Tag Archives: Literature

The sadness of the unread book

Having mentioned the copy of The Ring and the Book that I bought in a used bookstore some years back, I took it down the other night to start reading.

I’ve always liked Robert Browning, and I’m enjoying the poem so far; his Shakespeare-redolent language does a lot to mitigate the hyper chattiness of the poet over his melodramatic subject of adultery, jealousy and murder, which he covers in about 500 pages but would have been dispatched in this day and age in an hour of Law & Order (here’s the full text of the poem on the Web).

The sad thing about this particular copy of the book, dated 1890 and part of the Riverside Edition of Browning’s works, is that it appears that no one has ever read it. The first few pages had slight pencil marks at some of the lines, but I’m somewhere around page 100 now and they’ve long since disappeared.

And now I’m running into the most telltale sign of all: uncut pages. The paper’s quite old and very fragile, and it’s difficult to separate the pages cleanly, or even turn some of them, without them tearing and falling apart.
Aside from the certain knowledge I have by way of Antiques Roadshow that the value of this late 19th-century book has now diminished because of this, I can’t help but think how lamentable it is that this book sat for so many years on shelves without being looked into.

I can picture it new, in a stack perhaps of the complete Browning offered, say, for Christmas of 1890, the year after the poet’s death, in a bookshop somewhere in Boston. It’s bought for a student just matriculating at Harvard, say, or by a young swain picking it up for his lady love, whom he believes has the making of a great poet in her.

Or it was bought by a husband for his wife, who always loved the Sonnets from the Portuguese written by Browning’s wife, and while the wife loved getting the book, she found it dull going and quietly put it aside.

The Ring and the Book was a very popular poem in its day and I don’t think its repute had waned in 1890. But for whatever reason, this copy never got read.

It’s made me think of many of the books on my own shelves that I’ve not made it through, or which came to me in a secondhand way. The unread book on a shelf has the same melancholy as the remainder bin: Someone spent a lot of time putting this together, he or she sought to reach other people, and — up it goes on the shelf, not to move again until the a sale of yard or estate.

It’s been nearly 120 years since this copy of the book first saw daylight, and now its time has come at last. I pledge to read it — actually, keep reading it — to finish the artistic circle the author begins to draw when he sets forth on the authorial waters. I’m reminded of the famous experiment Michael Kinsley ran some years ago when he placed notes in random copies of several popular best-selling books to see whether anyone actually read them (he talks about it in this interview; scroll down a bit and you’ll see it).

And to this day, no one ever saw the notes. They still sit unseen on shelves around the country, awaiting the ministrations of a future reader. Here’s hoping they don’t have to wait 118 years.

The books we haven’t read

Here’s something from Britain’s Telegraph that was great fun to read (and watch, too): A survey asking some well-known literary types what canonical work of literature they hadn’t read, and were ashamed to admit it.

The video for this thing is fun, with people such as Simon Sebag Montefiore, celebrated for his books about Stalin, admitting he’s never read Wuthering Heights, which didn’t stop him from winning the highest marks in a school class years ago for his paper on the Bronte novel.

The posts on this piece are even better. There are a lot of them, and several writers and books keep coming back as the most unread, and while I expected Joyce and Proust to pop up a lot, I was a little surprised to see Dickens come up repeatedly as someone readers pretended to read but assiduously avoided.

Joyce: As for Ulysses, which comes up often here, I’ve read it once and have almost finished reading it a second time. I decided to read it again because I couldn’t possibly catch all the references, and many sections took very slow, careful reading to become clear.

But I loved it; there is a great deal of music in Joyce, both literal and in the way the language sounds, and I found it intoxicating. Few other books I can think of really put you in the sights, sounds and scents of a specific place like this one does, nor do many authors really give you interior monologues that are as accurate, that is to say, ambiguous, as Joyce does.

To me, it’s an astounding achievement, even though there’s quite a bit of it that’s still obscure to me. Makes it worth reading again, to my mind. But I haven’t tried Finnegans Wake (though the American Scholar had a good piece earlier this year about a Finnegans Wake reading group; maybe that’s the best way to read Ulysses, too.)

Dickens: Great Expectations is my favorite novel of his, though I haven’t read his favorite, which was David Copperfield, nor have I gotten to Bleak House. I have enjoyed Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, and his American Sketches. I love his work, though, and am looking forward to reading more (a good TV adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewit whetted my appetite for that novel, so maybe that’s next.)

Faulkner: He comes in for abuse in these posts, but I thought Light in August was magnificent. Like Joyce, difficult to read, but also like him, absolutely redolent of a time and place. I like to say, like the preacher’s wife, “Now you see what I have bore,” but no one seems to get the reference, so I’ll stop. Haven’t read The Sound and the Fury, though.

Austen: A frequent topic in the posts. I’ve only read Pride and Prejudice, which I enjoyed. Liked the Sense and Sensibility movie that Emma Thompson did, though.

Woolf: No one in the posts seems to like Orlando (again, a good movie, with Tilda Swinton); I didn’t mind it, but I liked Mrs. Dalloway much better. I love the opening pages in particular, which also are steeped in a specific London.

Melville: Poor old Herman. Everybody in the posts seems to have ignored Moby-Dick, which I greatly enjoyed the second time around. During the first, I found the whaling and digressions really tedious, but now I like them.

This, too, is a deep picture of a particular culture alive at a particular time in American history, and it’s fascinating.

Two other things about this little contest: Many of the works resisted here are long-winded novels of an earlier time, and because technology allows us to have much more immediate entertainment, the draw of these books for their diversionary value is much smaller than it used to be.

If you really want to read something like Moby-Dick, you have to plan it, you have to give it time, and you have to let it speak to you on its own terms. You can’t demand that it interest you right away; many of these books aren’t designed this way.

Henry James’s novels, for instance, I find quite difficult to read because his characters speak what strikes me as nothing approaching actual speech even in late Victorian and early Edwardian high society, and he tends to spend great swaths of time mulling over very small events. But even with my distaste for his aspect of his art, I liked The Golden Bowl, tough as it was to get through (the movie’s not bad, either).

It’s not exactly my kind of novel, but some of the descriptive writing is astonishingly beautiful, and the overwhelming sense of erotic tension throughout makes it worth putting up with his longueurs.

The other thing worth noting is that many of the books we have read for classes, and even on which we have written papers, aren’t in our conscious memory anymore and so have to be re-read. Most of the books I’ve mentioned reading here I read quite a while ago, and many of their details have gone into hiding in the deep recesses of my brain.

But I think good reading is often about re-reading; some of the greatest works of our literature require repeated encounters. If you’re really interested in a painter like Cezanne, for instance, you’d do as Rilke did and go back again and again to study the paintings. You wouldn’t hear the Beethoven Ninth just once, like it, and decide you never needed to hear it again. Same thing with great writing. Truly understanding it requires renewed acquaintance.

One last little postscript: Someone who posts on the Telegraph story says he or she is Canadian but ignores Canadian literature. That’s too bad, because there goes Robertson Davies, one of my favorite writers.

Tempest-Tost, for instance, is a lovely summer read, and his next-to-last novel, Murther and Walking Spirits, is a good character study as well as a nifty historical fiction. And then there’s The Lyre of Orpheus, which deals with a young composer. Davies was a terrific writer, and his fellow Great White Northerner is missing out.

Anyone out there want to ‘fess up? Take a look at the story, the video, and the posts, and post here: What :”great book” haven’t you read, and why?