Unread Books?

by Harry on July 9, 2014

Jordan Ellenberg has devised an ingenious way of working out what books get bought but not read:

Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read.

Using this method, he finds that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has an HI of 98.5%, whereas Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has an HI of just 2.4%, worse even than Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, widely known as the ‘most unread book of all time’.

I find the Tartt result unsurprising because when, recently, I read her first book,The Secret History I spent the first 350 pages wondering why on earth I was reading it. Not only were all the characters repulsive, but, worse, I strongly suspected the author thought they were really cool. The picture of the author did not inspire confidence that I might be wrong. And, there really seemed to be no plot and I am someone who has no compunction putting down a bad book, so the fact that despite all that I remained hooked impressed me a lot (and it was completely worth it: from around p.350 it is riveting).

But (in Jordan’s spirit of this being entertainment, not science) several comments. First, in defense of Piketty, it is a great read, not at all what I had been led to expect, so if people are giving up they are missing out. Second, though, most copies of Hawking’s book were sold prior to Kindle, and I suspect that hard copies of books, which are sometimes bought for show, are more likely to go unread than kindle copies, which are often bought in order not to show (see 50 Shades). So, Hawking, I think, is still a winner. Next, though, the problem with the method is that I suspect that the kind of people who mark passages in their kindles are unrepresentative readers (not being rude, or anything, just seems quirky). But, finally. When I was a teenager, I saw Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago on the bookshelves of just about every house I ever went to, including the houses of people whom I never saw reading even a shopping list, let alone talking about a book. I do believe there are, or at least have been, people who have read it, but I’d be amazed if it would have gotten a HI of 0.5%.

Finally, finally, I wonder about academic books? I am pretty sure my first book has been cited much more often than it has read, and I have pretty compelling evidence that two of the reviewers didn’t read it (one reviewer based his entire review on the blurb for the book; and a second attributed to me, and criticized, exactly the opposite thesis from the one that I was defending).

Anyway, other nominees for unread, or ought-to-be-unread, books, with or without evidence?



David Margolies 07.09.14 at 8:48 pm

Er… Shouldn’t a book that people read through have an HI of 50%? An HI of 98.5% indicates people only read (or liked) the last pages (is it perhaps a mystery story?).

Ellenberg says: “If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book.” That assumes page quality is uniform. That is often not true, in my experience. There are plenty of books which say everything of interest in the first few chapters and the remaining chapters seem there because the book contract called for a minimum length.


Jane 07.09.14 at 8:54 pm

The Power of Excellence by Tom Peters and The One Minute Manager by Kenneth Blanchard. Companies handed them out like candy during the ’80’s, doubt they were all read.


Turkle 07.09.14 at 8:58 pm

Jane, I’d have to add “Good to Great” to that list, a book I was given at no less than four different jobs in my somewhat less than illustrious career.


Everett 07.09.14 at 9:21 pm

I read The Gulag Archipelago at age 22 while teaching in the middle of nowhere in South Texas. I read it contemporaneously with a A Clockwork Orange (I had LOTS of free time back then, once my lesson planning was complete). I decided that the only way to read either book was in this fashi0n, as they seemed to meld quite nicely. I haven’t read either since. My point? I dunno. I guess count me in the <2% for reading Solzhenitsyn, but blame it on near terminal boredom. Also, I nominate, with absolutely no evidence, the following candidates :

Herman Hesse – The Glass Bead Game
Lawrence Norfolk – In the Shape of a Boar


MPAVictoria 07.09.14 at 9:24 pm

I must admit that I have a ton of unread books sitting on my shelf at home. I love buying books and I love reading most of them but sometimes what seems like a good idea in the bookshop just doesn’t appeal to me when I go to my collection looking for the next book to read. I always think “oh I don’t feel like that one this time. Lets reread this Terry Pratchett book for the 3rd time.”

Now you all know my secret shame. Oh how grateful I am to be posting this under a pseudonym.


Bryan 07.09.14 at 9:38 pm

Maybe Piketty just says the most interesting things in the beginning of the book? This seems likely based on the academic books I have read. The introduction is often where they make all their interesting, big claims and the bulk of the book almost functions as detailed footnotes to the introduction, documenting the evidence and detailed arguments for the claims of the introduction.


