Tuesday, October 25, 2005

With snobs on

Just got around to reading the Guardian article about books being the new form of snobbery. I feel like someone who's just discovered that every teenage boy in the neighbourhood has been secretly lusting after his wife. I mean on the one hand, it's comforting to know that civilisation has finally evolved to the point where the art of reading is sufficienty prized for it to be a status symbol (plus it's good to know that other people also spend their time checking out what people around them are reading - see my post here). On the other hand, these are books dammit, they are sacred, hallowed objects and should not be sullied by the fingers of cretins who just want to use them to show off.

(On a seperate note, I'm not sure how exactly being seen with an established bestseller is status-enhancing. Personally, whenever I see someone reading the latest booker prize winner or some other book that's been majorly lauded in the press, I assume they're just wanna-bes who aren't well read enough to have opinions of their own. It's the folks reading obscure Henry James novels - or poetry - who I tend to notice with approval. I realise this leaves me open to the risk of false negatives, but that's a risk I can live with.)

I have to admit to feeling a twinge of guilt about this, though. Not, of course, that I would ever buy a book that I didn't intend to read - at least at the time that I bought it. The trouble is that the rate at which I buy books far exceeds the rate at which I actually read them, so that unread books tend to accumulate on my bookshelves, rather like budget deficits. The end result is that there are at least a dozen books on my shelf that I not only have not opened yet, but that I may actually not get around to reading at all, because there's always something more interesting to occupy my attention.

Plus there are all the books that I started to read but didn't finish. This happens mostly with collections of poetry - I'll buy the collected poems of some poet and get about halfway through it, but I invariably won't get all the way through. This isn't just true for poets I'm disappointed in - even with poets I love there are usually at least a few poems that I've never got around to reading. For instance, I'm sure there are at least a few poems in the Collected Plath that I haven't read; ditto with Walcott. Plus there are the books I simply gave up on mid-way - like Finnegan's Wake, for instance. Or short story collections where I still have a handful of stories left.

All this means that I have tons of books on my bookshelf that I couldn't (and wouldn't) honestly claim to have read in their entirety, but that people would assume I had read by virtue of their being on my bookshelf. Of course, the larger guilt here is about not having read them in the first place, but there's also a smidgin' of guilt about displaying books on my bookshelf that I haven't read. Actually, guilt is probably the wrong word - it's more like the uneasiness that comes from knowing that if someone were to see the book on your shelf and ask you what you thought of it you'd have to make the embarassing confession that you hadn't actually read it and feel like a klutz as a result[1]. There was actually a period when I seriously considered keeping unread books in a seperate drawer, hidden away from the public eye.

Notes:

[1] Those of you who are fond of things like logic are probably going to point out that this is an illogical point of view. This is true. What makes it even more illogical than you think is that I never, ever, invite people into my apartment anyway, so that the chances of someone actually getting to see my bookshelf are miniscule. But, as people are always saying when they want to justify an illogical stand, it's the principle of the thing.

9 comments:

DoZ said...

Italo Calvino gives a beautiful list:
- Books You Haven't Read
- Books You Needn't Read
- Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading
- Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered
- Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First
- Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered
- Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback
- Books You Can Borrow From Somebody
- Books You've Been Planning To Read For Ages,
- Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case,
- Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
- Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
- Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified
- Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time To Reread
- Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them
& those were just the ones I remembered... I used to despair there being more books than I had time on this earth... I've come to be stoic about it now... as long I can be spared the bad reads...

The Soliloquist said...

I have had the same dilemma too, have fallen flat on the face trying to pretend to know volumes of the tomes that i havent had the time to touch. One thing i have noticed is that, if i had borrowed a book from somewhere, i tend to read it without procrastination, but if i get to own it, it just gathers dust in my shelf.. On books being items of snobbery, real book lovers would always be put off by such shallow show offs.. Browsing through the nondescript blurbs to pick the obscure gems is more fun that buying books off a best seller list...Fully agree with your stance..

Falstaff said...

doz: Thanks. That was brilliant.

soliloquist: Know what you mean. Except that with the university library there's almost infinite renewal, so now I end up borrowing books and just renewing them without reading them.

Neela said...

er falstaff, for one who read all the booker prize books and blogged about them, you certainly have a strong opinion on status-enhancing books. You DO realize that that's why you don't get the Henry James reading women of course - because, when they see you with your nose buried in Yet Another Booker, they think you're just a wannabe who isn't well read enough to have opinions of your own...

n!

Ludwig said...

Apt post, as I've note elsewhere. Is there another (maybe pseudo) category of books one has that one hasn't read? These are books that one read elsewhere, in the mists of time, but bought them later out of a certain weird nostalgia? So the book itself has been read, but not actual concrete instance lying on the shelf. E.g., have a bunch of Kenneth Andersons that I read growing up, but just had to buy again.

Maybe it is just me.

Mrudula said...

I think this is a problem most compulsive readers share. I have a whole shelf of books that I read when growing up and later began collecting them thinking I'd re-read them in future. I don't have time for them since I'm reading books I haven't read and want to read. To top it all I've at least ten hardbacks I bought at a fantastic bargain crying for my attention. I've told myself I won't buy any more books this month until I finish those. I also know that it won't take much to break my resolve. I guess I've to live with myself.

Falstaff said...

Neela: Ah! but I would never be seen in public reading a Booker Prize winner. So it's not a status symbol for me - more something that I'm almost embarassed about.

The truly snobbish thing to do, of course, is to go issue some obscure novel by Banville or Barry and read that in public - that way if someone mentions the Booker you can turn up your nose and say you don't much care for his more recent work!

ludwig: Yes, yes, I totally do that too. I'm not sure I'd consider them unread books though (this would mean that I'd never read the Midnight's Children lying on my bookshelf)

mrudula: Ah, bargains! Yes, those totally destroy me. At least your books are all on your bookshelf. I actually have a whole set of books distributed among friends in other cities because I bought them while I was visiting (they were on sale, I just had to have them, etc.) and then didn't have space in my bags to carry them home with me.

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