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.
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. 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.
For example, I think that Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at university.
I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. Perhaps I will never read them. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. I know it’s unrealistic, but I still hope.
There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I learn how to write by reading; I know that certain books will teach me more than others because they are similar in style and content to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Fucking Daphne, an anthology of sex writing about and edited by Daphne Gottlieb; or Alice Greenaway’s White Ghost Girls, a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, Ecstasia and Primavera; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.
I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. Sometimes I hold these books in my hands and imagine what I will learn from them. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.
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.
Back | 1. I prefer my version, and still harbor a hope that my imagined story is out there. If you’ve read it, let me know.
Back | 2. In my defense, I spent six years as a bookseller and am now the reviews editor for a magazine, so I accumulated a lot of paperbacks. Plus, I can’t go past a second-hand bookshop without finding something that I must have.
Back | 3. This is also why I have never reread my favorite books: Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, or Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls. They’re just too good.
[Image credit: Kenny Louie]
This must be some sign of the times: our friends at The New Yorker are currently offering the DVD-ROM set of “every page of every issue” at the fire sale price of $19.99 (and Amazon has it for as cheap as $16.72 as of this writing, though the sets for sale there may only be through 2005). It would seem that, during the time-intensive process of digitizing the New Yorker archive, technology outran itself. Shortly after the release of the boxed set, as we pointed out last year, “Every page of every issue” became available to subscribers at newyorker.com. That is to say, the DVD-ROM version is already obsolete. Still, there’s something amazing – even scandalous – about having the collected labor of White, Addams, Trow, Frazier et al. sitting in a svelte case on your desk. And heaven knows Condé Nast needs the revenue: The New Yorker was apparently its biggest ad-page loser last year, and we took note of a decidedly slimmer Winter Fiction Issue in September.
The depth of Ignatius’ wisdom gave me an urge to read history, and I started with Napoleon: A Political Life, by Steven Englund. Englund is a notable scholar and the book was released to wide acclaim. Napoleon is a personal, political and military approach to one of the most influential leaders of history. I picked the book especially because I did not know much about Napoleon and sought enlightenment, which I got thanks to the book’s thorough historical content, the presentation of Napoleon’s personal background, and a very scholarly – yet novelistic – narrative. It is for certain that Englund is extremely passionate regarding Napoleonic studies and the controversies that surround it. His determination to relate to the reader both the specifics of Napoleon himself (character quirks, political ideas, practical implementations, the myth) and the historical evolution of the time (the French Revolution, Continental power struggles, trade issues) without any high opinions leads the reader to ask questions and wonder about different interpretations of the Napoleons life and actions.I was so moved by the joy of reading on historical matters that I picked up on Ryszard Kapuscinski – a foreign correspondent for the Polish press during the communist era who was recommended to me by the very C. Max Magee of The Millions and Cem Ozturk, great friend and emissary to Japan. I started with The Shadow of the Sun and realized once again how ignorant I was with regards to Africa. Since reading The Shadow of the Sun I feel ashamed to refer generally to Africa, as if it were one country, and it’s inhabitants as strictly African. Kapuscinski’s accounts are a mix of personal adventures that make James Bond stunts lame, coup d’etats surrounding the liberation of African colonies, and detailed descriptions of various cultures and peoples of Africa. Of course, immediately after finishing The Shadow of the Sun I picked up Imperium, Kapuscinski’s account of his visits to the USSR. Kapuscinki’s visit to the world behind the iron curtain, the different cultures that the USSR housed and worked diligently to eradicate and replace with communism, and the succinct description of the big brother situation is full of wonders. Imperium is a great read that is thrilling and unnerving at the same time. I still long to read The Soccer War, Kapuscinki’s accounts of the revolutions he witnessed in Latin America but rein myself not to finish all his works in one breath.See also: Part 1
One of the most anticipated books of the summer is Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. The book will be out a week from Tuesday, and already it’s pushing into Amazon’s top 100. All spring there were reports of galleys (advance copies for reviewers) selling for a couple of hundred dollars on eBay. Rake’s Progress posted a report from one of the lucky few who got their hands on the book early. Granted, this reader was posting to the Cormac McCarthy Society Web site, but still his review was glowing. Other glowing reviews have come in at PW and Booklist, and the newspaper book pages will weigh in soon. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the report that McCarthy, a notorious recluse, has given his first interview in 13 years, which will appear in the August issue of Vanity Fair.Booklist’s starred review of Lydia Millet’s satirical novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart compares the book to “Twain, Vonnegut, Murakami, and DeLillo.” Not bad. The novel opens in 2003 with reincarnation of three of the creators of the atomic bomb. After taking stock of the current state of the world, these scientists decide to work for disarmament, but the American military isn’t too keen on that idea. Though the premise seems a bit high concept, reviewers are saying that she pulls it off.If you ever wanted to read a novel set in the exotic locale of Zanzibar, you’re in luck. Lisa Kusel’s novel, Hat Trick, is about two estranged friends who, by chance, happen to be reunited on the small island off the coast of Africa. Mona is there in her capacity as a powerful film producer, while Hannah is there looking for merchandise to sell in her store back home. The man who caused their split is there, too. Peter is a journalist who is writing about the star of Mona’s movie, but he is in Zanzibar to be close to Mona, too. There are no major reviews out yet, but PW was positive about the book.Avner Mandelman’s collection of short stories, Talking to the Enemy, won the Jewish Book Award when it was published in Canada, and now, Seven Stories Press has released the book in the US. Mandelman was a member of the Israeli Air Force and he fought in the Six Day War before moving to Europe and then to Canada. His collection looks at Israelis and Israeli emigres living in a culture of violence. As PW puts it: “With these agile, vernacular stories, Mandelman takes a clear-sighted yet empathetic view of a fraught nation.”