Neil Levy 07.09.14 at 9:38 pm

MPAVictoria: I’m not ashamed to say, under my real name, that I would prefer to reread Terry Pratchett books than read almost anything else. If only I *could* go back in time to read them for the third time. Perhaps I would read nothing else in fiction were it not for the fact that Pratchett is no longer a competent (let alone brilliant) writer.


Anderson 07.09.14 at 9:41 pm

I keep running into people who disliked, or had trouble reading, The Secret History because, apparently, they didn’t realize it’s not just a thriller; it’s also funny. Of course the characters are all repugnant in their way – they’re being satirized.

(Henry translating Paradise Lost into Latin? And being surprised to learn that people had landed on the Moon? Come on, man.)


MPAVictoria 07.09.14 at 9:46 pm

Hi Neil!
Oh it is not the reading of Terry Pratchett that I am ashamed of, it is all the unread books on my shelf. I almost feel like it is lying to anyone who visits. Sure I have read most of them but some of them have been sitting untouched for years….

I have to disagree with your view of Mr. Pratchett’s more recent work. I haven’t read his latest but so far I continue to enjoy pretty much anything he write. Making Money was great and Unseen Academicals and Snuff were both was at least okay.

I dread the day that I read my last new Discworld novel.


Vladimir 07.09.14 at 9:49 pm

How many homes used to have a bible that was never read? I would suggest any book that is supposed to signal something about the owners intelligence or is generally known as a important book is more of a show piece on the shelf. Academic books are often efforts to expand on an article therefore they may not be that enriching for anyone who has read the shorter version. E-books are special to the extent that many are available free, especially classics. Personally I don’t like the idea that Amazon or anyone else can track the passages I’ve highlighted.


Bloix 07.09.14 at 9:57 pm

I finished Tartt’s The Goldfinch even though I’d figured out that I didn’t like it within 200 pages. I’m more likely to give up on non-fiction than fiction (especially popular fiction). Fiction is just easier, and anyway you want to find out what happened. With non-fiction you generally already know (e.g., the Germans lost).

A lot of non-fiction is just too damned long for the casual lay reader – it would be great if there were specialist versions and then general-interest versions of 100-200 pages. Generally, if something is over 300 pages I don’t even try unless I’m really motivated. The New York Review of Books is a pretty good Cliff’s Notes for most things.

On Picketty, I’m about 45% through on my kindle – maybe I’ll finish. The problem is not that it’s not interesting – it’s that I’m not competent to judge what I’m reading. It’s not clear to me what I’m gaining by reading the book – I’ve already read a dozen reviews and summaries and I understand the outlines of the argument, so what am I gaining by passing my eyes over hundreds of pages that I can’t really evaluate?

I never did finish Tony Judt’s Postwar. It felt like a textbook.

Ten years ago a friendly acquaintance sent me a copy of a true crime book he’d written. I couldn’t get past the first chapter, and I’ve never spoken to him since – I’m too embarrassed.

As for fiction, I did give up on Sue Townsend’s Number 10 after 20 pages. I’d never been interested in Adrian Mole but when she died I thought I would see what the fuss was, but I realized after 20 or 30 pages that she traded in a style of British humor that I’m completely immune to. My fault, I have no doubt.


Jason 07.09.14 at 10:00 pm

As a physicist and in defense of Hawking’s book, I would say the subject matter goes from things of interest to a general audience to things of interest mostly to physicists.

However the most well-known quote from the book (“But it’s turtles all the way down!”) is in the first paragraph of Chapter 1; that may skew the results.


Bloix 07.09.14 at 10:05 pm

PS, in response to MPAVictoria – I was 45 or 50 before I realized that there’s no shame in not finishing a book. An author who plunks 600 pages down in front of you is making an extraordinary claim: that he or is she is worth listening to for 8 or 10 hours straight. It’s perfectly reasonable to decide, after you’ve heard the author out for an hour or two, that you’ve got other things to do.


Moz in Oz 07.09.14 at 10:15 pm

I’d go for people who bookmark being weird. When you have reading history available as well as copy and paste, why would you bother bookmarking? I have a personal wiki full of quotes and references and that has much better search than my biological bits can manage. Between the two I can usually find the quote I need.

