Unread Books…Without Anxiety

This is the kind of excessive attitude I used to be prone to that annoys my wife so very much, but what the author forgot to discuss was the ability to talk intelligently about the 800 unread books.  Academics make a career out of it (as do those pretentious bloggers).  Regardless, this little article, “The Joy of Unread Books,” kind of made my evening for some reason. I like this connection between reading and dissapointment.

An unread book is all possible stories. It contains all possible characters, styles, genres, turns of phrase, metaphors, speech patterns, and profound life-changing revelations. An unread book exists only in the primordial soup of your imagination, and there it can evolve into any story you like. An unread book – any unread book – could change your life.

Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I like to run my fingers along the spines and read titles and authors’ names. I pull the books out and flip through them, thinking about the stories inside them, the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had read them. Sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading. No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been.

Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily-paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple holidaying in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual. Except that it wasn’t about that at all: it was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be.[1]

I have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But I take comfort in knowing that I will have appropriate reading material whatever my mood, that I will be spoiled for choice whenever I want a book, and that I will never, ever run out of new stories.[2] From the cover design, the back blurb, and general absorption of cultural knowledge, I have a strong idea of what each one of my unread books is like.

Go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes and motifs might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world. I suggest that the literary universe you just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book; the best book you have ever read. But your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.

Read the whole thing here (I edited out the middle).

2 thoughts on “Unread Books…Without Anxiety

  1. So true! I also think it works for the “unthought thought” – when you come up with some interesting idea, it’s never as exciting by the time you thought it through and wrote some things down. So much better to just write a mysterious short phrase on a piece of paper and, having discovered it later, think that it was some really great idea, the idea that could…

  2. This made me laugh out loud, particularly the line that is emboldened. Whilst it is resonant, particularly now I’m a cynical old bastard, this forgets the passion and devotion that a book can command. It may be a youthful naivete, it may be a moment of radical horizon stretching or simply a strange lingering love, but some books hold you with a longstanding, almost constitutive influence. There are a range of books – to name just a few; Emersons essays, Guyotat’s Eden Eden Eden, Rilkes’ Duino Elegies, Deleuze’s Critical and Clinical, Wittgensteins’ Tractatus – which have gripped and held and formed my case. They often seem to slip into the background but – along with a number of others – they stand there as singularities, faces that stand out in a crowd.

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