Bookcase or showcase?

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.

Got a tsundoku problem?

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).

A classic, yet on many ‘abandoned books’ lists

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).

Moby Dick
Giving you a whale of a time or one to keep at bay?

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?

Here’s one I did finish earlier

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,
‘The books that made me’ series in The Guardian
‘Tsundoku, The art of buying books and never reading them’, BBC News, 29 July 2018,


Featured image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
Stack of books by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

27 thoughts on “Bookcase or showcase?

  1. When I was young – and sighted – I’d finish that book, no matter what. Now that I’ve grasped the fact that life isn’t forever, and have the advantage of picking – or discarding – books as I please (didn’t the choices get many?), if I don’t like the book, I don’t read it. A few years back I wrote a post with the title” bad review, why torture yourself?” that tackled the same question – if you’re not enjoying what you’re reading, why finish the book? As for bookshelves… well, after I became blind, my books – because I’m the only one who reads in my house – was dismantled, the books boxed. Some got *cough* moldy, and was thrown away – I know, the disrespect! – and the rest are still boxed in a dingy basement waiting their run with the green dust.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That article is great – I do wonder at people who leave reviews (inevitably, generally bad ones) or books they couldn’t finish. You raise another issue or ‘respect’ for physical books – some are passionate about no folded-down corners, cracked spines, books in baths, etc., whilst others are laid back.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael Graeme Jul 24, 2020 — 4:51 pm

    Okay, let’s see: Hardy’s Tess, and the Moonstone – enjoyed both of those. Brief History of Time, finished that, though I only understood one word in ten. Gatsby and Lord of the Rings, loved both of those. Foucault’s Pendulum, enjoyed that, though I remember it as rather a daunting tome and I may have skipped some of the denser bits. Moby Dick and Ulysses are on my list to try, but they also have a daunting reputation.

    Plenty of others I’ve started and abandoned, A Suitable Boy and The Silmarillion come to mind, also several novels by Van Der Post whose titles I forget, and others too many to mention. I agree there’s no sense wasting your time on a book if you can’t connect with it. I sometimes find I can come back to a book though and “get it” at the second go, so it may be a question of our disposition at the time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A Suitable Boy is being serialised on BBC 1 Sunday evenings. I have not read the book. I’m enjoying the colour, the settings, the humour and the story line. I shall probably be hard put to keep track of all the characters! I loved Vikram Seth’s an Equal Music a good while ago and planned to read more of his books, but still haven’t!


    2. Congratulations for finishing A Brief History of Time! Hope the one word in ten was illuminating. I am another Moby Dick – almost a classic for people not completing it, though those that do seem blown away by it. Never finished a Salman Rushdie either – tried several. Agree with re-trying certain books – especially if one has more life experience the second time – though it may be a case of ‘three strikes and you’re out’.


  3. Interesting theme. I’ve abandoned quite a few books in the last ten years, though I can’t remember their titles! Oh wait — this year I stopped reading Coetzee’s novel Disgrace after 40 or so pages. Wasn’t thrilled with it.

    Neil S.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Haven’t tried Coatzee – though Booker Prize winners and me have a patchy history – The Luminaries, Wolf Hall, Life of Pi… all by the wayside, sadly.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. At our weekly Teams meetings, two of the Group’s Professors have bookshelves groaning under the weight of books behind them, a third appears to be broadcasting from his study and there are vertical stacks of books everywhere ….. I guess they’re not just for show but they do look impressive. As for my own modest bookshelf I’m afraid it’s not visited that often, I’m very much a start don’t finish book reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have catch-22 purchased from eBay but yet to read it, a good book?


