I like looking at my books and often spend several minutes in the evening running my gaze over them. Most of them I haven’t read but the possibility that I will read them is deeply exciting. (Proust is also excited to know that one day I will open his book.)
Right now, as my house is undergoing a delightful transition, my books are spilling out into the dining room and the bathroom and I follow their inexplicable meandering with lustful eyes. In some ways, they’re organized but in most ways they’re not. When I don’t want to think about anything else, I look at my unread books and think about them.
I like looking at them more than I like thinking about how I need new shoes and need to make an appointment at the D.M.V. All these books were written by people who had no time to think about shoes or cars. They had time to think about the books they were writing. And how exactly did they have time for that? I don’t know. The easy answer: everything is different these days. Which means what? Something about time, money and distractions being either in surplus or at a premium.
This all came to mind after reading this delightful essay at The Millions about the virtues of unread books. So says Kirsty Logan:
“Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I like to run my fingers along the spines and read titles and authors’ names. I pull the books out and flip through them, thinking about the stories inside them, the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had read them. Sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. As much as I enjoy the books, 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.”
Usually I feel guilty that as a full-time bookseller and a part-time writer I haven’t read nearly as many books as lots of the people who come into my store. But like Kirsty I’m tempted to say that my imagined versions of certain books is often sufficient. I also know that I’ll never read all the books that I want to read and I imagine, as well, all the books that I won’t get to read because I’ll be dead.
And as a writer, you also have to consider how many unwritten books are being obliterated inside of you as you read someone else’s books. After reading Roberto Bolano or William Vollmann, I realized there were at least five books that I would no longer write because I no longer had to or perhaps never could in the first place. But then again those two guys are exceptional cases.
I don’t anticipate either that the books I want to write will reach a fully-realized, empathetic audience, at least not at my present level of perverted immaturity; hence, I like reading books that many people have forgotten about, are long out-of-print or have languished for years on the shelves of a used bookstore.
As in life, the same with books perhaps: the things undone often resonate the strongest and with imagined lives all their own. Which is no cause for regret or guilt but a goad to imagine all the harder in the face of our obvious limitations.