Books I Did Not Read This Year

by Kieran Healy on December 16, 2003

As 2003 draws to a close, it’s time for me to reflect on all of the great books I did not read this year. This has been a particularly good year for not reading books. I would go so far as to say that there are more books I did not read this year than in any year in the recent past. Although a significant part of my job consists in sitting somewhere and reading something, I have still managed to find the time not to read a very wide range of material from many different fields. In special cases, I have bought the book and then not read it. Mostly, though, I did not get around to even doing that. I thought I would present my ten favorite nonfiction books I did not read this year. I hope that they will not deepen your knowledge or broaden your mind in 2004, as they didn’t with me.

Here they are, in the order I did not read them:

  1. Heat Wave: A social autopsy of disaster in Chicago by Eric Klinenberg. This book tops my list mainly because Chris asked me to review it last year for his journal. I even brought it with me when I moved to Australia. I haven’t read it, though. (I should add that I haven’t reviewed it, either.)
  2. One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the Twentieth Century by Donald Sassoon. After seeing Sassoon’s excellent interview with Karl Marx earlier this year, I immediately wanted to not read this book.
  3. The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets, 1798-1848 by Niall Ferguson. I have been not reading Ferguson since before he was a celebrity academic. This book has been on my “Must Not Read” list for several years now, and looks set to stay there for some time.
  4. Kantian Humility: Our ignorance of things in themselves by Rae Langton. I got to know Rae when she was visiting the RSSS this year and she used an example I gave her in one of her talks, so I really should get around to reading her book. A creative and enlightening interpretation of one of the most difficult of philosophers, Kantian Humility is the kind of book I would really learn something from, assuming I read it sometime.
  5. John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Freedom, 1937-1946 by Robert Skidelsky. Skidelsky has been writing his magesterial biography of Keynes for many years, so much so that he is now Lord Skidelsky. I have been not reading it for almost as long, though without being elevated to the peerage. This superb three-volume study will likely be displaced by an abridged one-volume edition due out soon, which will be shorter and therefore easier to not read. (On reflection, it is a nice question whether shorter books are easier or harder to not read than longer books.)
  6. Game Theory Evolving by Herbert Gintis. A comprehensive and elegantly presented introduction to game theory that takes a problem-centered approach requiring only basic calculus — “This book is perfect for upper undergraduate and graduate economics courses,” says the publisher, “as well as a terrific introduction for ambitious do-it-yourselfers throughout the behavioral sciences.” Its place on this list is therefore assured for the indefinite future.
  7. Upheavals of Thought by Martha Nussbaum. A remarkable book about thought and the emotions which looks set to join Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self somewhere in my bedroom. Maybe it fell behind the dresser.
  8. The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom. Actually I’m quite happy not to have read this one.
  9. Athenian Democracy by A.H.M. Jones. I picked up a copy of this in Melbourne and read two of the essays, so you may think it doesn’t qualify. But the book — a marvel of compact, lucid prose and judicious use of the sources, by a mid-20th century giant in the field — deserves its place here. It is so well-written and approachable that you can read pages and pages of careful commentary on the social structure of Athenian society before remembering that you have no real idea who any of the historical figures are, what the relevant sequence of events is, or which century is presently under discussion. Athenian Democracy is that rare sort of book, in other words, which you can have read and still effectively have not read at all.
  10. The Social System by Talcott Parsons. Don’t tell anyone. (But let he who is without sin, etc.)

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04.12.05 at 4:01 pm



Ophelia Benson 12.15.03 at 11:30 pm

[wiping streaming eyes]

What an odd coincidence. I too have been not reading Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought for as long as it’s been out. Why, I went to the reading she gave of it when it came out, and chatted with her and everything, and resolutely didn’t read it (along with, another coincidence, Taylor’s Sources of the Self, which sits *very near* Nussbaum’s book on my bookshelves. It’s spooky, isn’t it?) And yet – here’s where the coincidence comes in – by an odd trick of fate I slipped up this morning and read the first chapter of Upheavals of Thought. If you had posted this yesterday, I would not have had to say that, but…alas.

But there’s Peter Gay’s magisterial (at least I assume it’s magisterial, it’s certainly thick enough) biography of Freud, I’ve been not reading that for many years.

And there’s Henry Mayer’s All on Fire. I have read a little of that, but only a tiny fraction. It’s so good that I can’t read it. (That’s actually true rather than a joke, though what my reasoning is I couldn’t tell you.)

Marina Warner’s No Go the Bogeyman. Her From the Beast to the Blonde is a brilliant book. That’s why I haven’t read its successor.

