March 28, 2008
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Unread Books

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:

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.”