Most of my owned-but-unread ebooks are ones I’ve obtained then filed somewhere and are effectively lost. Plus I have a small stash of dead tree fiction for airplane trips and a few second hand academic books that were much cheaper than any other way of getting them.

Having an e-reader means that I now have a great number of books I haven’t read and no doubt a few that are unreadable for technical reasons. Specifically, I live in Australia, where ebooks are often either unavailable or ludicrously priced, on top of the usual disadvantage that many interesting books are not available on my device (apparently not buying a new device every year makes me some kind of luddite). Which means I download giant torrent files of “EBooKS! 100000 adademic textbook historical MustRead!!!” and similar nonsense, in an effort to find the one book I actually want. That’s normally after failing to find the book at all, or being able to get it only if I’m willing to buy a second hand US-registered Kindle and a US Visa gift card so I can briefly rent a crippled Amazon-only US region version of the book. The book publishing industry is really screwed up.


Neil Levy 07.09.14 at 10:16 pm

MPAVictoria: Making Money was great, and UU and S might just count as okay. Think of how much Pratchett had to decline to write an okay book. Raising Steam was not the work of a competent writer.


Harry 07.09.14 at 10:18 pm

Anderson — just so it is clear, I didn’t have trouble reading it (that was the problem), and think it is brilliant. And part of what happened for me in the last 150 pages was that I started to believe after all that the first 350 might indeed have been satire, but it was very hard to tell while actually reading them.

BTW, try Tana French’s The Likeness, which is clearly influenced by the Secret History, and brilliant in a whole lot of other ways.


MPAVictoria 07.09.14 at 11:35 pm

” Raising Steam was not the work of a competent writer.”

That saddens me. :-(


Anarcissie 07.09.14 at 11:51 pm

Vladimir 07.09.14 at 9:49 pm — The Bible is exceptional because it is thought by many to have magical properties. Therefore its mere presence in one’s house suffices. More than one may be kept for this reason.

Some Buddhists have gone further, however: they have shrines in which a DVD containing the important scriptures is permanently ensconced, unreadable for all eternity, but there.


PJW 07.10.14 at 12:27 am

War and Peace. I recall Nixon saying he’d read it. I own it but will never read it.


Alan White 07.10.14 at 12:57 am

Since Neil is here and I’ve read two of his books, I will embarrass him by saying that while his latest unpretentiously titled Consciousness and Moral Responsibility is the best balance of conceptual and empirically-informed work in the area in recent memory, his earlier, more tongue-cheeky Hard Luck may well be the work that terraforms future discussion about free will and responsibility.

And though not the Gulag, I’ve actually read The First Circle, and as a teenager! I remember almost nothing of it!

I’m in a long-term faculty reading group, finishing tough-to-reads like A Fine Balance (I shouldn’t have) and In the Lake in the Woods (loved it though haunting). My singular bad experience was reading The Lovely Bones, which required suspending my dislike of other-worldly-type narratives, getting into the book and actually liking it, until the narrator, who’s dead, inhabits a living person’s body in order to have sex. I F-bombed reading that and actually threw the book across the room. If that was a spoiler for those who have not read it, I’m glad. Jeez, keep the dead, dead. Even zombies stay zombies, and I love The Walking Dead.

I second the Bible for most (wholly) unread. I wonder among philosophers who has powered through Naming and Neccessity (yea) and Counterfactuals (nay–though I own it and a number of Sparknote-version articles–yea)? But surely classics like The Nichomachean Ethics, The Critique of Pure Reason, and even Mill’s Utilitarianism are on lots of shelves, and most I’d suspect with pages unyellowed from exposure to air. Most philosophers depended on secondary texts for all that; I did.


Matt 07.10.14 at 1:10 am

Supposedly Douglas Hofstedter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach is one of the least read widely owned books as well, up there w/ Brief History, at least for a while. Still, like the math professor who had me read parts of it in an independent study as an undergrad, I’m glad that so many people at least bought a book w/ a fair amount of significant logic in it.

