Margaret at Transblawg says in her latest post:

Frau Kohlehydrat has sent me a meme, or as the Germans call it ein Stöckchen, or as the Austrians including Frau Kohlehydrat call it, ein Steckerl: to list the ten books that are gathering dust on my shelves because I bought them but haven’t read them.

I don’t usually do these, but this one seems highly suitable as I have even more than ten unread books. And for years, when I was teaching, I used to buy all sorts of books just to imagine how nice it would be to have time to read them.

She lists her ten books, then says: “I am now supposed to pass this Steckerl on… If they wish then, to: languagehat (but I’m sure Steve has read all his books)…”

Ah ha ha ha ha! I am closing in on 5,000 books (though to be fair the list includes a couple of hundred maps and some other non-book items), and I’m quite sure I haven’t read anywhere near half of them. I long ago came to terms with the fact that I’ll never manage to read all my books, but I love having them anyway, and I never know which one I’ll suddenly decided I have to read. Anyway, I like the idea of listing a few, so below the fold are ten books that I’m really glad I own and I will definitely get around to reading… really!

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Age of Jackson (1945)
My brother was deaccessioning this book and I grabbed it. It’s a classic work on early-19th-century U.S. history, and even though I know going in that Schlesinger is far too favorable to that murderous bastard Jackson, I’m looking forward to reading it.
Otis Cary, From a Ruined Empire: Letters—Japan, China, Korea 1945-46 (1975)
I gave this to my father for Christmas over 20 years ago, and now that he’s no longer with us I’ve retrieved it for my own reading. My father went to Japan as part of the occupation not long after the period covered by this book and I was born there, so I have a personal interest in the impressions of such men as Wm. Theodore de Bary and Donald Keene back when they were young servicemen who had studied Japanese language and culture and saw the ruined empire with knowing eyes.
W. Bruce Lincoln, In war’s dark shadow: the Russians before the Great War (1983)
Lincoln is one of my favorite historians, both a good scholar and a good writer, and I recently acquired his trilogy of books on the history of Russia before and after WWI and the revolutions of 1917. This will probably be the first of these books that I get to, and after I read it I’ll go on to Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution 1914-1918 and Red victory: a history of the Russian Civil War.
Elias Canetti, Crowds and power (1962)
I found this in a bookstore in Providence, RI (I can always remember where I bought books); it’s a book I’ve known about for many years, and it’s one of the ones I’m sure I’ll actually read. One of these days.
William Gaddis, J.R. (1975)
A daunting modern classic, but if I can handle Joyce I’m sure I can handle Gaddis.
Dmitrii Bykov, Orfografiya [Orthography] (2003)
I wrote about it here.
Leonid Girshovich, Subbota Navsegda [Saturday Forever] (2001)
Another difficult modernist work of the kind that intrigues me. This review (in Russian) says it’s “built on allusions to world culture, with a remarkable interweaving of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish works and symbols. The pages of the book are rich in quotes from various works of world literature, at times in the original languages. Girshovich aids the reader by scattering the complicated text with a multitude of footnotes.” Laugh if you will, but that sounds good to me!
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon (1999)
Songdog not only highly recommended this book to me, he lent me his personal copy. What’s another 900+ pages to an omnivore like me?
Seth Lerer, Error and the academic self : the scholarly imagination, medieval to modern (2002)
Discussed here (with table of contents).
Halldor Laxness, Independent people (1946)
This book got Laxness a Nobel Prize, and ever since I read Brad Leithauser’s proselytizing rave in NYRB over a decade ago I’ve wanted to read it. (That review is what got this guy started on Laxness; go there for help finding his books.) I found a copy (ex-library, but in good shape) of the original U.S. edition at The Odyssey Bookshop recently and snatched it up.

I’m not going to “pass on the meme,” but if anyone feels like doing a similar list, please link to it in the comments; I always like a peek into other people’s book collections!


  1. I loved “J.R.” In all sincerity, it is a fun book. Gaddis’ reputation as impenetrable is completely undeserved, he’s far easier to read than Joyce. If you read Pynchon for fun you should have no trouble with Gaddis. Once you get past the first 50 pages and get the hang of the voices of the different characters it becomes fairly easy. He’s also a wickedly funny writer. “The Recognitions” is actually one of my top ten unread books, but I’ve only owned it for four years so there’s time. I’ve had a copy of Cortazar’s “Rayuela” for almost 20 years and still haven’t managed to read beyond page 10. I also have a number of Japanese novels I could have read 15 years ago when my Japanese was still decent but would be a real slog today.

