantage against history.

Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They Come Out In Remainder

ditto When They Come Out In Paperback

This is my continual dilemma in bookstores, which my Kindle to some degree ameliorates, but does not completely eliminate. I have a wife. I have a son. I have two dogs, two cats, a house, a car, and utilities. I cannot afford every worthwhile book to hit the shelves, and so I often find myself, when I do have me-cash, carefully weighing my options. Which book among those offered to me deserves a permanent home on my shelves, and which will I not regret paying the demanded price. I want to read Swamplandia, but I can wait. I want to read Pigeon English, but I can wait. I want to read The Emperor of Lies, Embassytown, Dead Europe, and The Song of Achilles, but I can wait. I want to read Prague Cemetery, and I can't wait. For Umberto Eco, I'll take the risk, pay the full price, and get to work. I couldn't wait for Kershaw's The End or Teju Cole's Open City. But the decision making process is always awful, and so many good books get left out of my purchases because I simply cannot afford them.

Intrepid little hobbits
Intrepid little hobbits

Books You Can Borrow From Somebody

It's good to have a literate circle of friends and family to sponge good reads off of when the budget is tight. My father and I are endlessly trading books back and forth, sometimes without remembering who borrowed what from whom, so that some of my books are permanent residents of his home now, and some of his live at mine. This ability to borrow, however, makes me lazy, causing some books from this category to bleed into another, Books You've Been Planning to Read for Ages. For example, I have intended to read Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible for several years now, and my father has it. I know I can borrow it from him anytime, and so I have not borrowed it yet, its postponement assured by the mere fact that I can get it anytime I want, so that there is no pressure of time to make me read it NOW. I'll just get to it later, sometime, any day now…

Books That Everybody's Read So It's as if You Had Read Them, Too

I've never read James Joyce's Ulysses . In some literary circles, this renders me virtually illiterate. But I have heard Ulysses discussed so often, and its scenes described so vividly by those who have read it, that every time I try to read it, I experience déjà vu and put it down unfinished. The same for Jane Austen and a lot of Charles Dickens (though I read Dickens anyway). There are works of literature that become part of the way in which literary people communicate with one another, that form a sort of foundation for their conversations and allusions, and it is easy to have heard so much about these foundations that one believes they 'know' what has only been reported to them. And making the shift from the reported book to the read book just does not appear to be worth the effort or the time involved, and so one proceeds, still participating in the literary conversation and not feeling in the least left out or lost, without actually reading the book from which the language of conversation has been lifted.

Increasingly, movies are destroying my need to read a certain class of books. I have read a total of three John Grisham novels, all of them before their respective movies had been made. The first, The Pelican Brief , was brought to me during a hospital stay. I thought it read like a prospectus for a movie. I thought the same of the other two books of his that I read. The problem with translating a good book to film is that so much of the subtlety of a well-written narrative must be simplified out in order to achieve the effects that work in film. Spoken dialogue and moving images can only supply a limited amount of the psychological and thematic subtlety of a novel. Threads of thought must be sacrificed when you make a film. But what if there are no subtleties, and the threads of thought within the novel are appropriately linear and monothematic? Then, you have a movie-ready book, and Grisham, I think, is a master of the movie-ready novel. Having figured this out, I never bothered myself with another Grisham book. I'll just see the movie instead. I liked The Lord of the Rings films, but I still read the books, and I still get more out of the books than is contained in the movies.

Books You've Been Planning to Read for Ages

One of my favorite questions about my library: Have you really read all those books? The answer is no, but I have read most of them and I do intend to read all of them. I do not keep them as part of my home décor, they just kind of take over my home. Even with annual culling I always seem to have more books than I have room. Woven in among the books I own and have read, are those I own but have not gotten to yet. I owned Wuthering Heights for six years before I read it. I kept delaying the reading of it with a sort of dread, for although I thought it was one of those books I should read in order to achieve the cultural literacy I desired for myself I also thought it was one of those books I would not enjoy reading. I finally did read it, and, whether it was the novel's fault or the fault of my preconceived dislike for it, I did not enjoy it. I have a pile of Henry James to get through. I do enjoy him, but I have to be in a very particular mood with a lengthy amount of silent time to read James. He is not an all-occasions author. It took me seven years to get to Zorba the Greek , by which time I had seen the movie twice. This was a rare novel for me: the film and the novel were wonderful and I do not favor one above the other. Both are worth the time one must devote to them. I have a volume of Cesaire Aime's collected poetry in French and English which I intend to read any time now, but I haven't yet. I have Omar Bradley's autobiography waiting for me to have the time to attend to it. The nature of the growing availability and number of books on the new and used markets has resulted in reading as a game of catch-up I know I will not win. I will never catch up, and I really don't want to. If I did, I would get up one day with a single choice of reading material, most likely something I did not want to read at all. Some Harlequin romance or teen zombie novel.

