Sometimes I wonder how many books I've read in my four decades. Thousands, anyway — maybe tens of thousands — since the first one, about a choo-choo, when I was not quite 3. Right up to Anne Carson's “Autobiography of Red,” finished yesterday, a book that had sat mocking me on my bookshelf for 12 years, now at last passed over that invisible boundary between books I have read and books I intend to read, someday, as soon as I finish this one, and this other one, and these.
It's the books I have not read but want to that make me anxious. These books would fill a library, and do — several, in fact. Many of them taunt me with their very titles: Here is Heidegger's "Being and Time" — oh, sure, I've read the stuff about the hammer. I made it through "Swann's Way" and part of the second volume of Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" (demurely mistranslated "Within a Budding Grove" in the edition I have). There sit the remaining volumes, purchased in a delusional fit of optimism 15 years ago or more.
Of course, there's something backhanded in admitting you've not read all of Proust. If you say, "Would you believe I still haven't read 'Finnegans Wake,'" everyone knows you have read "Ulysses." I have indeed read "Ulysses," but I'd hope I didn't read it — and "Moby-Dick," "Gravity's Rainbow," "The Divine Comedy," "Paradise Lost," Blake's "Milton," "Absalom, Absalom!" — just in order to be able to say I have. And I didn't — not "just." But that's part of it. Of course it is. I just told you I've read those books.
The "books I haven't read" lament is, in fact, in part, a form of bragging about the books you have read. But it's also a memento mori. Instead of a skull on my desk, I keep a pile of unread books. Among them is Burton's "The Anatomy of Melancholy," whose cover, in the NYRB Classics edition, depicts a skull on a desk. Mary Ruefle writes in "Merengue": "What book will you be reading when you die? / If it's a good one, you won't finish it. / If it's a bad one, what a shame."
Stephane Mallarmé's quote — "The flesh is sad, alas! and I have read all the books" — is hyperbole now. "Who reads must choose," as Harold Bloom puts it in "The Western Canon," "since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read." There is not even enough time to read everything that was published last week.
One consequence of this overabundance is that we reread less. The overwrought classics professor of Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" says, "It is better to know one book intimately than a hundred superficially." But then, it is better to know 100 books intimately than only one. "Hominem unius libri timeo," as Aquinas is reputed to have said.
If you're reading mostly contemporary literature, you're doing it wrong. (I make an exception for those whose reading of contemporary literature, like mine, pays the bills.) Young poets are the worst, in my experience (young people and poets are the worst at a disproportionate number of activities, so it's a deadly combination). They lap up whatever period style Iowa happens to be regurgitating at the moment — for several years it's been a flat ellipticism — but George Herbert or Alexander Pope makes them drowsy.
On the other hand, the older I get, the less I care about certain unread monuments in my path. If I wiggle past William Gaddis' "The Recognitions," I can make it to David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" before sundown. Am I really going to finish "The Faerie Queene"? I read 100 pages of Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" before deciding that decent secondary criticism would do me just fine. And, friends, can I just say? The Upanishads are awfully boring. They really are.
There are also the books we pretend to have read, or that we know backward and forward despite never having cracked their spines. "Reading," notes the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in "The Field of Cultural Production," "is only one means among others, even among professional readers, of acquiring the knowledge that is mobilized in reading." Anyone who has attended graduate school will understand this statement immediately. In David Lodge's novel "Changing Places," scholars play a game called Humiliation, whose participants admit to classics they've never read until so egregious a lacuna is named that a winner is crowned. One character finally confesses he hasn't read "Hamlet." He wins, but his tenure is revoked. I haven't read "Changing Places."
I haven't read "To the Lighthouse." I haven't read "Jane Eyre." I haven't read Byron's "Don Juan," not the whole thing anyway. Now I'm just running my eyes along my bookshelves: I want to read "War and Peace," Stendhal's "The Red and the Black," Balzac's "Père Goriot," Adorno's "Negative Dialectics" and, of course, a host of less imposing books: Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age," Eileen Myles' "Inferno," various tales of Poe's, Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels. Biographies of Kierkegaard, T.S. Eliot, Nietzsche; essays by Jonathan Edwards, Geoffrey Hill, Annie Dillard, William Hazlitt, Trotsky, Samuel Johnson, V.S. Naipaul, John McPhee, Guy Davenport. Stories by Chekhov, Tolstoy, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Eudora Welty. Plato, Sophocles, Aristotle. Lucretius, Epictetus, Martial. "The Pillow Book," "The Poem of the Cid," "Parzival." I never finished "Walden" and "The Interpretation of Dreams" and "Don Quixote" (Auden once began a lecture on "Don Quixote" by drunkenly pronouncing that he hadn't finished it and he doubted anyone in the audience had either). I have a condensed but still immense version of "Pepys' Diary." I haven't read it. I know someone who's read all 19 volumes twice.
"By this art you may contemplate the variation of the twenty-three letters," says Robert Burton, supplying Borges with the epigraph to "The Library of Babel." Out of these few characters, everything that can possibly be expressed, from the sheerest gibberish to ultimate truths. Gnomic noise, poetic passions, scripture and lies, intimacies and expansions.
What are we hoping to find, in these infinite reading lists? The other we are; different ways of looking at the world. Different from what, though? I am already only what I've read. What I haven't read is what I will be. "What is there of real Life," Coleridge asks in a notebook entry, "in all its goings on, Trades, Manufacturies, high Life, low life, animate & inanimate, that is not in books."
Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."
The ever-growing list
Everyone has a list of books they've been meaning to read. Here's a sampling of Michael Robbins'. What's on your list? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
→To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
→Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
→Don Juan by George Gordon, Lord Byron
→War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy