On being a gentleman well unread
Or, why do I keep buying books when there are dozens of volumes I forgot I even own?
Dr Essai, The World’s Most Attentive Man™ : What have you been working on, my scribbling friend? Oh, and a belated happy birthday to you.
Dale Keiger: Thank you. I have an essay in progress.
TWMAM: An EIP?
DK: Yes, an EIP with the working title “Well Unread.” It’s about all the books I’ve read, but more to the point, all the books I haven’t read. With possibly a divergence into the phenomenon of buying more books even though there are dozens of unread volumes already on my shelves.
TWMAM: May we see an excerpt?
DK: Thought you’d never ask.
Thoughts on being well unread
Supine on the sofa, I look up from the volume in hand and gaze past my socked feet at a bookcase against the far wall. In this bookcase are 158 volumes from the Library of America. Behind my head is another case, this one three-by-five, with 131 books, many of them over-sized art books. Five more books currently rest on a coffee table. I get to my feet and go to a case bolted to the wall of the dining alcove off the kitchen, where I count 46 more, most of them about food. Temporarily on a counter under these is The Ends of the Earth, an anthology of writing about the Arctic, left there by my wife. Upstairs, the spare bedroom houses 51 issues of The Paris Review; every edition of The Best American Essays, 1986 to 2022; and the complete 65-issue run of The Ohio Review. Finally, in my upstairs office there is a wall of books, about eight-by-eleven. I don’t know how many volumes are there because I’m too lazy to count them. Let’s call it a thousand and call it a day.
Not that impressive a personal library, but surely I’ve read three or four times the books on hand. What occupies my mind now, though, are the books I have not read. I have read the whole of William Gibson, Joseph Conrad, Max Porter, J.D. Salinger, Franz Kafka, Bruce Chatwin (twice, once for my master’s thesis), Herman Hesse, Zachary Mason, and Homer; most of D.H. Lawrence, Tom Wolfe, William Faulkner, Tracy Kidder, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; much Isaac Bashevis Singer, Robertson Davies, Paul Theroux, and Joseph Mitchell; of 30 books by John McPhee, 24. A fair number of novels by Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata. Flaubert’s Parrot but not much Flaubert. The Swann’s Way section of In Search of Lost Time, and that was a slog, let me tell you. The Last of the Mohicans, which is all the James Fenimore Cooper I need, thank you.
… I suppose I could think of myself as well unread. Evidence for this: I have read nothing by Jane Austen, Thomas Mann, Milton, Anthony Trollope, T.S. Eliot, Cervantes, Alexander Pushkin, Victor Hugo, Walter Scott, Goethe, Balzac, the Brontës, Émile Zola, Gertrude Stein, Norman Mailer, or Theodore Dreiser. Dubliners but not Ulysses. Billy Budd but not Moby-Dick. ( I have tried twice.) All but nothing from China, India, the Near East, Latin America, or Africa. In high school I “read” Romeo and Juliet, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Catcher in the Rye, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Huckleberry Finn, Antigone, Soul on Ice, Walden, and Animal Farm, but those were in English classes taught by people who themselves did not read very well and who insisted that our most important task was to suss out “the author’s theme.” In 2003, The Guardian assembled a list, “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time.” I’ve read 24. The newspaper followed up in 2015 with “The 100 Best Novels Written in English.” I did much better here — I’ve read 25. Of the titles compiled by James Mustich in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, or by Harold Bloom in The Western Canon? Child, please.
Why have I read On the Road, twice, but not Jane Eyre or Don Quixote? Why The Thirty-Nine Steps and Three Men in a Boat but not David Copperfield or Pride and Prejudice? I’ve no idea.
TWMAM: When might we expect a complete work?
DK: You should know better than to ask that.
TWMAM: You’re right. My bad.