  2. I probably have 300–500 lbs.of unread books.
    The most interesting one’s nearby are Althusser’s madhouse autobiography, Boylan’s “Thoth: The Hermes of Egypt”, Ridley’s “Evolution”, Binschwanger’s “Money and Magic”, Simmel’s “The Philosophy of Money”, “The Tale of Genji”, and Adorno’s “Minima Moralia”.
    I bought the Thoth book by mistake looking for a different book about Seth, and I increasingly dislike Adorno. The others are on the “maybe sometime”, axept that Genji is on the “must read sometime” list. Simmel and Binschwanger are a project that might be too much work.
    Althusser’s autobiog is very funny and very sad. Not at all what you’d expect.

  3. “ones”

  4. Paul Clapham says

    I don’t own any unread books. I have an excellent public library within walking distance of my house. Of course that forces me to read the books once I get them: for example I am working my way through “1491” because “Waiting for the Macaws” is on its way.

  5. I can only speak for Cryptonomicon and I must say it was a very entertaining book that teaches you quite a lot about cryptography. It’s amusing and reads a lot more quickly than most 900+ page books I’ve encountered.

  6. Ah yes, The Tale of Genji—I probably would have put that on the list if I’d thought of it. I have two translations, and I just know I’ll get to one of them eventually!

  7. I tend to stockpile foreign books in an effort to make me guilty enough to learn the languages they’re written in properly. But mostly it’s Richardson’s Clarissa which haunts my nightmares. I’ve had a copy for over twenty years and I’ve never got past page 10 (of 2,000). I try to hide it on out of the way shelves, but it’s just too damn big to evade the attention of my guilty conscience. There it is again, beckoning forlornly, its pages turning yellow and then brown with age. I’ve contemplated bricking it up in the attic like the first Mrs. Rochester, but deep down I know death will be the only real escape. That or reading the bloody thing.

  8. Hmmm, how does Stöckchen come to mean “meme”?

  9. You will fly through Cryptonomicon. It’s a very fast read, even at 900 pages.
    As for Orfografiya, I finally bought a copy from ozon because I couldn’t find it in the states, but I haven’t had the time to read it yet. Definitely looking forward to it.

  10. Independent People rocks. Read it. You’re into names of sheep diseases, right? There are great sheep diseases in Independent People. Also lots of coffee drinking.
    Now I will go count my unread books, some of which are other Laxness books that I bought because I liked Independent People so much.

  11. Oy. I wouldn’t know where to start. A bunch of journalism books, including one on investigative journalism at Mother Jones and another on the history of the NYT. The Illiad. But it may be a month of Sundays till I get to any of them because I (ulp) sort of promised myself I’d read Remembrance of Times Past and that may take a leetle while.

  12. Yeah, J.R. is a lot of fun. I didn’t finish it but really enjoyed the half or so of it that I read and will be going back to it sometime before too long. Do you have a lot of books that persist in a partially-read state? Do you count these among your unread books?

  13. Do you have a lot of books that persist in a partially-read state?
    Oh, yes very much indeed. I could make a top-ten list of those, too. Proust would certainly head the list.

  14. I have more than 6,000 books at home, and people always ask, “Gee, have you read all these books?” To which I reply, “I never bought a book I didn’t want to read.”

  15. Hundreds of unread books, hundreds of partly read books, and a few that I thank my younger self for buying and preserving in earwig-chewed boxes till I was ready. Among these, Carl Darling Buck’s Comparative grammar of Greek and Latin, which these days has pride of place at my bedside (along with seventy other delights, of course).

  16. I got 1/3 through the Magic Mountain in 1963 or 1964. It sits now on a shelf in the next room over, more or less where I finally put it. I can find it instantly.

  17. I certainly enjoyed Laxness’s other books, but have yet to read Independent People.
    If I weren’t in the middle of packing up my library I’d easily have a list of ten interesting unread books for you.
    Despite trying to rid myself of as many books as possible, I still bought another book last weekend. an old thin hardback, Leningrad: A Short Guide. Printed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. 1959. So there it is. a book I haven’t read and haven’t packed yet.

  18. “Leningrad: A SHort Guide” is such a Stalinist-sounding title. I don’t know why. I guess it’s like a quick digest for lower-level cadre, who need to be assured that a lot of dialectical subtleties have been simplified ofr their sakes.

  19. This is a cruel challenge when I’m thousands of miles away from my library, but I thought it was interesting!
    Here’s mine.

  20. I couldn’t get past page 100 of JR five years ago. I guess I should sit down and try it again. I found it a lot harder than Joyce, who gives you signposts.
    Proust I conquered a couple of years ago, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so proud in my life. It was like climbing Everest. And worth it, actually. ‘Tale of Genji’? I couldn’t even get through the abridged volume, I found it unspeakably dull. Seth Lerer’s a fine writer, though, in the Auerbach / Peter Dronke tradition.
    Partially finished mammoth tomes: ‘The Decline of the West’, Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Art’, the ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’. Vollman’s ‘Bright and Risen Angels’. Barely touched: ‘Infinite Jest’. John Aubrey’s prose miscellanies. Not to mention the works of Horace… really must get around to that one properly soon.