When I had to take some very long flights (close to 24 hours total travel time each way) this last December, I made a point of taking some “classics” I had on my shelf with me to read, and nothing else, so that I’d finally read them. I read Madam Bovary (obviously very well crafted, but what unpleasant characters!) and Dead Souls (quite a bit of fun, really). It is, perhaps, a good tactic to force yourself to read something that is otherwise likely to languish on your shelves.

But surely classics like The Nichomachean Ethics, The Critique of Pure Reason, and even Mill’s Utilitarianism are on lots of shelves, and most I’d suspect with pages unyellowed from exposure to air.

In a surprising number of cases I have a sort of opposite phenomena- I’ll have a book, and be sure that I have never read it. (An example that stands out in memory is the Critique of Practical Reason.) But then, I’ll take it from the shelf and find it full of notes in my handwriting. So, I must have read it. The real worry this causes me is that perhaps when I think I’m having an original idea, I’m just dredging up an argument from a book I’ve forgotten that I’ve read. (To combat this to a degree, I keep all my books on my Library Thing page and then mark them as to whether I’ve read all or part of each book.)


Anderson 07.10.14 at 2:06 am

18: War and Peace is GOOD. An easy read, even. Just long. Tolstoy is amazing.


Layman 07.10.14 at 2:06 am

Surely Joyce has several titles that qualify – Ullyses & Finnegan’s Wake, both of which lie unfinished on my shelves, haunting me from their dusty graves. Pynchon comes to mind, though for my part I’m a fan of the journey, if not clear where I am when I get to the destination. People say good things about Mason & Dixon though I confess I found it hard going; much preferring Against the Day (the Chums of Chance!) or Gravity’s Rainbow. And Eco takes some work; I’m slogging through Prague Cemetary, hoping for the odd historical joke I actually get.


Just another commenter 07.10.14 at 2:07 am

It’s a stupid comparison.

An author of a work of nonfiction may well attempt to distill its quintessence in the introductory matter. An author of fiction will seldom or never do the same. Reader highlights may be used to select quotations for restating, debating or refuting a book’s merits. Such quotations drawn from the book are a poor indicator, at best, of how much the reader has read, especially given the juicy summaries with which the nonfiction author may lard her or his early pages.


Layman 07.10.14 at 2:09 am

“18: War and Peace is GOOD. An easy read, even. Just long. Tolstoy is amazing.”

Agreed on War and Peace, though that’s the only Tolstoy I’ve read so far.


Layman 07.10.14 at 2:13 am

On Eco, I meant to add, surely people bought millions of copies of The Name of the Rose because of the film; and then doubled down on Foucault’s Pendulum; and never finished either.


Shatterface 07.10.14 at 2:19 am

However the most well-known quote from the book (“But it’s turtles all the way down!”) is in the first paragraph of Chapter 1; that may skew the results.

I thought the ‘Mind of God’ line came from there.


Shatterface 07.10.14 at 2:21 am

Non-fiction books don’t work the same way. I’ll read a novel from beginning to end but with non-fiction I tend to look up subjects of specific interest in the index so I might read those bits before I start the book properly.


Matt 07.10.14 at 2:32 am

Tolstoy is amazing.

But also so amazingly didactic at times. Sooooo didactic. It starts to grate after a while.


bianca steele 07.10.14 at 2:42 am

Does listening to the soundtrack to “Natasha, Pierre, and the Comet of 1812” count?

I’ve never been able to finish anything by E.L. Doctorow. The last time I picked up Billy Bathgate, by the time I finished page 2 I was mentally drafting a blog post on why it was horrible. Even if it’s not really that bad, I was never going to finish it at that pace.

I was probably just the right age, close to the author’s and not long out of school, and primed for the kind of allusive book The Secret History seemed to be. I can’t imagine what it’s like to read it at fourteen. OTOH quite possibly if Tartt had been twenty or thirty years younger her first novel would have been more like Divergent.


Anarcissie 07.10.14 at 2:53 am

I would say ‘Hegel’ but someone once told me he loved Hegel; reading Hegel to him was like eating ice cream. So I said, ‘But what does it mean?’ I don’t remember the answer. Maybe Hegel ice cream needn’t mean, but be.


