The Unread: You’ll never read every book; perhaps that should be cause for hope
Recently, I began to read Moby-Dick for the first time. I was inspired to take Melville’s 1851 classic novel off the shelf, in part, by the fact that three related books had come across my desk in short succession: Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding; Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures; and Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick?
Why read Moby-Dick, indeed? I’d lived 30 years without reading a page of Captain Ahab’s crazed pursuit of the great white and the world had not come off its axis. Still, I felt there was a gap the size of a sperm whale on my personal reading list. So, midway through my interview with Kish, I blurted out that I intended to finish Moby-Dick by the end of the year. I’d made a similar promise a few weeks earlier, while talking to Harbach, but had yet to even find the book on my shelves. This vow to Kish, who had just finished a project that saw him complete one painting for every page of the book, was like signing a contract with myself.
“I have a very small library upstairs, and I often say one day maybe I’ll read all the books I have,” George Jonas told me during a recent interview. “We’re not scratching the surface of what’s worth reading, [even] in one language …”
It’s true. There are scores of books I have not read, and it saddens me to think that I will never read most of them. I have not read War and Peace, nor Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment or pretty much any of the Russians. I have read Pride and Prejudice, but that’s it for Austen. I’ve read To The Lighthouse, but not Mrs. Dalloway, though I have seen The Hours (but I haven’t read that, either). I’ve read Dubliners (well, most of it) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but haven’t even attempted Ulysses and was scared off by the first page of Finnegans Wake. The only Brontë sister I’ve read is Emily. I have all of Roth and Bellow and most of Updike to look forward to. I’m embarrassed to reveal how little Atwood and Munro I’ve consumed. If any of these books come up in conversation, I’ll offer a polite smile and quickly change the subject. (Illustration by Clayton Hanmer)