It’s not long or a classic, and it’s certainly not the only book I own and haven’t finished. But something about the spine always catches my eye, reminding me again and again (and again and again) of broken promises and literary shortcomings. One day, surely, I will finally pick up Z.Z. Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.” Right?
At least I’m not alone. We asked readers of our Book Club newsletter whether they, too, have unread books guilt-tripping them. And, oh boy, do they ever. Good news: Librarians and teachers, self-professed fans of lengthy, complex tomes, and even bookstore owners have similar tales of woe. Some of the books on the list are precisely what one might expect. “‘Ulysses,’ of course,” wrote Russell Pittman of Takoma Park, Md. And Scott E. Malan of Boulder, Colo., wasn’t the only one who still hasn’t read “Don Quixote,” but he was the only one to ask: “Is keeping a book in one’s ‘to read next’ pile for years without reading it the same as tilting at windmills?”
Still, many of the titles were surprising. As were the reasons readers hadn’t yet reached for those beckoning pages. Here’s a snapshot of what people aren’t reading, and why.
Many respondents had a simple reason for not picking up that one book: There’s only so much time in the day.
“There are choices to make,” wrote Terry Witowsky, who’s been meaning to read Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” for the past five years. “Do I read all 30 ounces and 505 pages of ‘The Silk Roads’ or do I plunge indulgently into the new Ann Patchett novel? In these lazy, hazy days of summer (or any time really), that’s a no-brainer. Ann wins, hands down. Maybe come September, though, when school buses roll through the neighborhood again and crisp autumn days bring back memories of kicking through fallen leaves on the walk to school, I’ll commit to putting in the work to read centuries of world history.”
There’s a subset of the “life’s too short” crowd who specifically brought up the benefits of the very real time pressure of library books. Bev Robertson of Kent, Ohio, asked for “The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1” for Christmas — in 2010. “But I have a bad habit of procrastinating about reading anything I actually own since I’ll have it in perpetuity and, well, the books I borrow from the library have a definite deadline,” she wrote. “It has a cool cover though, so I’ve been enjoying that for over a decade, if that counts for anything at all.”
There are various reasons that a book might intimidate. For some, it’s length (Beth Sutton-Ramspeck hasn’t read “Tristram Shandy,” in part, because “it’s 647 pages of tiny print”); for others, it’s complexity (see: “Ulysses,” above); and for others still, it’s … weight? That’s one reason John Nash of Los Alamos, N.M., gives for avoiding Robert Caro’s colossal biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker.” “It’s just heavy by itself, and that physical weight also weighs on my mind about having to heft it while reading it,” he wrote.
Some people have tried — really! — but they can’t get into the offending book. That’s what keeps happening to Virginia Van Vliet of Toronto. She owns three copies of Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and has started it four times. “But I would be interrupted and when I came back I wouldn’t know my Alexandrova from my Ilyinichna,” the retired librarian wrote. “A student once said to me: ‘You haven’t read “War and Peace”? Oh Mrs. Van! You must! You might find the last hundred pages a little too philosophical for you, but you could manage the rest.’ (She went on to become a doctor. I hope her bedside manner improved.)”
If you never finish it, it never ends
There are, in fact, heartwarming reasons that people avoid reading books. Fifteen years ago, Corinne Fargo of Portland, Ore., bought a copy of “Across the Wall” by Garth Nix, along with the rest of Nix’s Abhorsen series. “‘Sabriel’ was the first book that I literally could not bring myself to put down until finishing, and each book in the series holds a special place in my psyche,” she wrote. “Yet, I cannot bring myself to read the final short story pertaining to the Old Kingdom, for the very sound logic that if I don’t read it, the world is still vibrantly alive, therefore I can disappear back in whenever I please to a new story with familiar characters.”
For other readers, high expectations prompt selective paralysis. Sarah Andrews of Belfast discovered John Boyne in 2018, when she cried her way through “The Heart’s Invisible Furies.” “I immediately put it on my favorites shelf and bought ‘A Ladder to the Sky,’” she wrote. But it “has remained untouched ever since for fear that the second time around won’t be as wonderful as the first.”
A bad feeling — literally
John Andrew Crawford, of Melbourne, Australia, had eagerly anticipated Garth Risk Hallberg’s 2015 novel, “City on Fire,” but something very specific repelled him. “It’s a tactile thing,” he wrote. “I disliked the font. And the slightly slimy paper quality (very similar to a textbook printing quality — is that what put me off?) seemed as if it was slightly ‘style over substance.’”
A number of people shared bittersweet stories about why certain books remained unread. Gail L. Martino of Louisville, Ohio, hasn’t read “Call the Darkness Light” by Nancy Zaroulis, which she found on her mother’s bookshelf. The fact that her mother has now lost most of her eyesight and hearing and “all but her earliest memories” might explain the book’s untouched status. “It may be that I feel guilty that she will not be able to enjoy it,” Martino wrote, “and I am just as worried that I might really enjoy this book.”
Jim Beaver of Everett, Wash., meanwhile, was gifted a copy of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” from his father when he was a child, after he asked his parents about the fall of Satan. “I have carried that book around through three different states and at least 35 years, and still haven’t read it,” he wrote, “but the memory of my father keeps it on every shelf I’ll ever own.”
One of the most touching notes came from Charlie Connelly, who lives in Scotland. I’m reprinting in full his submission about J.W. Ocker’s “The New England Grimpendium: A Guide to Macabre and Ghastly Sites”; it’s a little long, but don’t let that stop you. Unlike some of the books on your shelves, you’ll want to read this to the end.
“It was sent to me by a friend in Arizona around 10 years ago. Brian did that kind of thing, send random gifts to distant friends, because he was the nicest guy in the world.
He’d seen the book in a bookshop and just thought I’d like it. I’m not sure why; I’ve no connection to New England and no particular interest in visiting locations where bad things happened. But I was touched that he’d spotted it and thought, ‘I’ll get that for Charlie,’ then went to the trouble of buying it and posting it to me on the other side of the Atlantic.
‘Hope you enjoy it!’ he scribbled on the accompanying note. ‘Let me know what you think!’
I had a flick through the pages, put it on the shelf and sent Brian a thank you message.
Shortly afterward Brian had a massive heart attack. He was in intensive care and his friends around the world, of which there were many because he was the nicest guy in the world, waited grimly for news that, when it came, was the worst it could be.
He was far too young, left a wife and a daughter on whom he doted. The grief among his friends was as substantial as it was global.
‘The New England Grimpendium’ is still on my shelf and has survived a number of house moves and countless charity shop runs.
I’ve just flicked through the pages before writing this. They’re yellowing at the edges now because time passes, even without Brian. I’ve lost the note that came with the book and it’s not inscribed so there’s no tangible connection to my friend in the book itself. But as long as it remains here, persistently unread, I like to think Brian is still out there, across the sea, hoping that I’ll enjoy it and waiting for me to let him know.”
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POST AUTHOR: Stephanie Merry