PJW 07.10.14 at 2:56 am

Anderson, I’m sure War and Peace is good, but its length, as you note, is pretty daunting. I’ve read several Tolstoy essays and one novella and thought they were great. I can do long non-fiction easier than I can long fiction. My loss.

Layman, agree on what you said about Pynchon, Eco and Joyce, particularly Finnegan’s Wake, which I’ve tried to read a couple of times by a sheer act of will, ultimately giving up each time.

I think the internet has made me more of a vertical reader wherein I always want to stop and look things up that interest me mentioned in a text, whereas pre-internet I was more of a horizontal reader and could be more easily swept up in the words and get caught up in the experience. Momentum is important in other ways. For example, I started reading No End Save Victory by Kaiser just before the Fourth and was getting into it and making good progress and then the holiday got in the way and I’ve had trouble resuming the read. Now I’m rereading The Making oof the Atomic Bomb by Rhodes with the hope of returning to Kaiser. We’ll see.


Harry 07.10.14 at 3:03 am

I’ve never read Eco, but i did listen to an unabridged reading of FP, by Tim Rice. I would run listening to it on tape, and found myself running about 3 extra miles a day that summer just in order to keep up with the excitement. I’m not kidding — if you can’t read it, listen to Tim Rice reading it.

Sorry, Tim CURRY, not Tim Rice. Easy mistake to make.


PJW 07.10.14 at 3:05 am

Maybe Huck Finn and Moby Dick for the unread list. Two books people maybe think they should have read and feel guilty for not reading. I’ve never finished MD, but have read HF a handful of times. Mencken said he read Huck Finn every year.


John Quiggin 07.10.14 at 3:16 am

I’ve always found Dostoevsky unreadable. When I was young, used to feel guilty about it, then discovered he was a reactionary in politics, and thought my dislike was justified. Now, I’m less prone to make literary judgements based on politics (at least in that simple way), but I’m old enough that to think: too little time, too many books, to bother overcoming an initial distaste. So like others above, I reread Pratchett or Iain M Banks and mourn the fact that there’s no more to come from either.


maidhc 07.10.14 at 3:19 am

I read The Gulag Archipelago all the way through and I found it fascinating. I also like Pynchon.

Someone gave me Gödel, Escher, Bach back when it was popular, and I sometimes dip into it, so I have probably read the bulk of it, though not sequentially. I find it a bit repetitive though.

I have a number of Terry Pratchetts on the shelf I am consciously putting off reading because I know there are only a finite number of times left I can read one for the first time.

When my father died I inherited a large number of books, which was rather overwhelming, and I haven’t bought a book since. A trip through my parents’ garage can yield a richer harvest than most used bookstores (of course they’re more aimed at my taste).

My wife got into audiobooks which she consumes voraciously while cooking, gardening, etc. She is way ahead of me on writers like Donna Tartt.

Meanwhile my mother, who is nearly 90, has apparently decided to devote her remaining years to building up a complete collection of Maeve Binchy, Nora Roberts and Fern Michaels. She has them all piled up on the coffee table, and it makes quite an impressive pile.

I started out here with the intention of working towards the comment that this reminds me of the Myles na Gopaleen piece about the service that would make your personal library look well-used.


JimV 07.10.14 at 3:26 am

I think I got about 1/5 of the way through “The Gulag Archipelago”, at which point I felt that “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch” and “The First Circle” had already taught me about Stalin’s prison camps, and a recitation of statistics about camp after camp wasn’t adding anything useful (to me).

The first chapter of “The First Circle” was off-putting because it was hard to understand. In it, a bunch of new prisoners arrive at the science camp and meet other prisoners there whom they knew at other work camps. The chapter is mostly dialogue of several conversations going on at the same time with no indication of who is speaking to whom. I almost put the book down, but it became interesting in the next chapter.

The next time I read it, about a year or less later, I could tell who was speaking to whom in the first chapter (having learned their histories and speech patterns from the rest of the book).

It contains two of my favorite scenes in literature, in which two engineers from the camp have been called to the office of the Minister of State Security separately to explain why the project which Stalin has asked for has not been completed on time. The first tries to explain the difficulties using Fourier series. The second tells him that science is not a magic genie and that threats are useless because he is an old man and has already had his home and family taken from him. As an engineer who has had to deal with bureaucratic bosses, I had some fellow feeling, although my instances were not as dramatic.