The last three or four or five or six or seven novels and/or books of stories by A.S. Byatt. Because I don’t like them.


david 12.16.03 at 12:06 am

Taylor doesn’t fit behind the dresser, I bet.

I am extremely irritated to see someone so glibly take credit for not reading Skidelsky. I’ve been not reading that one for way longer than you, and I don’t go around bragging about it online, although put a few drinks in me, and I’ll tell anyone within range how often I don’t read that book. I’m just not clever enough to have a weblog.

As an early modernist, I used to take great pride in not reading Cheese and the Worms, but I cracked. Not sure what’s replaced it. There are so many.


John Isbell 12.16.03 at 12:20 am

Outstanding post. You only brought a hammer, but look what you did with it. I propose a post of books I haven’t heard of.
My category here will be books I have started and suddenly, irrevocably stopped reading.
I’ve been on page 70 of “Finnegans Wake” since the mid-1980s. Ouf. I have no idea how far I got into the “Cantos” of Ezra Pound, it is a blur. Tasso’s “Gerusalemme liberata”, Camoens’s “The Lusiads”, about twenty pages each. Butler’s mock-heroic “Hudibras”, about sixty pages, which is a pity because it’s very funny IMO. Thomas Mann’s “Der Zauberberg”, about ten pages, and I loved “Buddenbrooks.”
That’ll do. Oh, how could I miss “War and Peace”? And I even have a handy ovna-bookmark with all the families laid out.


Nasi Lemak 12.16.03 at 12:46 am

Oh dear god, I think I have six of those on my shelf-full of unread books. Gintis, in particular, is the inevitable outcome of going into the social science section of a big Borders in America with good intentions and an inadequate understanding of the prevailing exchange rate.

(I’m actually thinking of radically rearranging a big chunk of my teaching in a desperate attempt to force myself beyond page twentysomething of John Dunn’s “The Cunning of Unreason”, which is my most guilty unread pleasure. Or perhaps innocent, since largely untaken. I refuse to believe any of the reviewers actually finished that book.)


Dan Simon 12.16.03 at 1:01 am

Jodi Kantor published an elaborate, literary version of this posting a few years ago in Slate. I believe my response to that article (see the “reader comments” appended to the bottom of it) applies equally here.


Greg 12.16.03 at 1:10 am

A.H.M. Jones, curiously enough, once fell asleep while giving a lecture; my old Roman archaeology lecturer in UCD was in that class.


Ophelia Benson 12.16.03 at 1:21 am

Come to think of it, this is like that game in David Lodge’s – Small World? Or was it in Changing Places. A party game for academics in English. You say the most embarrassing thing you haven’t read – embarrassing for someone who teaches English literature (of course this was a long time ago, the game would be unplayable now). At first people would get it wrong, and say the most obscure item. Morris Zapp (it must have been Zapp) would patiently explain – ‘No, no, not obscure, obvious – that’s the whole point. Obscure ones aren’t shameful!’ So then one particularly competitive guy got the hang of it, and won the game but ruined his career by shouting out ‘Hamlet!’


James Russell 12.16.03 at 1:34 am

Hell, I didn’t even read this post, let alone the books mentioned therein.


Ophelia Benson 12.16.03 at 1:40 am

I can top that, I didn’t even read your comment.


Jonathan Ichikawa 12.16.03 at 1:52 am

Wouldn’t a longer book be (ceteris paribus) trivially easier to not read than a shorter one? After all, the longer the book is, the lower your probability of accidentally reading it, as if, say, you encountered a long random string of alphanumeric symbols which happened to correspond to the text of the book.


Ophelia Benson 12.16.03 at 2:01 am

Well, it depends what you mean by ‘easier.’ In terms of effort, calories expended, eye movements across lines of print, perhaps. But psychically, no. Psychically, not reading long books is a massive drain, I assure you.


Invisible Adjunct 12.16.03 at 2:08 am

It is a nice question whether longer books are easier or harder to not read. I’m thinking harder. The psychic drain — that nagging, almost-guilty sense of “I really should read this” — is just that much more intense the longer the book that one is not reading.

But Kieran, what are you doing with Charles Taylor behind your dresser? Please pick him up and at least put him on a shelf immediately.


Jeremy Osner 12.16.03 at 3:05 am

the inevitable outcome of going into the social science section of a big Borders in America with good intentions and an inadequate understanding of the prevailing exchange rate.

I am not sure what this means, and yet it made me laugh. Must be funny.


