Confined By Pages: The Joy of Unread Books

May 6, 2010 | 10 books mentioned 50 5 min read


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.[1]

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.[2] 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.

coverFor 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.”

coverRadclyffe 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[3].

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]

is a writer, editor, teacher, reviewer, and general book-nerd. She is the co-editor of Fractured West and the reviews editor for PANK. She blogs at


  1. 800 unread books?? Good God woman, get a grip!

    Although I can understand the broad point you’re making about anticipation vs disappointment, I think you’ve taken it to an extreme that is daft.

  2. Ian, the majority of the books I own are unread because as soon as I finish a book I give it away. I never really thought of myself as an ‘extreme’ book-owner! Most people I know have lots of books.

  3. I myself have an extensive ‘to read’ pile – comprising about 100 books – but 800 seems a bit crazy, no offense. I guess you’re lucky enough to be able to read as much as you like, but even at 4 books a week that’s, what, 4 years of continuous reading??
    And I didn’t use the word to mean that your ‘book owning’ is extreme – I meant that I thought the premise of your article (ie better not to read a book and preserve the unspoilt idea of ‘what it might be’ rather then read it and possibly be let down) is taken to an extreme that spoils it. I get what you’re saying – as readers we’re often let down when books don’t match our expectations – but your prescription (leave all books unread) is what I think is daft.

  4. Oh no no no, we should definitely read! I’m not sure where in the essay I suggested that people should leave all books unread.

    I would not suggest that holding a book in your hands and thinking about it is better than actually reading it. But I want to encourage people to appreciate the excitement and potential of an unread book. Perhaps I should call them ‘pre-read’ books instead…

  5. I’m smiling because your picture above almost looks like “book cleavage”! The book as the eternal object of desire….

  6. I really enjoyed this article.

    I have a goodwill down the street that sells BRAND NEW books for $1. As in the books that are sitting out on the B&N display tables right now. I am always picking them up because I can’t resist. I’m sure I have about 400-500 unread books. I love that they hold all this potential and I do take comfort in having something for every reading mood.

    Thanks for sharing with your fellow bibliophiles.

  7. I was raised to believe that a house is a building you buy to keep your books in, and so much the better if there’s also room for people. Among the six of us in my house, we share an accumulation of somewhere above 10,000 books. None have been read by all. Most have been read by one or more. I’ve never gotten rid of a book that sooner or later I didn’t regret it. I may never whittle the TBR pile down to nothing, but someone else in the house might enjoy it today or tomorrow or if the pile outlives me.

  8. In your Comments field you wonder about some readers’ misinterpretation of what you wrote:

    I would not suggest that holding a book in your hands and thinking about it is better than actually reading it.

    I might be able to help. In your essay (just a couple of hundred words above your Comments field) you write:

    I suggest that the literary universe you just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers.

    There! All cleared up!

    Although I can kinda-sorta understand savoring the thrill of the unopened present on Christmas morning, I must say: it’s damn strange to find a self-professed ‘writer’ so openly encouraging people not to read.

  9. “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.”

    That was pretty much my experience of it (at least, of the book Gormenghast itself – I haven’t finished with the other two yet.)

  10. poppycock! books are to be read. i have to say that i find it more ridiculous to NOT read a book than i do in the 800 books you have collected. for the collection i say, to each his own. but to not read a book because you think it’s not what it says it is? are you catholic [insert sarcastic wink-and btw i am] why would you torture yourself. why would you deny yourself the potential for joy? i don’t get it and i don’t think i’m alone.

    actually, i’ve been looking for a reason to stop reading millions. i think this was it. but seriously, sister, read the gd books!!

  11. What is wrong with you people? Are you sitting around reading lawnmower manuals? What she’s describing is the nearly infinite psychic and emotional landscape conjured up by cover art and back blurbs, plus all the cultural build-up around a novel you haven’t read yet. Reading anything (especially anything with a plot) is a constant process of squaring what you expect with what the writer delivers, and this can be a huge disappointment or a life-affirming, toe-tingling satisfaction. Usually, however, it’s somewhere in between. When one has the capacity to imagine a story as a more perfect version of itself, and attempts to prove it by constructing one’s own, we call that person a writer.

  12. What Kirsty Logan has done, here, is really describe the thrill of the creative process which — for her — happily extends outward to include her much-loved collection of books.

    I really enjoyed her article, because I take it as coming from her writer self. In other words, that part of her that can imaginatively create stories in her mind (and on the page) when she is stimulated by something in the outside world (in this case, books) to create something in her inside world.

