Another Perspective

A Library of Unread Books

So the books keep piling up next to shelves that long ago ran out of room.

By 12.10.07

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I had intended to write a review of Pierre Bayard's new book, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read; but with work, the holidays and the quotidian demands of family life, I haven't been able to read it.

It seems like a book I should read. A lot of people are reading it or at least talking about reading it. I turned up 550,000 hits when I typed the book's title into Google.

The Economist magazine's reviewer, who, presumably, read Bayard's book, describes it as a "witty and provocative meditation on the nature, scale, and necessity of non-reading," which is the primary way people relate to the thousands of books published every year.

Evidently, Bayard is extremely minimalist in his view of what one gains by actually reading any given book. "Even as I read," says Bayard, "I start to forget what I have read."

Not having read Bayard's book, I scanned the reviews on Amazon's website. There you will find a fragment from Joseph Epstein's review in the Wall Street Journal in which he says that this book "is an amusing disquisition on what is required to establish cultural literacy in a comfortable way." I'll say. Literacy through illiteracy. George Orwell, call your office. My high regard for Mr. Epstein keeps me from wondering if he actually read the book.

I guess this is the kind of stuff that passes for scholarship, or at least humor, at the University of Paris where Bayard teaches. It is so postmodern, so ironic, so...French.

THERE ARE WORSE THINGS than not reading a book. Buying a book and not reading it would be one of those. That is a real tale of woe.

Pity the poor bibliophile who caves in to every temptation to buy a book whenever a new catalogue arrives in the mail, when he strolls through the local bookstore or surfs Amazon.com or the numerous websites of publishing companies or university presses. He knows every discount catalogue by name and saves all the promotional coupons from every chain bookstore in town.

He has probably read a review of a book, no, many books, by someone he respects. Or maybe he has really, truly read another book by the same author and was duly impressed. He might even have read a book on the same subject and harbors a theoretical resolve to deepen his knowledge on the subject.

And imagine if this same book lover has a good friend or relative who works for a publishing house or bookstore with ready access to various publications that are, if not exactly free, substantially reduced in price. At this point a vigilant, loving spouse must step in, put her foot down, and insist that the marriage can only be saved if the clandestine shipments stop immediately. About one in five of all such interventions succeed, I am told.

So the books keep piling up. First, every inch of every bookshelf is filled. After that, the books are stacked up on top of the bookcases. Then books are placed sideways in front of the books on the shelves. Books get stacked up on chairs, under side tables, on the floor in corners, even under the bed or dresser. They accumulate in boxes and in every nook and cranny in the house.

The bibliophile, not unlike a stealthy alcoholic, starts sneaking books into the house and stashing them away, sometimes wrapping them up as Christmas gifts with a card indicating they are from some other random member of the household.

There is no way that all those books are going to get read despite the reader's endless promises to himself, no doubt sincere, that his lifetime reading plan will allow him to eventually plow through every single one of them, come hell or high water.

So many books, so little time.

I VAGUELY RECALL A PASSAGE in Winston Churchill's delightful little book, Painting as a Pastime (1948), in which he actually discusses how a reader or owner of a substantial library should get to know his books even if he has not read them through. I am not sure about this passage. I only skimmed the book since I am not a painter.

In any event, Churchill said the reader should pick up his books, page through them, scan the table of contents, and read parts of them. Basically, you should make friends with the volumes, knowing where to find them when you need them. This seems reasonable -- if you are Winston Churchill and not a compulsive book-buyer who cannot afford the moving costs of books he purchases over the course of his life.

Thomas Jefferson had collected something like six or seven thousand books (the precise number escapes me). But neither Jefferson nor Churchill had to cope with TV, DVDs, CDs, PTAs, little league, and all the distractions of modern life that keep your modern bibliophile from actually reading all those books he buys, be they new or used. (The hunt for used books is another interesting mutation of the disease that will have to wait for another time.)

The final stage of this disease is the legacy phase. The bibliophile convinces himself that he is accumulating a library for his children, the local public library, or the boys' prep school he attended. "Yeah, that's the ticket. I am doing it for the children."

It is all so sad, a library of unread books.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.