My blind spot is Agatha Christie. Her characters seem pure cardboard to me. Bought two, never finished either. Obviously, this is more my problem than hers.


MPAVictoria 07.10.14 at 3:47 am

Speaking of audio books I am currently on a PG Wodehouse kick right now. There is something about his stories that really work as audio books. Do yourself a favor and check them out.


bad Jim 07.10.14 at 5:19 am

The discovery of Benford’s Law goes back to 1881, when the American astronomer Simon Newcomb noticed that in logarithm tables (used at that time to perform calculations) the earlier pages (which contained numbers that started with 1) were much more worn than the other pages.

Of course, if you’ve ever browsed a book of logarithms you won’t be surprised that hardly anyone would finish it. So predictable.


Zamfir 07.10.14 at 6:06 am



Raghav 07.10.14 at 6:25 am

OTOH quite possibly if Tartt had been twenty or thirty years younger her first novel would have been more like Divergent.

If Tartt had been thirty years younger when she wrote The Secret History, she wouldn’t have been alive yet.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 07.10.14 at 7:44 am

#21 Does it counts if I’ve read Gödel Escher Bach 3 times, but just the first half? I find it fascinating and interesting (but I studied Computer Engineering with a heavy dosis of Computer Science) but had to make an effort to read it and, somehow, mid-book, some other thing would happen and I did not read again for a few months… and then it was “better start from the beginning”, and… repeat… repeat…


Vanya 07.10.14 at 7:55 am

Not sure how the length of “War and Peace” is daunting in a world where massive cinder-block like tomes of fantasy fiction are routinely consumed like popcorn by millions of readers.

Actually my Russian language edition of “War and Peace” is a 3 volume set – which does make things a little easier.


Mario 07.10.14 at 8:18 am

Douglas Hofstedter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach is one of the least read widely owned books as well

I did read that thing from cover to cover. Towards the end it gets really abstract and tough to follow. I was a mathematics student at the time, so I had the required motivation, the time and the stubbornness – but I don’t blame anyone for dropping the book towards the end.

Brian is right when he observes that academic books tend to say what the point of the book is early on. At least, well written academic texts don’t “build up tension” to let you know the point at the end.

Finally, I think any novel that passes the 1000 page mark is likely not worth reading, and the more it goes into the thousands, the worse it gets. Those 6000 page epics some people like mostly suffer under their own loads (way too many subplots and aspects to be kept in order) and have, in my experience, serious editing problems.


Agog 07.10.14 at 8:44 am

War and Peace: read it with relish as an undergrad. Possibly best tackled when young and not yet tired of didactics.

Ulysses: have started reading it three times and counting. Never got far beyond chapter three. Proust also.

And I nominate The Savage Detectives as another that I suspect many never reach the end of. Or skip through the middle at least. It’s remarkable to be able to get bored part way through a narration of a swordfight.


Sasha Clarkson 07.10.14 at 9:04 am

I read three-quarters of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children before giving up. I decided that, no matter how well written, I did not want to know any more about the characters contained therein. On the other hand, after the first 100 pages, I thought that The Satanic Verses was brilliant. Fortunately, I had previously read Glubb’s (excellent) Life and Times of Muhammad, otherwise I wouldn’t have had a clue about much of what Rushdie was writing about. One could appreciate why the devout thought it was heretical; it was! The nearest thing I’ve found to it in Western literature is Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice, which would have definitely had him burned at the stake a few centuries earlier.


Some books one reads from cover to cover, others one dips into bits of again and again, and others get confined to the guest room!


Sasha Clarkson 07.10.14 at 9:29 am

MPAV @38 Did you catch the British ITV adaptation Jeeves and Wooster? The acting was brilliant, as was the music. You might particularly enjoy the scenes involving Wodehouse’s Oswald Moseley caricature, Roderick Spode, brilliantly played by John Turner.


Harry 07.10.14 at 9:45 am

Oh, I did that with Midnight’s Children, too. Just about exactly 75%. I didn’t even decide to stop I just kept looking at it and thinking that I couldn’t face it.