Books You've Been Hunting for Years without Success

This category in the age of internet shopping is becoming less and less meaningful, especially as much that is old and out of print is available for e-readers. I had been on the lookout for Wide Sargasso Sea in my local market for some time now, but just yesterday broke down and ordered it, along with the new Eco, from Barnes and Noble. It will arrive before the end of the week. The thrill of the hunt is to a large extent gone. When I am especially frustrated in my search, I leave a search on the item I want at abebooks.com and let them find it for me. Then, the question is not can I find it, but can I afford it. Increasingly, the hunted book has disappeared and is now categorized as the too expensive one.

The only books that remain in this category for me now are the books in a foreign language which remain untranslated. I can read French, but it is a frustratingly slow process for me. I have only been studying the language for five years, primarily in order to read it, and I do not consider myself in any way fluent. I can only read French written for grown ups with a couple of dictionaries, an idiomatic phrasebook, and an encyclopedia of French proverbs at the ready. I do not read German, Russian, or Portuguese. I read enough Spanish to note in a mirror translation when the translator is not even close to the meaning in the native tongue. As a good, monolingual American, I am dependent upon translation and translators to open other regions of the world to me. Very frustrating.

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw

Books Dealing With Something You're Working on At the Moment

When I was in school, I was always working on something. Now that I am a writer not in school, I am always working on something. In addition to the books I am reading for my own education and pleasure, there are the books I am reading as part of my private, ongoing studies. I read about genocides and the Holocaust because I am still trying to understand these, and I often approach the reading of documents related to these events as work, not pleasure. There is no pleasure in the Holocaust, in the Rwandan genocide, in Pol Pot, or in Stalin. But the understanding of all these is necessary, and I work at it. I am also currently working on acquiring a better understanding of the rise of organized hatred and discrimination in America, beginning with the Klan and following after in the formation of neo-Nazi groups and a rhetoric of exclusion and difference organized around the subject of immigration. I have a few books regarding this subject in my research pile at the moment: primary documents, novelizations, and historical studies. What will I do with the results of this research? The results will wind up either the explicit theme of a poem or series of poems, or will inform my writing on other subjects. I will, eventually, come to understand better what I understand insufficiently at this point.

Books You Want to Own So They'll Be Handy Just in Case

I love the title of this category. In case of what? A literary emergency? Global thermonuclear war? Invasion? Anyway, the books I keep handy are books I have already read, but feel I might have to refer to again or will want desperately to read again. The Lord of the Rings, The Complete Plays and Prefaces of George Bernard Shaw, the poetry of Byron, Keats, Yeats, Akhmatova, Dante, Audre Lorde, and the novels of John Gardner are all in this category, plus a few works of history that I use as foundation texts in evaluating the accuracy of memoir and biography.

Books You Could Put Aside Maybe to Read This Summer

I am not a seasonal reader, and do not read in summer books that I would not also read in any other season. The rhythm of my reading year is not set by the calendar. So this category is empty for me. When I was in school, of course, it was different. Then I would set aside books I intended to wallow in by for the summer when I would have free reign to wallow.

Books You Need to go with Other Books on Your Shelves

I have all of the Dune novels written by Frank Herbert. Some of them are good. I especially like Dune Messiah. However, they are not all equally good, and I own those only because they are part of the series and therefore belong on the shelf. This tends to be true of books in a series: they are uneven productions, and I own, or need to own, part of the series only because I have begun it, and to own only part of a series is to be unfinished. I have a biography of Maud Gonne to go with my Yeats, not from any individual interest in Maud Gonne but insofar as knowledge of her can inform me of Yeats.

I like the future tense operation of this category. It includes in its implication the next novel in a series which has not yet been published. It includes future publications in any of the several areas of my devoted interest, or by any of my favored authors. It accommodates desires not known with any precision at this moment.

