A common ‘game’ during lockdown has been spotting what’s on the bookshelves in the background of various Zoom and Teams virtual meetings. Whether or not you have a range of classics and worthy works lined up on your shelves in the background – or indeed a range of books at all, has become a subject for much comment. Someone even started a Twitter account called Bookcase Credibility to comment, often sardonically, on background bookshelves.
There exist still, I understand, retailers that will sell you ‘books by the yard’ (or metre) – so-called ‘décor books’, either of genuine antique classics or even of empty spines.
So okay, a personal library groaning with literary and other notable works can make you look good, but how do we know these tomes have been read?
The Japanese, apparently, have the word tsundoku, i.e. for those acquiring reading a lot of matter, but then allowing it to pile up, unread or merely leafed through. Far from describing a present-day phenomenon, the term appears to have been coined, according to Professor Andrew Gerstle of the University of London, back in 1879.
And every keen reader will likely recognise the quandary: if you’re reading a book that you’re not much enjoying, or finding it hard to get into, do you toss it to one side, or press on?
A weekly column ‘The books that made’ me in The Guardian newspaper includes, in its standard set of questions for writers: The book I couldn’t finish. Recent examples include commonly abandoned classics Moby Dick (discarded by both Lionel Shriver and André Aciman); James Joyce’s Ulysses (set aside by Susan Choi as well as by Elizabeth Gilbert). Also, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles (Sally Rooney); Henry James’s The Bostonians (Maggie O’Farrell – who also noted that ‘life is too short to waste time on books you don’t like’). Then there are some contemporary works around which there has been much discussion on their graphic content, including Bret Easton-Ellis’s American Psycho (abandoned by Isabella Allende) and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Meg Rossoff wasn’t keen).
Notably, in the same column in 2018, Yanagihara herself responded ‘Until two years ago, I finished everything, no matter how grimly. Then I realised I didn’t have to… and have been abandoning them ever since, most recently The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.’
Quite a number of people, it seems, come under this category. Knowing that writers themselves give up on books they’re reading might make us feel better about our own defeatist ways. Novelist and author Caryl Phillips, for example, stated: ‘I don’t really believe in finishing books that are boring you. Life’s too short. Those who claim virtue in actually getting to the end of it probably think they’re going to live for ever. I walk out of movies too.’
Phillips’s words echo those attributed to the celebrated — though, it transpires, often unfinishable — author James Joyce: ‘Life is too short to read bad books.’ A mantra for many (indeed, you can buy T-shirts with this on – though it’s not as good as my favourite ‘Don’t judge a book by its movie’).
And yet. There are reasons for pressing on in the hope matters will improve – the book came highly recommended; it’s an author I usually enjoy; I simply don’t like to feel defeated; it’s my book group choice; I paid a lot for the hardback! And so on. Not being able to finish a classic or highly-regarded work can make some of us feel guilty, however irrational that may be. Or perhaps we are fearful we’ll be shamed in the course of some intellectual conversation (the cure for this is age – it is indeed true that you start caring less about what others think as you get older).
Ebooks make it easier to gain data on which ones people do not finish. There is even an algorithm developed to estimate how far into bestsellers people actually read. The ‘Hawking Index’, developed by Professor Jordan Ellenberg of University of Wisconsin-Madison, is named after the physicist author of A Brief History of Time, famed as one of the most-purchased yet least-finished books. Incidentally, Dr Ellenberg admitted his methodology was ‘not remotely scientific’ but for ‘entertainment purposes only’. However, he didn’t let that stop him applying the principle to Amazon’s bestsellers.
Books with a high Hawking Index (HI), he found, included The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; Catching Fire (Hunger Games #2) by Suzanne Collins; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald; Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; the above-mentioned Moby Dick and Ulysses; and (even though it often seems to appear on many lists of favourite books, e.g. BBC Big Read) JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. In terms of non-fiction, there is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman; and Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, as well as, of course, Hawking’s not-very-brief A Brief History of Time.
Similarly, there are stats for ‘abandoned’ books on Goodreads. That is based on those who not only have marked a book as abandoned or unfinished, but have created a virtual ‘abandoned’ shelf in the first place – so all in all, it seems a pretty unreliable measure, too. It perhaps contains books that promised much by, again, being popular bestsellers and classics, but in some way disappointed the reader. On the ‘abandoned’ list we see many by-now familiar titles — Catch-22; The Goldfinch; E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, and so on.
How many of the above or other classics and bestsellers do you have on your shelves? And… have you read them?
In disclosure, looking around at my own shelves, I can spot Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates; Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum; The Book of Dave by Will Self; and Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (unlike many others, I did finish The Goldfinch though, yay!)… to name but a handful, all set aside before completion. Why are they still arranged on the shelf and not on sale in the charity shop? Well, maybe one day… In the meantime, perhaps they’ll look good in the background on Zoom. Not that I’m shallow or anything.
Jordan Ellenburg, ‘The Summer’s Most Unread Book Is…’ in The Wall Street Journal, 03 July 2014, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-summers-most-unread-book-is-1404417569
‘The books that made me’ series in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/books/series/books-that-made-me
‘Tsundoku, The art of buying books and never reading them’, BBC News, 29 July 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-44981013
Featured image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Stack of books by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels