Something I read the other day made me think about those books I have on my shelves that I know I will never read and yet have no inclination to get rid of.
Several varieties of unread books crowd my shelves. The majority are those that I can still imagine myself reading someday. These range from The Tale of the Genji to Norman Sherry's three volume biography of Graham Greene. Those examples imply that length plays a role in this category, so I will add Tin Tin and the Secret Life of Literature by Tom McCarthy. Then there are books that I never intend to read cover to cover, but that I have or will "read at," as in "No, I have not read all seven volumes of the Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, but I have read at them."
I have, in fact, read quite a few of the books I own, and I no longer own many books that I have read. What put me in mind of that other category -- the books I have no intention of reading but still keep in the house -- was Thornton Wilder's lifelong commitment to Finnegan's Wake. Wilder had two academic avocations. One involved establishing the chronology of the plays Lope de Vega wrote between 1590 and 1610. I may be a little off on those dates, but since Lope de Vega wrote over two hundred plays, Wilder had his work cut out for him. He knew that it was a project of interest to at most a handful of academics, but he enjoyed doing the research. He also spent years with Joyce's final work, maintaining notebooks and a heavily annotated copy of the novel where he delighted in puzzling out the word play, the arcane references, and the multi-lingual puns.
Better he than I.
I've read just about everything else by Joyce, I think I even read his play once, but one thumb through of Finnegan's Wake assured me that the pleasure/frustration ratio there was not such that I would ever seriously consider reading it. But I would keep it around because I own all the others. I even have a copy of Sribbledehobble, the transcription of the notebooks he kept while planning Finnegan's Wake.
What it turns out I don't have is a copy of Finnegan's Wake. Reading about Wilder's fascination made me want to glance at it again, but there is not a copy on the shelf. My immediate reaction to this discovery was to think, I should pick up the next good secondhand copy I see. Then I thought, What am I thinking?
I take comfort, and some degree of snobbish pride, in this thought from the Mexican poet and critic Gabriel Zaid. In So Many Books he defines the truly cultured as those who "are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more." By that standard, I am Andre Malraux.
I found the Zaid quote in one of Nick Hornby's Stuff I'v Been Reading essays for The Believer. I did get Zaid's book from the library, and it is a very quotable book and very short. Did you know that a book is published every thirty seconds?
And nearby where I thought I would find Finnegan's Wake I found another book that illustrates my original category equally well: Lewis Carroll's Symbolic Logic. Complete. 496 pages.