      1. Oh dear, personally, think I wanted to like it more than I did. I did enjoy some of the vignettes (it’s pretty much a series of vignettes), and overall agree with its sentiments on war (from my comfy armchair position!) – but didn’t laugh that much!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Same here – one Law professor not only had the floor-to-ceiling shelves, they were glass fronted and he was poised in a leather chair!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This post triggered me lol my mother-in-law once accused me of having a bookshelf full of unread books! I was highly offended, as I was an English Ed major and had taught high school English for a number of years by then…
    Anywho, I cannot abandon a book. I’ll always read it through to the end so I can give it a proper review. Although, ironically, I’m reading a book now that I just cannot seem to get through: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Have you read it?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I read White Teeth when it first came out and loved it, but lots of talked about books I have been unable to get into.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I am another one that wasn’t that keen on White Teeth, though I did finish it. There was a lot of buzz around it, and I see some re-appraisals 20 years after publication. For me, the start was promising but the characters didn’t seem to develop well and the latter part felt rushed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s slow going for me and I’ve put it down. It’s been so acclaimed that I will probably pick it back up later.


  6. You’re so right! I do that for all virtual appearances, try to see what books they read. And when I’m in a virtual meeting, I check my bookshelves, see if I’ve organized them!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have been known to stash certain books out of sight, too!


  7. A fascinating, challenging, post. First, may I say there are only two books I have abandoned – each after 200 pages. These are James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur.
    Now to your lists:
    Moby Dick, Ulysses, Tess of the D’Urbevilles, The Great Gatsby – all on my shelves and read.
    Lord of the Rings – on my shelves unread.
    I have numerous other classics, both read and unread.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well done for getting 200 pages into Finnegan’s Wake – the language looks too experimental for me, and I haven’t even attempted it. Moby Dick was another fail for me – is it worth retrying?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I really can’t remember Moby Dick – too long ago. The reason I persevered as far as I could with Finnegan was because I enjoy bilingual puns in English/French. 6 languages was far too testing.


  8. Smiles i Don’t
    Buy Books
    They Kill Trees
    Internet is Erasing
    That ‘Tragedy’ yet
    i still Consume one
    Each Sunday Dancing
    Masked In Barnes And Noble Listening to my Favorite Meditative Music
    In Ecstatic Autotelic
    Flow of Frission
    Heaven in Deed
    Plateau of Peak
    Experience Real
    For me And Hehe
    Free Entertainment
    For The Starbucks
    Crowd for it is not
    Often they See
    A 248-Pound
    60 Year-Old
    Dude Floating
    In A Book Store
    Rather BE A Dancing
    Library than
    Locked in
    Prison Freedom
    Is Never Bound By Covers😁 Or Sealed

    -Just Another
    Modern Bible
    Writer Dancing
    Singing Free out
    Of Dusty Covers🐸🕺🎶

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, your playful use of words and imagery is enrapturing. Thank you for the pleasurable consonance of ‘ecstatic autotelic’ and image of being a dancing library alone.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. SMiLes in Returns thanks
        For the Flowing Poetic
        Stellar Kind Compliment
        Poetry Speaks
        To Souls
        All Human
        All that’s Left
        Is ‘Naked Dance
        And Song’ As Wisdom’s
        Truth is Always a Practice
        oF LiGHT out
        Of DarK
        And A New
        Dance And Song
        Is Essence of
        Do Life
        In A Way
        LoVE iN A Do
        WHere Copyright
        Souls Never Worry
        As Art Retains
        Labels SPiRiTS
        HeARTS ReNeWeD iN
        LiGHT of Beauty’s
        CouRaGE Wisdom
        Life for
        The Present
        Dance And Song
        Now Giving Sharing
        SMiLes Totally Free☀️😊


  9. Lord of the Rings was the first book I did not finish reading when everyone was talking about it – before it appeared on the big screen. I would have tried to plod on, but to my relief the owner of the book was going off to university and wanted it back. It was years before I realised I wasn’t at school or college any more, if I didn’t want to finish a book I didn’t have to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also cannot get along with fantasy – including Lord of the Rings. It is liberating to know that a. you don’t have to finish a book and b. you don’t have to like it even if everyone seems to be raving about it.

      Liked by 1 person

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