Books That Fill You with Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified

This category covers those books, usually met in browsing, to which I am drawn by either the title or the cover. Usually, the titles that draw my attention are awful: they draw by their dissonance. Covers, however, must be in themselves artistically intriguing, beautiful, or striking. I read the Sandman series for its cover art, and felt rather silly at the time for buying a "comic book". Erik Larsen's In the Garden of Beasts has a wonderfully evocative title, as does The Last Temptation of Christ by Kazantzakis and The Non-Existent Knight by Calvino. However, cover art and title are among the very worst methods by which to choose a book. More often than not I have found the text did not meet the enthusiasm its shell inspired. Yet I still choose books this way upon occasion, filler for the basket of books I intended to buy.

Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time to Reread

I like that this category of unread is included in Calvino's catalogue, for it points to the fact that when a book is re-read it is not the same book at all, but a new experience by a new reader, for the reader, unless he/she is peculiarly dull, has changed between readings. One of the books I read and re-read through the years is The Lord of the Rings. I read it first when I was ten, and then it was the thrill of an adventure in which I completely identified with the small, but brave and intrepid, hobbits. I re-read it in high school, again in college, and yet again when the movies came out. Each time, it was a different experience, in which I grasped on to different textures, different moods, and different emphases in the novels. It was not the book that changed, it was me. I brought into my reading the experiences of life gained in intervening years, and these experiences, these changes in the way I thought and the things I found important, changed the way I read.

My wife's teacher in high school made her read Jude the Obscure. She hates it. I like it. The difference may lie in part in our very different personalities, but I suspect the most important reason for the different opinion she and I have of the book is that I read it later, when I was older, and she was forced to attempt it too young. Jude is not a teen novel. It does not speak to young men and women, not yet having suffered disappointment and the fear of failure and dashed hopes, nullified worth, that older men and women may have experienced, or fear they will experience. Its anxieties are those of middle age, not of youth. If she read it again now, she might feel differently.

Ayn Rand: I'd prefer not to.
Ayn Rand: I'd prefer not to.

Books You've Always Pretended to Have Read and Now It's Time to Sit down and Really Read Them

Once again, this is a category that applied more to me when I was a young reader than it does to me now. Then, I thought I should have mastery of the entire corpus of literature, and as people identified me as one well-read, and I took pride in this identification, I did not want to be found out as an ignoramus. Now, well, I know that the endeavor to read all there is to be a vain endeavor, and not one I want to be burdened with. There are too many bad books, or books not suited to me, in the corpus, and I will ignore those in favor of books that can have value to me, that can inform or entertain me. There is still the temptation, however, especially in conversations in which a book holds place as an expression of someone's opinion and you would rather discuss the opinion and its grounds than the place-holder text, to claim to have read something you have not, merely to move the conversation along. Ayn Rand has risen from the grave, unfortunately, and among my university friends she is a subject of passionate identification or passionate vilification. Either way, I am not participating. I do not want to read Ayn Rand. I read Atlas Shrugged and this suffices. But when people argue in her favor, and refuse to listen to answers apart from her texts, I might be tempted to claim to have read her entire works, and I might fall to the temptation. It is possible.

So ends this little exercise in categories.

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Comments 1 comment

phdast7 profile image

phdast7 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Wow! This is terrific, I loved it. I am printing out a hard copy to return to and re-read in the future. Glad to see that you are acquainted with Abe.books...I am always amazed at how many people do not rely upon them for either very inexpensive used copies or to locate obscure works not easily found.

Speaking of Art books (and antique map books); they are incredibly inexpensive, but I have quite a collection. Only because a few years ago I was in an antiques store (looking to find a missing plate for my mother-in-law's china) and spied an armful of styubstantial books in a dusty corner.

Well, among them were three very fine art books, a little weathered,but not too much and I paid only 15 to 25% of their original price. I later discovered that you can also aquire such book for even less by haunting yard and garage sales in "upscale neighborhoods."

I am intruding on your personal style, but did you, would you consider dividing a Hub like this into 2 or 3 parts in order to entice more readers...who once they astarted reading I tink, would be drawn in. Just a thought. :)

P.S. Go get the copy of The Poisonwood Bible from your father's house. Its not Plato or Schopehnauer, but it is good.

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