The great unread: Many have bought these books, but has anyone ever finished them?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 5 April 2005)

The unread book as a factor in literature receives far less attention than it deserves. There are those who find it amusing that millions of books sit unread on the shelves of the people who bought them; others will experience shame or anxiety when this fact is mentioned, being themselves implicated. But in the economics of publishing the phenomenon of The Great Unread is neither comic nor emotional. Publishing, in fact, depends on printing books that many will buy but few will read.

Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago became famous in the late 1950s as the purest example of The Great Unread. After he won the Nobel Prize and the Soviet Union wouldn't allow him to accept it, publishers in a dozen countries made fortunes selling his novel.

And then, nothing. As several journalists began reporting, no one but reviewers claimed to have read Dr. Zhivago, though many claimed that it was next on their list.

That incident revealed the market for books that appear desirable but are destined to be unread. There was Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (I, personally, loved the introduction). There was Don DeLillo's Underworld and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. And who will ever forget Harlot's Ghost, by Norman Mailer, all 1,310 pages of it? Would-be readers usually started these books, then abandoned them. (Except perhaps for the Mailer: Some readers may have been deterred from starting if they peeked at the last page and saw Mailer's vicious threat: "To be continued.")

Howard Kaminsky, president of Warner Books, remarked that, "Every year there is one great unread best-seller." He paid US$550,000 for paperback rights to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose with just this expectation. He couldn't see anyone reading it but he knew millions would want to own it.

In Vienna, Julius Deutschbauer has created a permanent touring exhibition, The Library of Unread Books. A librarian as well as an artist, he decided some time ago that the number of books not read far exceeds the number read. He's collected hundreds of books, all of them donated, which have just one quality in common: Their former owners wanted to read them but never got around to it.

He arranges them alphabetically, under the names of the people who haven't read them. Within the exhibit the same author may appear among the non-readers as well as the not-read. H.C. Artmann, the distinguished poet, contributed Robert Musil's famous novel, Man Without Qualities, which he had always hoped to read but hadn't. The exhibit also contains a copy of Artmann's Collected Prose, contributed by a psychoanalyst, August Ruhs, who would have liked to read Artmann but never managed it.

Anthony Burgess argued that there are some books best left unread; until you read them you will never know how bad they are and therefore won't be aware that the publisher has taken advantage of you. He cited the novels pumped out by book clubs: "Blockbusting fiction is bought as furniture. Unread, it maintains its value. Read, it looks like money wasted."

Kieran Healy, a University of Arizona sociologist and blogger, once detailed the astonishing number of books he had not read during the preceding 12 months. "This has been a particularly good year," he said. "I would go so far as to say that there are more books I did not read this year than in any year in the recent past." He reads a lot as part of his work, but nevertheless finds the time "not to read a very wide range of material from many different fields."

His report annoyed one fellow blogger. Healy's claim to not having read Robert Skidelsky's biography of John Maynard Keynes drew this response: "I am extremely irritated to see someone so glibly take credit for not reading Skidelsky. I've been not reading that one for way longer than you."

In Maclean's last month Paul Wells confessed to what he considers an imperfection: "I realize I have become a serial book-unfinisher." Often he finds himself abandoning a book before the end; though its characters have entered his life, he coldly forsakes them. "You feel ungrateful, somehow. The author put his life into these people, and I can't even stick around to see who lives or who dies?" For Wells, "It is a dark burden to bear, this business of not finishing books." He accepts the blame, but is blame involved?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, it is said, finished every book he started. It was a question of politeness; abandoning a book before the end was as rude as walking out in the middle of a lecture. My own view is that no opprobrium attaches to non-finishing. Usually I have eight or nine books partially read, some of which will remain partially read forever. Maybe they aren't as interesting as I expected, maybe I'm not up to their standards or maybe I got from them all I wanted.

But this doesn't apply to critics. Reviewing books you haven't read to the end should be an offence under the Criminal Code, even though an honest reviewer knows this rule may lead to defeat and frustration. In the 1990s, for instance, I was anxious to review Voltaire's Bastards, by John Ralston Saul. I read three chapters and then lost heart; gazing at the 640-page volume in my lap I had one of those painful life-is-too-short moments. I faced the awful truth that since I couldn't read this book, I couldn't write about it.

But there are books, good books, that seem almost designed to remain unfinished. My favourite is The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon. For decades I've been reading sections of it, always with satisfaction, always without guilt. It has often occurred to me that you do not exactly read Gibbon; you inhabit him, living for a while inside his prose and his intelligence. Today I can all but recite the opening and the ending, and in between I have read of many emperors, many battles and above all the many changes in human thought that can occur within a few years. But still more awaits me. I haven't yet read all of The Decline and Fall. I hope I never do.

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