George W. Bush 12.16.03 at 3:10 am

I have read the Very Hungry Caterpillar but have managed to avoid reading any other books. Follow my example and you too can become president.


Zizka 12.16.03 at 3:18 am

Invisible is a Canadian patriot and she would say something like that.

I exclusively don’t read the Bible. Everything you don’t need to know is in that one book. It’s an inexhaustible non-resource.

I’d win a movies-not-seen contest hands down, since I haven’t seen one so far this year. “Bad Santa” just got put on my list of movies to see sometime, but “El Topo”, “What’s up Tiger Lily”, and “The Producers” have been on that list for well over thirty years, so the odds aren’t that great.


Danny Yee 12.16.03 at 3:22 am

I haven’t read any of those books either… And I just did the boring “best books read in 2003” thing on my own blog.


Vinteuil 12.16.03 at 3:53 am

“Hell, I didn’t even read this post, let alone the books mentioned therein.”

Posted by James Russell · December 16, 2003 01:34 AM

“I can top that, I didn’t even read your comment.”

Posted by Ophelia Benson · December 16, 2003 01:40 AM

I have been trying for well over an hour to come up with a worthy rejoinder to this exchange, and have utterly, abjectly failed. Thanks James, thanks Ophelia. You remind me why I visit this site.


John Isbell 12.16.03 at 4:22 am

I was talking about George Eliot at school over coffee when a friend walked in and said “George Eliot? I’ve never heard of her.”


Katherine 12.16.03 at 5:40 am

I have this nasty habit of reading 80% of a book and then losing momentum. Once you get to a certain point you don’t know whether to start over or just finish. I also may have skipped to the end if its non-fiction, so I won’t remember which 1/5 I haven’t read.

In this way, I have not quite read:
100 Years of Solitude
The Making of the Atomic Bomb
At Swim, Two Boys
Harry Potter Y El Caliz de Fuego (vain attempt to not let Spanish 101 get too rusty. Didn’t really work anyway–now I remember what lechueza (owl), varita (wand), mago (wizard), and Senor Tenobroso (dark Lord) mean, but not how to conjugate verbs.)
Common Ground
and many others I’m forgetting.

I have never read:
any biography that’s not a memoir.
anything by Leo Tolstoy.
anything by Virginia Woolf.
Wuthering Heights (waded through 90 pages, then watched semaphore version instead. Feel like I got the gist.)
anything by Milton


Mary 12.16.03 at 6:01 am

Vinteuil: you need to work up something to do with not having even visited this page. To which someone will respond that Crooked Timber is the finest weblog they’ve never read.


ben wolfson 12.16.03 at 6:22 am

vinteuil: try something along the lines of “oh yeah? Well I’ve never even read this comment!”


Dan Simon 12.16.03 at 7:31 am

I’m illiterate, so I don’t read anything at all. Could somebody please explain this thread to me? (You might have to shout–I’m pretty far away.)


carlcaputo 12.16.03 at 10:09 am

This certainly seems like a good place to mention Nicholson Baker’s oddly engaging little ode to his actual literary relationship to John Updike — he called it U&I. In it, he lists the tremendous quantity of Updike’s work that he, though a sincere fan, has not read, and maintains that such a proportion is in fact normal for most of us, however devoted we are to our favorites, because, you know, the world’s a big place, and there’s so much to see and love, and all.


abrihtiohthy 12.16.03 at 12:34 pm

I’m illiterate, so I don’t read anything at all.

i cn ;6 evne tpyp0 e legibibhiohoy


Cowboy Kahlil 12.16.03 at 12:57 pm

I’ve been too busy reading bear scat and smoke signals for the past 3 years to have any time for the mighty tomes y’all flung forth here.

But my outhouse readin’ has nearly caught me up on the frontier wisdom of the philosophical greats that keep me tall in the saddle in a way that the others just Kant do.


Cowboy Kahlil 12.16.03 at 1:03 pm

Dangity; I guess them Amazons are too unfriendly to let their links work well, so I reckon this’ll have to do in its place.


John isbell 12.16.03 at 1:50 pm

Bear scat is, um, kind of nutty.
I think the semaphore “Wuthering Heights” is a monument of human art, but Katherine, I have to say I’ve never heard of “At Swim, Two Boys.” I did think “At Swim, Two Birds” was very funny, though. I like when the characters go on strike.
“Oh, Henri Bergson.”
“Is the correct answer!”
“That’s lucky, I’ve never even heard of him.”


