The moment when you know that The Year Of Living Dangerously is going to be something special is the is when Billy Kwan speculates that Hamilton might be the Unmet Friend. A close corollary of the unmet friend is the Unread Book, and those are kicking up a ruckus of late.
Matt Selman's Prime Directive declares that
It is unacceptable to display any book in a public space of your home if you have not read it.
This seems a reasonably sensible precaution against pretense and coffee table books, but it won't work — not, at any rate, unless you are willing to keep all your books in private spaces, or simply not have any guests. Ezra Klein responds that
Bookshelves are not for displaying books you've read — those books go in your office, or near your bed, or on your Facebook profile. Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be. I am the type of person who would read long biographies of Lyndon Johnson, despite not being the type of person who has read any long biographies of Lyndon Johnson.
Actually, I have read one volume of a very long biography of Lyndon Johnson, but it's on the bottom shelf of my bedroom bookshelf. But I'm not really eager to make you think that I'm that sort of fellow, whatever Klein might imagine this to mean. Scott McLemee retorts, in turn, that
The word “poseur” is still around, after all, even if the people who study consumer behavior, and try to channel it, have coined the kinder and gentler term “aspirational taste” for this sort of thing. David Brooks could probably get a best-selling analysis of the American middle class out of the contrast between Seligman’s moralistic injunction and Klein’s jaunty expression of dandyism.
McLemee has much the best of the argument, in which he observes that "their superegos have taken on the qualities of a really stern accountant — coming up with estimates of what percentage of the books on their shelves they have, or haven’t, gotten around to reading. Guilt and anxiety reinforce one another.” This is silliness.
But there are lots of reasons to have books that you haven't read. Some of these include:
- Reference books. There's a copy of the Oxford Classical Dictionary in my office, and a copy of Fowler, and a complete run of The New Yorker. I'm not Ross; I haven't read Fowler from cover to cover, and I'm not about to read the entire OCD. It's nice to have them handy when you need them
- Marriage. Sometimes, people live together; they wind up with complex book collections. "I understand why we have two copies of The Once And Future King,” Linda observed only last night, “but how did we wind up with three?” The definition of a Modern Relationship used to be that you owned two copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves.
- Marriage, the fragility of. Two old friends, when they got married, put little colored dots on their books to distinguish His from Hers. Now, some of Hers still have dots, in the house she shares with her new husband. People combine and separate in odd ways, and you can easily wind up with the books of old lovers.
- Ancestors. My grandfather made a point of owning a really nice edition of the complete Thoreau. I haven't read it all. I don't know that he read it all. It's nice to have. Should I hide it? He had a complete McCauley and a complete Froude, too. If there were world enough, and time. My father took Archie and Mehitabel to war, along with Damon Runyan, Notes From Underground, Lord Jim, and Through The Looking Glass. I've never quite gotten Don Marquis myself but he's still welcome on the shelf; it was a terrible war and he did his bit.
- Abandoned Books. Sometimes, things don't work out. Sometimes, the book is not what you hoped, but sometimes you're not quite up to it right now, and so it makes sense to save it for a rainy day. (A special case is that you might want to save some books — the last novel of a favorite writer, say — for spiritual emergencies)
- School books. Linda's currently taking a course with Nial Ferguson that involves a great deal of reading chapter 10 and 12 of this book, and pages 43-121 of that one. This might in other contexts be lazy, but in this case it's a concession to human frailty: there's just no way that you could read all these books in a semester. But you are going to read them eventually right? Where do they sit in the mean time?
- Reminders. I read a spectacular review of a book about insect paleontology. It's a lovely book. The reviewer says that this book contains roughly everything you should know about insects; this would be good because I know very little about insects and —look! — there's time's winged chariot hurrying near! So I lay it out on a table, along with that infernally huge Mozart and a few other books I want to remember to taste now and then.
Updates: William Cole cites more reasons to have unread books, including gifts, desk copies, review copies, and books you've that are interesting because of their covers, their illustrationsm or their former owners.
Gordon Meyer recalls another incarnation of that damned winged chariot: books go out of print. So, if you're going to read it, perhaps you'd better get it now.
Matthew Josefowicz recalls a fine lesson from Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan: “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there.”