  21. Lee’s comment reminds me of a remark overheard by an acquaintance of an acquaintance in England, when the removal men were about to pack all his books. One said to the other, ‘I don’t know why he couldn’t have read this lot before he moved’.

  22. Joyce gives signposts?
    Have you attempted Finnegan’s Wake?

  23. No, but I’m quite familiar with Finnegans Wake, which one doesn’t read–one refers to it.

  24. Burn! (Actually, one does read the Wake, but usually in very small chunks; I find it helps a great deal to read it aloud.)

  25. Steve:
    Your brother WHAT !!! the book …..
    With my best British accent I say:
    Really !

  26. Proust cheated by calling it one book. Faulkner should have called “The Yoknapatawpha Chronicle” a single book.
    I’ll add Musil’s “Man without Qualities”, which I think deserves more attention and which I must read.

  27. The way to read Finnegan’s is in a group. There’s a group in Somerville MA who’s been plugging away for 10 years now. Seems to me the right way to read it:

  28. In case no-one has answered how Stöckchen comes to mean meme, it means a stick you throw for a dog.

  29. I missed by one day the famous New York FW reading group when I was last in the city (mid September 2002). I have taken part in other FW groups in the UK—generally a bunch of people all as ignorant as each other (including me) not mutually illuminating the text much—but having a good time, nonetheless.
    BTW, in case my use of the word ‘refer’ was unclear, I meant it in the sense one refers to a dictionary, or the Bible, rather than ‘name-drop’. The way one really gets to grips with the text is to read books about it, while referring back: FW is essentially a book-generating machine. (Reading aloud is fun, though, and I enjoy in parts the Naxos recording of about 1/4 of the text).

  30. My brother was once the book page editor of a major newspaper–he got sometimes 20-30 books a day in his mail every week. He told me one time that he could easily read 7 books a day with no problems, plus retain all he read. I believed him; he grew up in my grandmother’s Carnegie Library and was reading by the time he was 5, the little genius; he once told me he learned to read because our father kept a dictionary by the toilet in the bathroom and my brother said he opened it up one day and started reading it from A to Zed. It became his passion: the reading of dictionaries.
    So, let’s see, if you can read half the books a day my brother read–3.5, it will only take you somewhere around 5 years to read 5000 books. You’ve probably already read a thousand or so of that 5 thou, so, heck, let’s say you can read all the books you’ve never read in 4 years. There ya go. Remember, Reading is FUNdemental. I used to work in advertising so I love that tagline. Not reading is DUMBdemental.
    I am currently sitting up in a king-size loftbed surrounded by 28 books that I am currently reading as simultaneously as possible.
    So, l hat, old pal, put down that blog and pick up one of those unread books–you’ll get a lot more value from reading the book than writing your blog–though, I demand you not do what I say because I enjoy checking out your blog everyday. Except, I haven’t checked the hat section lately. I almost bought an Ecuadorian Panama hat the other day–and you were in my mind as I pondered it–so weak and wearily–though on catching the price, $125, I decided I’d wait until the next time I’m in Hermasillo, Mexico, when I can get one from the women who make them down there, a Mexican cowboy Panama, for $15. Hat’s off to the hat trick, mad hatters. Did you know a union strike ruined the once-dominant Danbury, Connecticut, hat-making industry?
    Ur fiend,

  31. Proust cheated by calling it one book.
    Proust did a lot of cheating, badum bum! (Seriously, I’m done with Swann’s Way and it didn’t take too long, if you don’t count all the time spent hurling the book across the room and yelling, “For god’s sake, Marcel, go out and buy yourself a few more periods!”)

  32. “Man W/o Qualities” has been on my partially-read list for many years now — have delved into it 3 or 4 times over the past decade and a half, never keep it together much past the first hundred.

  33. michael farris says

    I’ll just put Tale of Genji and ‘nights and days’ (noce i dni) by maria dąbrowska on my ‘to read’ list and ‘eden’ by stanisław lem on my ‘started, but reading other things before I finish’ list.
    I also have lots of (mostly genre) fiction in languages I don’t read fluenty hoping that that will spur me on to greater reading ability, hasn’t worked yet, but it’s not stopping me from adding to that stack.

  34. My feeling is that someone who read 7 books a day is like someone who has 7 lovers every evening. Eventually you’d start grouping them in large categories because it was too much work to remember their specifics.

  35. There’s something to be said for the ‘7 lover’ theory, though…

  36. I just fear being remembered as “Short blondish guy #115, April 6 #3”.

  37. Re. Stöckchen, thanks Margaret!

  38. Paul Clapham says

    I tell a lie… I DO have an unread book on my shelf! It’s Один день Ивана Денисовича, which I bought as a student these 30 years ago and never got around to reading. I’m off for a month vacation soon, so I will take it (and my Russian grammar and dictionary) along.