Andrew Edwards 12.16.03 at 2:33 pm

In this way, I have not quite read:
100 Years of Solitude

Me too! And Crime & Punishment.

And I agree with Richard Bernstein on Proust:

I’ve read Swann’s Way, I’m happy to say, but the other volumes are sitting on my shelf waiting for the restoration of transatlantic journeys by sea.


Jim Bob 12.16.03 at 2:42 pm

That was an excellent post, and I sympathise with the sentiment that inspired it. Looking ahead to 2004, I have elaborate plans for not writing several books, including a dense novel exploring the complex relations between politics and the inner self in Russia, a 1,000 page polemic on the role of aid agencies in Africa, and the first critique of H G Wells’ work from a post-industrial neo-colonialist standpoint.

That’s a considerable amount of writing you won’t be doing, I hear you say. Well, it’s a significant improvement on last year, when I narrowly failed to avoid writing a haiku. Well, everyone makes mistakes.


Ophelia Benson 12.16.03 at 2:52 pm

Oh, not writing! That’s a whoooole other subject. Lawks a mussy, if we’re getting into not writing, I’ll be the champion of everyone. I have brief comments, short essays, articles, long articles, longer articles, book reviews not to write, and then of course book after book after book. Oh my yes. Why I could fill entire notebooks with lists of the books and feuilletons and pamphlets and shorter pieces I won’t be writing. Only of course I couldn’t, because that would mean writing the lists, and I won’t be doing that.


Rv. Agnos 12.16.03 at 3:34 pm

How about this:

What is the book that you DID read, but read the longest time after you purchased.

Ideally, this should be a book you purchased, did not read, forgot you owned, perhaps got stuck in the box with the extra bed sheets when you moved to make those big bulky boxes a little heavier, didn’t get re-shelved for a while, and then, one day, when you wanted something to read, were skimming your bookshelves and though, “Hey, I forgot I even owned that one!”

Then, you must have read it and, preferable, enjoyed it considerably.

I just read, for the first time, a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers that I purchased over 13 years ago. Can anyone top that?


Doug 12.16.03 at 4:29 pm

Gravity’s Rainbow has been pending since the winter of 88-89. Though the fact that I didn’t bring it with me to Germany means that it will probably be pending for at least another half a decade. If next year turns out to be the year for The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, that would be sixteen years, give or take a semester. Similarly, The SF Hall of Fame, vol. 2 B (best pre-1965 novellas, the second half) has a stamp in it indicating that I bought it in or around 1984, so that’s coming up on its twentieth anniversary. I’ve been intending to read all of Again, Dangerous Visions since I read its predecessor in spring 1983, but I don’t think it counts, as I didn’t possess it again until 2001.

Still, while I think I’m as formidable a procrastinator as anyone on this board (as the volume of my comments should indicate), I suspect that I’m just not old enough to be a serious competitor in this category.


Ophelia Benson 12.16.03 at 5:00 pm

Hmph. That’s no obstacle. I’ve been meaning to read The Critique of Pure Reason since my great-great-grandmother bought it at a little used bookshop in Thun while everyone else in her party was off hiking up the Jungfrau.


Chris Bertram 12.16.03 at 5:11 pm

I took the 2 vols of Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action to a caravan in the Brecon Beacons about 10 years ago. They remain unread.

Most works by Foucault have great first chapters.

I started Ulysses in July. I’m about half-way.


Moe Lane 12.16.03 at 6:41 pm

All the good “I don’t read”s have been taken. This is what I get for going to lunch. :(


laura 12.16.03 at 7:40 pm

This year I have not read Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend or whatever it’s called. The problem with this is that my mother gave it to me for Christmas or my birthday last year (they’re virtually identical occasions) and I suspect she’ll be asking if I read it. Since it’s a long book, I might ought to hurry.


Dave In Texas 12.16.03 at 10:32 pm

Sign me up for the Haven’t-Read-‘100-Years-of-Solitude’-Club.”

It has been packed and unpacked during three moves and faithfully placed on my side of the bed for 20-plus years.

Never finished ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ or anything by Robert Caro, Thomas Hardy or James Finnamore Cooper. Hell I never heard of most of the books on the main list here.

Do I get bonus points for never seeing ‘Grease’ (I and II), ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘Saturday Night Fever’ or any of the ‘Rocky’ series?


Alan McCallum 12.16.03 at 10:52 pm

The reason I don’t have time to read my books is that I spend too much time reading blogs like this.

Weell that’s one excuse anyway.


