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Must Great Unread Books haunt the gift-giving season?

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, books -- preferably those with wide girths, glossy covers and discount stickers -- fly off the shelves. Wrapped in neat, rectangular packages, they are handed to their recipients with the obligatory: "I heard it's a must-read."

Maybe so. But as with so many of the must-reads, these books become "need-to-reads" -- those that form towering piles by your bedside and gather dust on your shelves. Those that you intend to read, but never will. Those otherwise known as the Great Unread Books.

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Why so many books sell yet remain unread is one of publishing's most puzzling questions. One of the most recognized examples of the phenomenon is Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time Bantam, 224 pages, $16.95). Shortly after its publication in 1988, the book landed on The New York Times bestseller list, where it remained for more than a year. Worldwide, it sold more than 9 million copies.

But Hawking's masterpiece, which explores the origins of the universe, was never touted as a riveting read. Instead, it earned a reputation as the book that everyone intended -- or in some cases, pretended -- to read, but never did. At best, most people slogged through a few chapters before abandoning it. Even Hawking was aware of his book's widespread un-readability, prompting him to publish a much less formidable title in the fall of 2001, The Universe in a Nutshell (Bantam, 224 pages, $35).

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While experiments have been undertaken to measure the number of Great Unread Books, it's a fool's mission. Why? For most, the Great Unread Book is a source of deep embarrassment and guilt. Few readers, especially the serious ones, will readily admit that Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace makes a better doorstop than beach read.

The only documented attempt at measuring the phenomenon of the Great Unread Book came in 1995, when Michael Kinsley, then editor of The New Republic, stuck $5 coupons near the back of 70 books in Washington bookstores -- all were titles he suspected Washingtonians would claim to have read. These books included Strobe Talbott's Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control and The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong, by Ben J. Wattenberg. Perhaps fortunately for him, none of Kinsley's coupons was cashed in.

Beyond such experiments, to get evidence of the phenomenon, one need only press a handful of acquaintances to name some of those titles they have always intended to tackle. In my own survey of friends and family members, I learned that the following Great Books had never been cracked: Of Mice and Men, Ulysses, The Power Broker, Satanic Verses and Master of the Senate.

Why do so many blockbusters remain unread? For the most part, because they're unreadable.

Although so many of the Great Unread Books are indeed great works of literature, worthy of their prestigious prizes and critical acclaim, many of them are heavy going. One does not speed through Ulysses, for example. One slogs through.

I confess to having picked up Swann's Way, the first book of Marcel Proust's three-part masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past, several times. On the back of my copy, a Vintage classic, is a list of the book's many French prizes and a blurb hailing it as "one of the landmarks of world literature." Perhaps, but I've never managed to make it past page 12.

While I trust that there is a lot to be gained from reading Proust, I simply don't have the patience. From my experience in a university English class, I know I'm not alone. I'm willing to bet that more contemporary readers have tackled How Proust Can Change Your Life (Vintage, 208 pages, $12), by Alain De Botton, than Proust. De Botton extracted what he considered to be the best of Proust's 3,000-page magnum opus and shaped it into a self-help manual that landed on the best-seller list.

Also formidable for many readers are the Russian classics, such as works by Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Russian novels are beautifully written, but they're not a breeze to read; they're sometimes dreary, difficult to follow and extremely long. Perhaps one of the most universal Great Unread Books is War and Peace. The last time I picked it up, I abandoned it at Chapter 10 -- which, I must add, is only page 74 out of my Signet classic's 1,465 pages.

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Few readers -- from corporate executives to stay-at-home moms -- have the time to kick back in an armchair and devour a doorstop. Yet during the holiday season, it seems the heavier the book, the more weight it carries as a gift. Consider Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 727 pages, $28.95). Published in 1999, Wolfe's long-awaited novel topped Amazon.com's list of holiday gift ideas, and landed -- with a thud -- under many Christmas trees. But at 742 pages, the book, although witty and entertaining, was a time commitment, landing it in many readers' piles of contemporary Great Unreads.

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 592 pages, $26) suffered a similar fate last year. Although the novel was a best-seller selected by Oprah's book club, those who didn't love it didn't finish it.

Beyond fiction, one of the largest categories of Great Unread Books is biography. Although personal histories are often filled with fascinating facts, they are not often page-turners. Still, they make for an easy gift for those shoppers pressed for time and ideas. The reasoning goes something like this: Mom loves Madeleine Albright, therefore she will love Madame Secretary: A Memoir (Miramax, 562 pages, $27.95) -- and even if she doesn't, it will look lovely on her bookshelf.

This holiday season, my prediction for the Greatest Unread Book is Living History, by Hillary Rodham Clinton (Simon & Schuster, 562 pages, $28), which, incidentally, is being marketed by Amazon.com with Madame Secretary for a sale price of $36.37 for both books. Released in a blizzard of publicity, the book resulted in blockbuster sales for its publisher. But having read it, I am certain that only die-hard fans of the former first lady will be entertained enough to reach the finish. Chances are, most people will make straight for the scandalous parts and return the book to their shelves.

Most Great Unread Books rarely leave the bookshelves. But seeing them standing there -- their spines forming such an aesthetically pleasing line of colors and text -- there's no denying the fact that they look good. Bookshelves have long been considered ornamental, and if the Great Unread Book has any function, it's to make our shelves appear attractive. And, consequently, to make us look well read.

Many people see bookshelves as barometers of their owners' taste, experience and breadth of knowledge. Which is why, in the interest of impressing visitors, readers often fill their shelves with Great Unread Books. Perhaps the most humorous evidence of this practice is the home-library consultant, whose sole purpose is to charge exorbitant sums to fill the shelves of the well-to-do with socially acceptable, intellectual and impressive titles. While library consultants are an extreme example of literary pretensions, their existence is evidence of the widespread belief that displaying great books makes us look great.

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From our first English class, we're taught by instructors that there are certain books that simply must by read. Then, as we get older, it's the critics and publishers who hype the must-reads -- particularly around the holidays. But as mature readers in tune with our likes and dislikes, perhaps it's OK to admit that there are those books that we have never read, and never will.

Until I retire, there's a pretty good chance I won't read War and Peace. Until then, it will make for a great doorstop.

Molly Knight is a reporter in The Sun's Annapolis bureau and former assistant to the books editor. She majored in English at the University of Virginia and earned a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Sun, she wrote for publications including The Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times.


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