  39. Here’s my list, limited to language-related books only.
    Cryptonomicon – two thumbs up!
    I found Independent People interesting but gloomy.

  40. Nice list, and it reminds me I want to get that Ostler book (so I can add to the list of unread books).
    If I didn’t like gloomy books, I wouldn’t be a fan of Russian literature!

  41. Someone mentioned a book by Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, but the one that’s been on my shelf for many years is Ulysses. I like to type entire books into my computer and have them on a flash drive; handy for traveling. This would be the only way I could get through this book. I’ve talked to several other readers who say they never made it through Ulysses either.
    I suppose I’m the opposite of the reader who goes through seven books a day.

  42. I like to type entire books into my computer and have them on a flash drive; handy for traveling.
    I think I see your problem (as the condemned Irish counter-revolutionary volunteered, looking straight up at the stalled blade of the guillotine). Don’t type them in. There must be a quicker way!
    In fact, I confess to having both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (no apostrophe in that title) on my PDA. Complements the three hard copies of Ulysses that I keep disposed judiciously around the place. I confess: it is one of my few read novels, in recent years.

  43. Stephenson rattles off a rousing yarn, but he’s sloppy, verbose and scattershot.

  44. I like to type entire books into my computer

    Er. You have heard of scanners and OCR (and for that matter, of Project Gutenberg), and are just being facetious, right?
    Heck, maybe you’re even a contributor to PG. In which case, kudos on your efforts.

  45. Noetica, may I ask what kind of PDA you have and where you obtain the books for it? I like the idea of having books on a PDA to read at leisure times. Someone I met at the airport recently mentioned he downloads books on his PDA; I should have made a mental note then.

  46. Noetica, may I ask what kind of PDA you have and where you obtain the books for it?
    It’s all quite low-tech. I have an old Cyberbank PC-Ephone (well, three of them, to be honest). It takes CompactFlash cards, which are cheap and capacious. I download huge texts from the web, or wherever, onto my PC; then I save them as PWD (Pocket Word) documents. This can be done using standard versions of Word. I save the documents to a CompactFlash card with a handy little interface (readily available), plug the card into the Cyberbank, and hit the road. I can then read or search the documents as required, using the cut-down PDA version of Word. Tiresome for actual reading; invaluable for searching out the odd reference when I’m away from PCs and internet connexions.
    I’m sure there are neater ways to do it. But that’s my way; and it works well enough, with the vast range of free standard-text material available on the web.

  47. Siganus Sutor says

    Isn’t it a wearing exercise for the eyes to read a whole book on a screen? Aren’t “normal” paper books convenient enough to carry with us in the hand or in a bag?

  48. Isn’t it a wearing exercise for the eyes to read a whole book on a screen?
    I imagine it would be. Personally, I have never tried to do such a thing. But I do love being able to retrieve all references to dentists in Ulysses, for example, when called on to do so at some remote waystation of the world.
    (There are four. Mentions of dentists, I mean.)

  49. Siganus Sutor says

    Noetica, people seem to ask you strange questions when you travel… ☺ (all teeth out)
    But do you have any memory of a book written by David Lodge in which some academics play a silly game called something like “humiliation”? The present post is about unread books and the purpose of this (hypothetic?) game was to have the Most-Humiliating-Non-Read. For instance one would say that he has never read In Search of Lost Time. Another one would admit missing The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. A third would confess he managed to avoid Hamlet. And a fourth would probably win the game after saying that he has never read Ulysses

  50. No, Siganus Sutor: I have no such memory. (Do I win?)

  51. Siganus Sutor says

    (Do I win?)
    David Lodge being such a minor author, I’m afraid not…
    (Ah, I’ll have to browse through a few books at home if I want the answer to my question.)

  52. Don’t say I never did anything for you:
    Lodge invented a literary parlour game called ‘Humiliation’ in Changing Places, which remains popular at dinner parties. Players name classics of literature that they have not read, the winner being the one who exhibits the most woeful literary lacuna. In Changing Places, Lodge’s obnoxious American academic, Howard Ringbaum, admits that he has never read Hamlet – and thus wins the game (but loses his job). Lodge himself owns up to War and Peace.
    From here.

  53. Siganus Sutor says

    Thanks LH! Who said that you didn’t do anything for them?
    (BTW, I wonder if I could be a Humiliation world champion…)

  54. Putting a link to this excellent Christopher Beha piece on Gaddis here so I’ll be able to find it when I want it, if and when I ever get around to deciding to tackle “J.R.” and “The Recognitions”; I am sad to report that of the ten books listed in the post, I have only read two (Lincoln and Bykov), though I’ve started the Girshovich. On the other hand, I have read Proust!

Speak Your Mind