My friend Nancy sent this story my way the other day. Apparently, back in 1998 a woman posted on her weblog an interesting discovery. She realized after reading the Robert Graves historical novel I, Claudius and the Richard Condon cult classic The Manchurian Candidate back to back that Condon borrowed passages from Graves’ book. There has been a little bit of hype surrounding The Manchurian Candidate lately due to an impending remake of the movie and a new edition of the book with a forward by Louis Menand, so perhaps that is what caused this revalation to come to light so long after its original discovery. Menand himself notes the bizarre patchwork of styles in Condon’s work and now experts are positing that Condon may have borrowed from a number of different books when writing his novel. What strikes me when reading this is that neither the author of the article nor the experts consulted seem to think this charge is particularly damning. I think maybe this stems from the fact that Condon has never been considered much more than a pulp writer anyway. Here’s the full article if you want to read more.More Than Just BaseballWhere have I been? It seems that during the nearly twenty years that have passed since he penned one of the best books ever written about baseball, Nine Innings, sportswriter Daniel Okrent went on to become an editor of Life Magazine and then an editor of Time Magazine. Now he has a new book out that is in keeping with his more recent journalistic pursuits. Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center chronicles the interesting story of a landmark of entertainment in New York City. Here’s what the New York Times has to say about the book, and here’s an excerpt.
The New Yorker opened the week in a lather of controversy surrounding the cover of its latest issue. The Barry Blitt illustration is a rather heavy-handed satire of the various smears that have circulated about Barack and Michelle Obama. Essentially, that he is a closet Muslim extremist and she a closet militant. Blitt’s unsubtle drawing portrays them in the garb of these personas.Speaking as a New Yorker fan, I can’t stand these political satire covers. Aside from them not being very funny or interesting to look at, they lower the New Yorker to the level of the fray. The key to the New Yorker’s success, however, has been its ability to place itself above all that.Yes, the New Yorker is quite obviously a left leaning publication, but its journalism strives for even-handedness and the entire enterprise is built on a reverence for the facts, as its legendary fact-checking operation attests. By “the fray” I do not just mean politics, I also mean the “here today, gone tomorrow” jokes and the offhanded irony that seem to permeate most of our culture. The New Yorker, meanwhile, has always been so (justifiably) secure in its status, that neither its contents nor even its ideological leanings require an advertisement on the cover, which historically has been given over instead to a piece of art that exists simply for its own sake.The political covers come across as jarring in this context. A couple of years ago another political cover caused a bit of controversy. The Bush/Cheney cover was a tired Brokeback Mountain rehash that got people riled up, and, as it turned out, it bumped a cover that was more topical and far more meaningful and in the spirit of the magazine.Apparently, I may have been in the minority in this view, as the Mark Ulriksen Brokeback cover, along with a political Blitt cover, won awards.It’s not even the political content of these covers that bugs me – there have occasionally been some good political covers – it’s their heavy-handed unfunniness that paints the magazine’s readers with a very broad brush. I don’t find the Obama cover to be offensive in the least, just easy and dumb.If you feel the same way I do (or even if you think I’ve lost it), dig into the archives and enjoy the hundreds of sublime and clever covers that have graced the New Yorker over the years.