Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between

All the books I’ve never read

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booksSo, that was another year, and now we do it all over again. I don’t really go in for resolutions, but the last couple of years I’ve urged myself to read more. Specifically, more books. I’m going to try again this year. Like most of us, I spend too much time on the internet, and I harvest up articles like a curious vacuum cleaner. The Pocket app tells me that last year I read 4,318,693 words. (I doubt I read all of them, there was a lot of scanning and skipping.) Pocket helpfully points out that this word count is like reading The Great Gatsby 92 times. Presented with this fact, I found myself thinking I’d rather have read The Great Gatsby 92 times. Or indeed any 92 really good books. (Pocket also adds that if the pages from those books were stacked end to end, they’d make it past the top of the Empire State Building. All I can say is that would be a terrible filing system.)

It isn’t that I think reading all those articles was a waste of time. (Apart from the Buzzfeed lists – they have raised a waste of time to a whole new level of art.) But it’s like being presented with all the food you ate over a year and seeing that most of it was snacks and fizzy drinks when you could have been having three course meals with decent bottles of wine.

But I didn’t read 92 books, not even close.  I am, it is true, always reading something. I get a slightly panicky feeling if I leave the house without a book. I’m not fussy about format – e-reader or old-fashioned wood-pulp and ink. But I’m a slow reader. I’ve been known to devour books in single sittings, but more often than not I chew them methodically over several days or even weeks. I don’t really mind this, but unfortunately the internet is on hand to make me feel inadequate about this: some people I follow on Twitter seem to read three or four good sized books a week. Perhaps they’re scanning and skipping too.

The maths of unread books is terrifying. It sometimes feels like one of those anxiety dreams where you’re trying to run but your limbs don’t move. It’s bad enough trying to catch up over the last couple of centuries, let alone read new things. Writers are often advised to read a lot – which is eminently sensible. But reading time is writing time, and I often can’t read a few pages without wanting to be off doing it myself. It’s like watching someone else do something fun – you want to have a go.

And it’s hard not to wonder what the point of it all is. All readers know all the benefits instinctively. (And doubtless a bunch of neuroscientists have made various bits of readers’ brains light up on an fMRI to prove something or other.) But at the same time, I don’t like the oft-quoted aphorism from Logan Pearsall Smith: “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” It is exclusionary, it’s divisive, like the false dichotomy between the unexamined and the unlived life. To live is to examine, whether we like it or not, whether we think about it or not. Our conscious minds see a tiny fraction of the data coursing into our brains. And our reading eyes will only ever skim the surface of the great plunging depths of literature.

Volume (and indeed volumes) aside, in Literati Land (one of Disney’s less successful attractions), it’s easy to be intimidated by the reading choices of others. A Facebook meme was doing the rounds recently getting people to name ten books that had moved them. The rubric added: “They don’t have to be great works, just the ones that have touched you.” Funnily enough though, a lot of the lists on certain people’s walls were more John Stuart Mill than A.A. Milne. Of course there is no reason Facebook exhibitionism should stop at books, and actually to worry about these things is to perpetuate book snobbery. And sheflies? Stop it now, you’re just overcompensating for the fact you haven’t read half of them.

Thankfully Pierre Bayard is on hand to teach us How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read. (I do like Bayard. His Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? is one of my most favourite things, delicious in the mischievous suggestion that sometimes the last person who knows the truth about a book is its own author. When you’re writing one, that one feels too true.) Any notion of literary completism is of course stupid. Reading as a solitary activity is so much less without the community of readers out there all constructing a vast mental quilt of started, abandoned, finished, absorbed, forgotten, remembered and reread works. We rely on others to do some of our reading for us. But still, I am not the only person I know who seems to be caught up in something that should be an enormous pleasure, but sometimes feels like an obligation.

So, maybe all our resolutions should be to stop writing – or at least stop writing for public consumption. Everyone should take a year – say one in every ten – not to write anything. Then we could all catch up a little. I know, I’m not helping.

Thank you for not reading this.

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