    I don’t take this article as a manifesto about how to be a reader or a collector of books. It’s not coming from someone who is primarily a reader, but from someone who is a writer and who, of course, learns her craft from reading –from being a devoted and discerning reader.

  13. I can totally relate to your unread books and also when you said about reading all the titles, etc and shops. I very rearly can walk past a book shop/second hand shop/department store book dept without at the very least stopping and looking (and more often buying) I have over 460 books probally 1/3 not yet read (for lack of time basically) and a list of another 230 that i want to buy – ones i have seen or read about (usually online) that i haven’t yet found. I have a list on my phone of them all so i don’t buy something i already have. You can never have too many books!

  14. Lovely article. In your good humored way you illuminated the point Pierre Bayard was trying to make in his How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Your review of Gormenghast made me laugh out loud.

  15. A brilliant elucidation of a perversion I didn’t even realize I had. It explains, in part, the crowds of unread books that surround and comfort me while annoying my wife. Awareness is the first step to recovery, they say. Cheers!

  16. Very interesting. I can fully appreciate the thrill of the unread book and the excitement at the potential treasures within. However, I’m astounded to hear of 800 unread books infiltrating Kirsty’s bookshelves, nestling among those that have been read and enjoyed. In my world, an unread book sits in a pile and only once it has been finished does it graduate onto the hallowed bookshelves themselves. I agree that books should be savoured on shelves and bookcases, but I prefer to savour the joy of having read, rather than the anticipation of future reading.

  17. I once conducted an unofficial poll of we “book-a-holics” and, on average, everyone I polled read 1 out of 5 of the books they bought. There is a sense of security in having unread books from which I can choose when the mood strikes. It is very convenient to walk to the other end of my family room and “discover” a book I bought and once planned to read immediately. It is like cash in the bank and just looking at them piled up erratically on my bookshelves provides a sense of wealth. I haunt used and independent book stores regularly just to be amongst good company and meet incredibly interesting book lovers, some that have developed into great friendships. I am tempted to purchase a “Nook” or “Kindle” but I know it will never satisfy like the sensual experience of holding a newly printed book, inhaling the fresh ink and stroking the texture of the printed page as I turn it to continue to the next page. C. Conway

    It is so exciting to read your article. I have the same feeling for my books. I try to reduce the collection but when I touch the book that I’m considering getting rid of I have that feeling of the possibilities of browsing through it whenever I feel like looking at it. So it makes it very hard to reduce the size of my collection (I have no idea how many books I have). I live in a small apartment with boxes of books lining my bedroom walls, boxes of books in my 2 closets, and a few bookshelves full of books. Fortunately, my husband says that I can keep as many books as I want.

  19. “No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been.”

    You obviously haven’t read many books. The good ones can be read again and again.

  20. I can understand the unread books. I have a whole bookshelf of them. But rather than reveling in them, I lament the time that I don’t have so I could just sit down and read them. The thing I don’t understand is when you said you give books away! I have done this a few times but only certain books to people I know who will love them (then I go to the store and buy another copy). That’s another deterrent to getting to the books I haven’t read yet. The more books I have, the more I have to reread the ones I really loved.

    Just like the saying about the river, a person can never read the same book twice. Time and life change the reader and thus those points that grab the attention within the universe created by the author.

    As far as the book that is the one your imagination craves, look no further than Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Since it’s written in second person, you are even the protagonist.

  21. Wow, and I felt guilty for having 14 unread books on my shelves. :p But I must say that I agree… I love keeping books around the house. The thought of *not* having an unread book kind of scares me. :/ Very interesting!

  22. I love this essay; thank you for sharing it with us. That said, I think the one thing that’s missing from it – possibly something you yourself take for granted – is that some (rare) books actually *surprise* a person by being far more wonderful than one could have imagined, entirely surpassing all their book cover / blurb / emotional-resonance promise, and throwing open doors in one’s imagination that one had never noticed were there.


  23. FINALLY!!!! Somebody who understands this emotion:
    “There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I will love them.”

    I have been trying to explain this to friends and boyfriends for years. Nobody has ever grasped this concept. I have book I have been saving because I know I will love them so much that it’ll be heartbreaking when they are done and gone. And also, as you say, I have created such a complex and complete world in my head of what happens within that book (and my experience when I finally do read it) that I wouldn’t want to deal with the heartbreak if it didn’t live up to my desires.

    Thank you, thank you, for writing this article and affirming that I’m not the only one who loves the promise held within an unread book.

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