The books I don’t read are the books I know I will like. They are poked here and there among the hundreds on the shelves of my library. I often read their titles aloud and wonder what it will be like when I open them. Will they change me or bore me?
Sometimes I take them down from the shelves and hold them. I read things written on the back, maybe even open to the copyright page to see when they came about. Once in awhile I might read the first paragraph of the first chapter, and not for the hook but to feel the writer and hear the voice.
The shelves contain some books I’ve had nearly all my life. In boyhood I learned quickly that I came from a family of readers. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents – all readers. There were nine children in my father’s family and they often gave each other books as gifts and wrote their names in them. Many of them never graduated from high school and few saw college. Now people complete college without taking any interest in books.
Most of my books are fiction but there are plenty of nonfiction and standard reference books, too. I still have The Bluejackets Manual, issued to me by the U.S. Navy in 1964, Jane’s Encyclopedia of Aviation just in case I need to know the characteristics of some aircraft, six versions of the Holy Bible, and even Ernest Hemingway’s favorite book I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson. (I have the hardcover of that and it cost me.)
Long before I wrote fiction I read it. I became so hooked that I joined six New York book clubs at the same time to get the half dozen or so free “introductory offers” with no obligation. I could cancel at any time. They sent more and more books without my asking. They just came in the mail about every twenty days, along with a bill. I spent my paper route money, lawn mowing money and money I begged from my parents, all on fiction. I shelved them in alphabetical order and they came so fast there was little time to read them until years later.
Many of these unread novels traveled with us when I was teaching English in the Dominican Republic. They came by ship inside a container with our furniture and household goods. Hundreds of books in English, and highly prized in a nation of Spanish-speakers seeking to improve their foreign language skills. Many hundreds were left there to my students years later when we moved back to the U.S. Every so often I search for one of those missing books because I’m sure it’s here and I know some bit of information can only be found in that one book. A book I can no longer read.
My old friend and mentor Jon Hassler used to buy me books he thought I would like, or should. He never bought me fiction. Maybe he thought I needed a change. One book was about underwater treasure – gold and precious artifacts. It took me years to read that one, so it sat long on the shelf as I kept working up to it. Another one was about sailors eating each other after they were shipwrecked. I admit to reading that one fairly soon after he bought it for me. I loved the title: The Custom of the Sea. I spent years at sea and was glad I didn’t read it before that.
Cannibalism is an interesting subject. In Santo Domingo I gave my students the book Alive by Piers Paul Read after a rugby team crashed in the Andes in 1972, and survived for quite awhile by butchering their dead for food. I also read somewhere that they still have reunions – a barbeque. The book was released several years later. The movie wasn’t made until 1993, and though it was good, it couldn’t compare to the book, which is often true because movies don’t contain thoughts. The internal struggle of the characters is key to understanding a story, or learning anything important from it. I love movies, but books I can’t live without. Even if I haven’t read them yet.
Sometimes I don’t read books because I can’t get beyond that first paragraph or page. Or the opposite – the beginning hook is the only portion that interested me. I guess Dickens is credited with the best opening line in Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Even many avid readers now struggle to complete books by 19th Century authors. I don’t know why. Maybe they seem “wordy” after reading so much stripped down prose currently in fashion as we fall further into the black pit of “texting.”
In truth, I prize unread books like I do my wife’s 401K. It goes up and down in value, but always seems to finish higher. The longer I wait the bigger the numbers I dream of spending. (I hope she doesn’t read this.) And the longer I wait to read an unread book the greater its possibilities seem. I’ve meant to read Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad since the 1960s, and I’m going to read it one day, too. But meanwhile, I see it there on the shelf like an old friend. And isn’t it true that so much in life seems to just wear out, but not books?
A recent article in The Atlantic – “The Great War Novelist America Forgot” by David Frum, celebrates Herman Wouk’s career as he turned 100 years old. He won the Pulitzer for The Caine Mutiny and it stayed on the Bestseller List forever and later became a movie that was credited with Humphrey Bogart’s best performance as Captain Queeg. Wouk has a long list of memorable works like Marjory Morningstar, Winds of War and War and Remembrance. But it struck me as tragic that one of our greatest writers – a man who framed World War II for us – is no longer prized. Frum wrote, “Give Wouk’s books to someone who knows little of the Second World War, and when they finish, they will feel almost as if they had lived through it.”
I don’t know if we can ask anything more from art than that. And so it must be true that the books we haven’t read await us like unlimited wealth. To me, that seems like good news indeed.