As I was flipping thru a selection of my books this weekend I rued the fact I had not read some of them, and it reminded me of something I had read years ago on the BBC Web site—in 2007, the magic of Google tells me. What the BBC published was a list of books, based on a survey of 4,000 Britons, least likely to be finished by the people who actually bought the books. Here is the top ten.
1 Vernon God Little, DBC Pierre
2 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
3 Ulysses, James Joyce
4 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis De Bernieres
5 Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
6 The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie
7 The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
8 War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
9 The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
10 Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
A fascinating assembly, eh? No doubt there are more current lists of unread books to be found, but this one will work just fine. For the record I own eight of those books and have finished four of them, but that discussion is for another day. (I do think I should get extra credit for reading Ulysses not once but twice.) What is perhaps most interesting is not the books themselves but that the respondents reported that about half of all their purchased books went unread. It’s possible the real number is higher. It would not be a surprise if some people did not divulge the full truth behind their book-buying habits. Still, even at 50 percent, that’s a big number, and one I plan to bring up to my wife the next time she complains I buy too many books. Because we all know there is no more effective argument than “See? Everyone else does it too!”
It is true I have purchased many books I have not finished. Or even started. Even worse, from a certain point of view, I would say that 99 percent of those books were purchased new. We can quibble about why buy new vs. used, and I would listen to those arguments while still rejecting your points, but buying books as opposed to going to a library or some other method of non-purchase is not up for debate. Supporting independent bookstores is something of a cliché now, but there are worse clichés to live by. Besides, I have so few vices, and since my other vices cannot, shall we say, be strictly measured by the GDP, I confess to caving to consumerism in this case (though I would argue that buying books isn’t “true” consumerism). It doesn’t hurt that on Independent Bookstore Day in the Seattle Area I and other book-buying fools get 25 percent off for the entire year if we visit about 21 independent bookstores that day. It’s a lot of driving, a lot of bad parking, a lot of swearing about rain and puddles and too much traffic in Seattle, but it’s even a lot more fun. Plus: 25 percent off at those same stores! For a whole year! It’s like free money. (“And where is that money,” my wife inconveniently asks.) Seattle has done this for five years now, and I have done it every year but the first, when the universe conspired to keep it a secret from me.
So in the last four years I have bought my share of books, and at this point whatever I have saved from the 25 percent discount has been subsumed several times over by sheer volume. Which wouldn’t be as big of a problem if I didn’t already have a lot of books before I started getting the discount. And that means I have a lot of books I have not read, though I would say, if I had to give an honest number, I come in much lower than the 50 percent threshold—more like 25 in my case. You might say that is still too many, and you may be right, but I assert that what I have is what Umberto Eco calls a “living library.” The scholar and statistician Nassem Talib, in his wonderful collection of essays titled The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, expands on Eco’s genius and comes up with something that no doubt would have pleased him.
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.
Like any addict I don’t seek validation for my habits, validation seeks me out. And what better enabler can I have than the polymathic Eco, elucidated so well here by Talib. And in fact Talib is no slouch himself, coming up with the word “antilibrary” for Eco’s collection of books. Just as an “antihero” is such a powerful literary device, so too is the idea of a antilibrary. It’s pleasing to think about Eco sitting in a chair in front of a fire, pipe in hand, a book in his hands, a book he uses to gesticulate to an unseen audience and saying, “Behold my antilibrary! It’s a marvel, is it not?” Eco was a true marvel as well, described concisely above by Talib: “encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull.” Most of us would be pleased to possess one of the those attributes. It’s true, then—life isn’t fair. And what was Eco’s response to being questioned if he’s read all his books? “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office.”
What is remarkable and a surprise even to me is just how many times I have encountered, in my reading, whether in a book, magazine, journal, Web site—anywhere, in other words—a reference to a book I already own. And it is similarly remarkable how often that reference is to a book I have not read. But why hadn’t I read that book? If we can accept prima facie that there are people—lovely, beautiful, brilliant people!—who will always buy more books than they can read, why do we ignore one at the expense of another? I am not sure I can answer that. I can say that the joy of coming across a reference to a book you bought 10 years ago, without remembering why you bought it, is like seeing your favourite view: no matter how many times it happens, it always surprises you. And yet, despite the familiarity of the event it’s different every time, just as each time you emerge from the fog and see the Pacific Ocean. So it’s not precisely the unexpected that makes it sublime, since if it keeps happening it cannot precisely be called unexpected.
In other words the new similar experience contains echoes of all the past experiences. Do you remember your first kiss? That crazy, rapturous swarm of butterflies in your gut seconds before your lips meet? If so probably you can remember how your subsequent first kisses with a new partner felt. Each time it was different, but oh those butterflies. You expect them, they never disappoint, you know they will never disappoint, and yet their power is an unexpected miracle.