Must Great Unread Books haunt the gift-giving season?

The Argument

Many readers never find the time to kick back in an armchair and devour a doorstop.


December 07, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,Sun Staff

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.

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).

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.

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'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.

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