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]
At the Powells blog, Alexis writes about the awkward transition young readers make from young adult fiction to regular fiction.When the children are still young – toddlers to fifth grade, say – parents will sometimes make a point of telling us how advanced their kids are. It might go something like this: She’s only two but she’s way beyond board books; or, He’s in fourth grade but he reads at a seventh grade level. But get the kids to junior high, and suddenly the parents start to fret that their intellectually advanced kids are going to be reading books that contain “mature” content.I definitely remember this experience from my bookstores, even in permissive Los Angeles. Later on Alexis writes:That said, I often wish that I could recommend more adult books to some of my teen customers. Nothing is stopping me, I suppose, except my own anxieties about parents flipping out that a Powell’s employee exposed their high school freshman to Margaret Atwood’s sexual dystopia.When I was a teenager, discovering Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving and T.C. Boyle was a revelatory experience, and I’d certainly recommend books by them to today’s teenagers. I’ve also said in the past that classic novels can be a great bridge from young adult novels to adult novels. Sometimes, when I worked at the bookstore, I would recommend classics to precocious youngsters who had read “all” the young adult stuff. In this post from last summer, I and a few others put together a very short list of classics that kids might start with.Some might say that kids won’t be willing to read these “old” books that they associate with school, but it’s also true that kids can get a lot more out of a book they read for fun rather than for school, even if it’s the same book.
When I started a book blog two and half years ago, I had no idea I would be paying such close attention to the activities of Oprah Winfrey, but here I am, again. The truth is, when I worked at a book store a few years ago (and not a very Oprah-friendly one, mind you) her influence on book sales and mainstream book culture in America was evident on a daily basis. With a few reservations, I applauded Oprah’s decision to highlight “classic” novels, because it put these essential books into the hands of readers who might not otherwise be drawn to them. Now it appears as though this phase of Oprah’s club has ended, and her gaze (which can bestow millions upon an unsuspecting author) has fallen once again upon the living. She says that she was “moved” by a letter signed by various living authors asking her to consider contemporary books once again, but perhaps, with the Summer of Faulkner, the “classics” experiment had simply run its course.Even if it hadn’t been preceded by the Faulkner books, the current selection, James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces would be a disappointment. While entertaining (I’m told), it’s the switch to non-fiction, and more importantly, confessional memoir, that bothers me. Oprah’s entire show is a confessional memoir. Her guests are invited on the show to pour out their souls so that viewers can cry along with them, and Oprah joins in. While previous picks, classic or otherwise, take us out of Oprah’s world and into a narrative created by the author, books like A Million Little Pieces are indistinguishable from the content of her show, all of which makes this choice seem incredibly self-serving. Perhaps she’ll get everyone to read a self-help book next.Several other bloggers have already weighed in: Scott, Annie, Authorstore
Looking for a Ship by John McPhee pulled me straight out of the vertigo that was The Corrections. After I read the review on The Millions, read how journalists interviewed in The New New Journalism discussed McPhee, and found a cheap used copy on Amazon, Looking for a Ship made it to the top of my reading list. I started the book on my way down to a wedding in Virginia and finished it on the way back. Looking for a Ship struck me as a very nostalgic piece, with romantic characters, and a simple, fluid style. For all Maqroll fans out there, Looking for a Ship is a good insight to the way of the sea, as well as the tradition that is the U.S. Merchant Marines. John McPhee discusses the decline of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the shifty economics of commercial shipping, and the hazards and wonders of Latin American ports with a journalist’s matter-of-fact clarity and through the delicate eyes of an aging crew. The personal stories are heartwarming and interesting: sometimes they reflect on a sailor’s love for the sea, at other times on his contempt and wish to be land-bound; they scrape off all romantic ideas of working on a ship and demonstrate the hard tasks – 145 degree engine rooms, being the lookout from 4AM to 8AM, working 16 to 20 hour days, union laws restricting time of employment and the difficulty of finding a ship once allowed to work again, and pirates to state a few; and still it provides hope for the aspiring sailors with stories of finding the route using the constellations when the ship’s power fails – hence annulling the compass and the radar – or of one of the captains not trusting the tug boats, hence docking the ship himself at the risk of great cost and insurance liability if something were to go wrong. Looking for a Ship is one of the books I wished did not end.In the meantime, I also picked up the Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl which includes stories from Kiss, Kiss, Over to You, Switch Bitch, Someone Like You, and Eight Further Tales of the Unexpected. It was quite entertaining reading the discussions about Harry Potter and the possibility of J.K. Rowling writing adult stories on The Millions the other day. Though I am a Harry Potter fan and will make no excuses about it I have no ideas of how Rowling would do with adult novels, but Roald Dahl surely succeeded in both genres. I remember reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was quite young, but of course, the name of the author never struck with me. So, after reading a couple of stories at random from the Collected Stories, I read Dahl’s biography to my amazement and shock. I have yet to finish the collection, yet I already have my favorites: “The Visitor” and “Bitch” (the Uncle Oswald Stories, oh how I wish all 24 Volumes of Oswald were published), “Madame Rosette,” “Death of an Old Man,” “Vengeance is Mine Inc.,” and “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” I feel that my selections are bound to change as I read on, but for the time being I would strongly suggest keeping a copy by your bed and reading a story each night, starting with the above.See also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4