Here’s a thought-provoking post by Meredith Blake at The Book Bench, the NewYorker’s book blog.
At any given moment, my bedroom floor is littered with about ten books. Some I’ve started but abandoned; others I keep meaning to get to. The precarious stack on my windowsill—the one that’s not occupied by a clunky air conditioner, that is—inches ever higher, threatening to entomb me in my little bedroom forever, “Cask of Amantillado” style. Two overflowing grocery bags sit on the kitchen counter, where they’ll gather dust until I eventually take them to the Strand. When I finally have the time and resolve to read something new, I become a promiscuous commitment-phobe, taking up with another book nightly until I find the one I’m ready to go the the distance with. For me, the line between loving books and feeling overwhelmed by them is practically imperceptible, and I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. The world needs an expression analogous to having “eyes bigger than your stomach.” Might I propose: bookshelves bigger than your apartment?
Last week, Kristy Logan had a provocative post on this very subject on The Millions. Her theory? There’s no point in worrying about all those books you haven’t gotten to yet, because very often our preconceived idea of what a book will be is just as valid and enlightening as the book itself might be. She writes, “I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading. No book is ever quite as good as it potentially could have been.”
Logan does have a point. An unread book is an intoxicating, romantic thing, and the act of reading is, in one sense, destructive: all that possibility is reined in, made finite. Certainly we all have ideas about books we haven’t read before we read them. That’s why we pick them up in the first place. These preconceived ideas can be useful, too: part of the performance of being well-read is the ability to know what a certain writer or novel represents, even if you haven’t actually read them (yet).
As a writer, Logan looks to literature as more than a simple diversion. “These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page,” she suggests. In other words, all the unread books on her shelves help Logan conjure ideas for her own writing, and each unread book means one more story she can possibly tell. It’s a powerful idea, but one that’s less useful to the more recreational reader.
There’s also a worrying confession tucked away in this counter-intuitive piece. “I have about 800 unread books on my shelves,” Logan admits. Anyway you slice it, that’s an awful lot to leave to the imagination. Logan—whom I suspect does not live in New York—might be O.K. living with the constant reminder of the literature she has yet to consume, but in her circumstances, I know I’d just end up feeling like the poor sap from this classic episode of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s one that never fails to give me the willies. Surely there is joy in the unread book, but for me, it’s only to be found browsing at the bookstore.
I’ve bolded the bit that resonated with me.