Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

An unread life

with one comment

The author's library

A few months ago, I was proudly showing off my home library to a friend when he asked a version of a question I’ve often heard before: “When I see most people with libraries like this, I assume they haven’t read the books. But you’ve read most of these—right?” In response, I may have stammered a little. No, I said, I haven’t read them all, but they’re all here for a reason. Each book fits into its own particular niche, I’ve grazed in each one, and they’re all important to me. If I’d been in a different mood, I might have quoted Umberto Eco’s testy reply to similar queries:

The visitor enters and says, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?” At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia, bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion. It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already-read books and do not think of the library as a working tool.

In other words, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes, while also citing Eco: “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.” Which isn’t to say that I’ll simply buy a book and stick it on the shelf to admire. Whenever I acquire a new book, I give it a good browse, just enough to give me an idea of what I really have, and then I file it away, content in the knowledge that when I need to dig deeper, it’ll be there. Or at least that’s the rule I try to follow. In practice, I’ve found myself accumulating books by certain authors—Lewis Mumford, for instance—on a vague suspicion that they’re going to come in handy one day, and others that force themselves on my attention simply because of an alluring look and a reasonable price. In other cases, I’m drawn to books primarily by what they represent: a commitment to a single overwhelming idea, which is something I value without being able to replicate. A book like The Plan of St. Gall or Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology is the product of decades of singleminded work, and as a writer who is happiest when switching frequently between projects, I keep them around as a reminder of a different, and maybe better, way of art and thought.

The author's library, temporarily unshelved

But there’s no question that I browse more than I read these days. Part of this has to do with the shape my life has taken: between an active toddler and my own unwritten pages, it’s hard to find time to sit down with a book for more than half an hour at a stretch. My criteria, in fact, for buying new books has shifted slightly ever since my daughter was born. At the moment, I tend to buy books that I’ll be glad to own even if I don’t read them from cover to cover, which favors titles that are either inherently browsable—where I can turn to a random page in the middle and find something enlightening or diverting—or that have strong aesthetic interest in themselves. The latter encompasses lovely little paperbacks as much as their big leatherbound brothers, but it’s especially why I’m so taken by the idea of the tome. When a book is large enough, the pressure to get through all of it is correspondingly reduced: The Plan of St. Gall seems content to hang around forever as a permanent presence, to be dipped into as often or rarely as I want, rather than plowed through from first volume to last. There comes a point when a book’s sheer size ceases to be formidable and becomes almost comforting in its insistence on pages unread and byways unexplored.

This may be why I’ve been increasingly drawn to rare books like this as my free time has grown ever more contracted. If I blow $200 on St. Gall or $80 on Marcello Malpighi, you shouldn’t be misled into thinking I have oodles of disposable cash; really, they’re just about all I treat myself to these days, aside from the occasional album. When I’m tempted to buy a video game or Blu-ray, there’s a reasonable voice in my head that asks when, exactly, I think I’ll get around to playing or watching it. With a book, I’ve got my answer ready: I’ll leaf through it a little now, then save the rest for the same undefined retirement home in which I’ll finally read all of Gibbon. In the meantime, my unread books give me a satisfaction—as well as occasional injections of pleasure, whenever I remember to take one down from the shelf for a few minutes—that I don’t feel from an unwatched movie or unplayed game. It isn’t clear to me if the result is a working tool, as Eco would say, or a stealth form of vanity, but it probably lies somewhere in the middle. The most generous interpretation is that it’s a monument to possibility, a collection of paths I can take whenever I like. It may not be today, or even in this lifetime. But they’re still a part of the life I have now.

Written by nevalalee

October 14, 2014 at 9:48 am

One Response

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  1. I also get this comment and react in a similar way. Are they kidding or what? But I do try and read most of the books I buy for the simple reason that otherwise I may not remember if I’ve read it or not. That sounds awful, I know, but as someone who reads a lot, it’s easy to forget specific storylines. Sometimes I’ll get half way through a book and put it down when I realize I’ve been there and done that. So if it’s on my shelf, I’ve read it. The ones I get confused about were loaners. :)


    October 15, 2014 at 1:01 am

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