What you haven’t read…

My partner sent me a link to an interesting article from the Chicago Tribune the other day:

“What your ‘unread books’ list reveals: Do the books that we haven’t read — and won’t — say more about us than the ones we repeatedly devour?”

In the article, Nara Schoenberg argues that it’s the books we decide not to read—and won’t—that really tell us about another person. And it’s a cool idea. And, I want to know what books you’ve consciously decided not to read and why. I’m also curious about what things we decide to watch as well. And yes, I will soon reveal myself to be a huge elitist jerk.

Why it’s a cool idea: there are many things I don’t read and don’t watch. I don’t watch Bill O’Reilly’s show for instance. It engages my vomit reflex. But I also don’t watch Rachel Maddow. No vomit reflex there, I just don’t like cable news talk shows.

In general, I don’t watch reality shows either. Project Runway is the amazing exception to this rule. I do watch some sports, which are, after all, a form of “reality” TV.

When I do watch TV or movies, I tend to try to be selective, I guess so that I don’t waste my time. Homicide: Life on the Street? Yes. Nash Bridges? No.

As far as reading goes, I choose not to read lots of stuff and am forced, by the necessities of time (and laziness), not to read other stuff.

Thus, I spent a little while trying to think of things I’ve consciously decided not to read, but came up with very few things. The first was “history” by Bill O’Reilly, but then I decided that even calling his recent book “history,” in quotes, was too kind.

We arrive at why this is not a cool idea: people change. And, people don’t read things or do read things for LOTS of reasons.

Example: I’m an elitist jerk, or rather I have been. I bet David McCullough writes pretty good histories. And, given my enthusiasm for public history, I should be applauding his connection to the broader public!

But, it also says that if I’m going to devote hours and hours to reading a book, I want it to really count. I want the expert on the matter – the best. And that, I think is also worthwhile.

In the same vein, I’ve never read books by James Patterson, Norah Roberts, Dean Koontz, and John Grisham. This probably says something about me, but I’m not sure what.

In any case, it’s pretty hard to pigeonhole someone into a slot, because at the end of the day, you can’t really know why someone read or didn’t read a book. Which brings me to . . .

Example 2: I have read lots of Ernest Hemingway (the core example from Nara Schoenberg’s article). There are reasons why I did . . . and there are lots of reasons I didn’t – and here’s the rub.

I did read Hemingway, starting when I was a teenage boy just seriously getting into reading, because:

  • He was short and to the point. He had lots of short stories, and I like short stories. You get a lot of bang for your buck.
  • His topics interested me, as young man growing up in Colorado. Lots of them were about hunting and camping and, well, drinking. Things I imagined I would like or did like.
  • I increasingly (as I developed intellectually through high school and then college) found I liked the more complex themes involving warfare, relationships between individuals, and, let’s see, the existential quandaries if you will. Here, think battling a monster marlin out at sea without the hope of benefitting from the catch or fighting fascists in Spain for a cause you believe in when you have little to no hope of winning.

So, from my perspective then, I did not choose to read Hemingway because he was a sexist jerkoff (which he was). But I also did not not choose to read Hemingway because he was a sexist jerkoff.

And, as it turns out, I grew up to be a staunch feminist despite my salad days of reading The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls (and Fight Club for that matter).

In that vein, I love how Schoenberg highlighted Franzen’s impertinence concerning Oprah. And I thought I could be elitist! If someone’s encouraging folks to read, good on them, I say.

Lastly, there’s also the issue of length, which Schoenberg brings up. War and Peace and Moby Dick are simply too long—as are a lot of history books I’ve had to read. I admit: I will never get to them.

But I’m a guy who really likes precise, crisp writing. Writing something succinctly is one of the hardest things about writing (think the scene in A River Runs Through It when his father is editing his writing – see 5:45 mark in the video clip below).

From a form perspective, I like that. I also like it, because I got other things to do man!

And with that, it’s still a rad question to fight over. So, what have you chosen not to read and what does it/did it say about you?

2 thoughts on “What you haven’t read…

  1. I like the idea here, about highlighting the binary of agency to not read. I also think about this, but more from an archive view about what we gather to read but never do. Look at your book shelf, have you read the first five books on any shelf from either side? You have them, what great notion did you hope to capture and then embody with the acquisition of that piece? Was the historiography pushing you to “know” it but became outmoded by the time you remembered it? I think that would be the only sentiment above that I would argue with from P.R. The desire to read the best. I understand the classics, and I understand the trends of scholarship. I think there is a great divide however when talking about fiction and non-fiction. The literary expression on display is an art and thus comparing works on their merit as art is detrimental. Comparing works of non-fiction, say history, is entirely the point.

    For me, living in New England, I have focused my aspirations from both a literary prowess and an archival vantage point around the vaunted Moby Dick. It is a true slog, but incredibly rewarding to chip away at it. And yet, its been 3 months, and I am not even half way done. It resides permanently on the night table, with the behemoth white whale staring back. However, the way the book reads is like something you can pop to any chapter and digest and then move forwards and back in the same manner and still have plenty to think about. I like the idea of always reading Moby Dick; I know the ending, I know the popular interpretation, I want the experience and its correlating historical descriptions of the region of New England and the industry that brought such wrath.

  2. I think I agree about the distinction about fiction vs. nonfiction…. I just haven’t read any fiction for about 3 years! (Grad school….)

    And, yes, you will probably be reading Moby Dick forever – because it’s so damn long.

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