Rich 12.17.03 at 12:26 am

I found this list via James Russell’s site. Very witty! There are so many books I haven’t read, but the pride of place must go to Kingsley’s The Water Babies and Darwin’s The Origin of Species, because I was told to read these in preparation for a seminar with two other people and a Cambridge Darwin & Victorian lit expert. Needless to say I didn’t read these books (and The Water Babies is a children’s book, and only about 150 pages long!), for reasons I can’t remember, instead trying to blag my way through it. This didn’t go particularly well. I even tried to fake background knowledge of the subject by quoting something I had read on the internet about Darwin – which lead to an impromptu ten-minute speech by the academic about how wrong I was…

Oh, and here’s a trick I invented for excusing (to yourself or other people) not having read great works of literature: tell yourself/other people that it’s not worth reading lit in translation, because no translations capture the nuanced meaning of the original work, and so you’ll leave 100 Years of Solitude, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, etc., for after you have learned fluent Spanish and French. Other people will think you are well clever, despite the fact that you are never actually going to do it.


James Russell 12.17.03 at 3:42 am

I can top that, I didn’t even read your comment.


What is the book that you DID read, but read the longest time after you purchased.

At the moment the winner of that competition is A Brief History of Time, which I bought in 1990 and did not read until 1998.


dave heasman 12.17.03 at 12:40 pm

I’ve read Ulysses & War & Peace, but I’ve never heard Dark Side of the Moon. (by Pink Floyd, that is; I’ve heard a bit of the DSotM by Medicine Head)


nnyhav 12.17.03 at 2:14 pm

“I have never read Proust either.” — Bad Boy


Jonathan Goldberg 12.17.03 at 2:49 pm

It was enscribed above:

It is a nice question whether longer books are easier or harder to not read. I’m thinking harder. The psychic drain — that nagging, almost-guilty sense of “I really should read this” — is just that much more intense the longer the book that one is not reading.

That’s one way to look at it. The other is “It’s so short there’s really no excuse for not having got through it.”

The one thing this thread must avoid at all costs is coming to a conclustion about something.


Damien 12.17.03 at 3:53 pm

I’ve been busy not reading Don Quixote, and I’m working on not reading the rest of the Guardian’s top 100 novels of all time.,6903,1061037,00.html

I’ll start not reading biographies in my 50’s…still a lot of fiction to not read before then.


PS Received Critique of Pure Reason some 12 years ago. By far my longest owned not-read book. Been to Europe twice and back, never flipped a page.


Edward 12.17.03 at 5:21 pm

This comment is so far down the list that it will be easy for nobody to read.


Victor Lieberman 12.17.03 at 5:25 pm

Excuse me, but I believe that I have
all you pathetic non-readers trumped.
Mine is a Generational, Multi-Volume
(they’re harder, as we’ve all learned)
non-read. My father bought a set
of Harvard Classics which, believe
me, is in as fine shape now as the
day it was unpacked. Must be 40 or
50 volumes to the damn thing, including
most of the titles mentioned by others
that were written way back in caveman
times (before Cliff Notes). To say
that one hasn’t read the Harvard
Classics is, in a word, to say that
one hasn’t read much of anything
important at all. I work daily on
not reading this set I’ve inherited
in order to leave a similar legacy.


taj 12.17.03 at 8:02 pm

I’m surprised that nobody has yet mentioned this important difference between the acts of reading and not reading — it’s just so much easier to not read several books at once. There are entire libraries, bookshops and personal collections out there that I am simultaneously not reading at this moment.


davelo 12.19.03 at 3:04 pm

I’m illiterate, so I don’t read anything at all. Could somebody please explain this thread to me? (You might have to shout—I’m pretty far away.)

Aha, It’s really funny:)


Ally 12.20.03 at 12:09 am

As a lowly, mere, and utterly incompetent undergrad, there are a myriad of books I have actively not read. The greatest of these is Empire, by Niall Ferguson (and, by extension, Empire’s New Clothes: Rereading Hardt and Negri; Jodi Dean and Paul Passavant, eds. who both teach classes i’m looking forward to not taking)
Zizek’s Desert of the Real is on my not-to-read list, and of course, I’ll continue to not read that for years to come. I particularly enjoy actively not reading, as passive not reading (regardless of length) is just so much less fulfilling.


lathrop 01.18.04 at 3:15 am

I have been intending but failing to re-read Proust’s ‘Remembrance of things past’ in its entirety again so I can understand it better after reading it ten years ago and then reading critical commentary.

Does not getting it re-read count?


holojames 01.19.04 at 1:40 pm

I have not read any Shakespeare ever.

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