My elder children can recite whole episodes of Jeeves and Wooster. The Cow Creamer. How come Downton Abbey, rather than Jeeves and Wooster, has swept the world ?


Sasha Clarkson 07.10.14 at 11:18 am

Harry @48 I suppose Jeeves and Wooster was made more than 20 years ago, and intended to be a faithful adaptation of a much loved series. On the other hand, Downton Abbey is a consumer product: a supposedly historical soap opera with anachronistic plot lines aggressively designed to appeal to an international mass market.


Ed 07.10.14 at 11:49 am

Pierre Bayard’s “How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” has an excellent notation system to capture one’s experience with books:

UB book unknown to me

SB book I have skimmed

HB book I have heard about

FB book I have forgotten

++ extremely positive opinion

+ positive opinion

– negative opinion

– extremely negative opinion

As I get older, there is a category of books that I keep and read parts of, but I keep mostly as a reference. I make no attempt to read them straight through. A current example is Mark Mazower’s “Hitler’s Empire” (SB+). Though the book is about Hitler’s empire, there doesn’t seem to be any narrative or argument. You don’t keep turning the pages to find out what happens at the end. Its more of a series of short pieces on this or that aspect of Hitler’s Europe, so it doesn’t seem to be a problem to pick a spot in the book at random and read about Romanian occupation policies in Ukraine, for example.

For example, with the Bible, I have read the New Testament (FB++) straight through from the beginning to end, and it actually reads quite well that way, plus is shorter than people think. But with the Old Testament (SB-) dipping in here and there to read discrete parts seems to be the only way I can approach it.


Trader Joe 07.10.14 at 11:51 am

I’m betting Atlas Shrugged is right up there.

How many pages can you possibly read at one sitting without feeling the need to take a bath. Then again, most of the people who are likely to have read it probably wouldn’t think that.


Barry 07.10.14 at 12:27 pm

“Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read.”

I don’t think that I’ve highlighted *any* passages in my Kindle reading.

Do people here actually do that?


navarro 07.10.14 at 12:55 pm

i’ve read “atlas shrugged” about once a decade since i first read it at 13 to remind me what sort of immoral claptrap some people in the united states use to inform their political worldview. when i read it the first time i felt there was something slightly evil about the author’s perspective on life but i didn’t have the internal vocabulary to explicate that feeling. i’ve read “finnegans wake” all the way through on two occasions but never been able to get past page 50 or 60 of “ulysses” on four or five attempts. i love reading pynchon and i think “gravity’s rainbow” has some of the most powerful writing he ever did but i couldn’t make it past around page 600. i faded about the same time as slothrop started to.

i read widely and books i’ve completed run the gamut from books for children, y.a. fiction, popular fiction, serious fiction, popular nonfiction, to scholarly nonfiction and philosophical works. i’ve never been able to finish “the lion, the witch, and the wardrobe” or “the critique of pure reason” but i’ve read “the brothers karamazov” three times now. i know when i was growing up that everyone my parents knew had a copy of wouk’s “the winds of war” but after i finished it i found that only about one in ten could discuss it with me. i found “godel, escher, bach” a fun read but then found “the mind’s i” a painful slog and let it go.

doesn’t it really go back to personal taste and readiness. aren’t there some books that might not be readable during one part of a person’s life that can be easily read during another? and still other books that a person is never going to be able to finish because the aesthetic or point of view of the book is too different from that of the reader to ever be readable to them?


Anderson 07.10.14 at 12:59 pm

45: the trick with chapter 3 of Ulysses is to read it in the Norton Anthology of English Lit, which reprints the whole chapter, with annotations.


MPAVictoria 07.10.14 at 1:09 pm

I love that TV show! Being Canadian I had to buy it on DVD and have now seen it way too many times. Amazingly entertaining. :-)


Alex 07.10.14 at 1:12 pm

52: Yes. By the way, this is probably a good thread to ask this:

You can access your Kindle notes and highlights by pointing a Web browser at kindle.amazon.com. This doesn’t seem to work for kindle.amazon.co.uk, and I can’t find any equivalent for people with .co.uk user IDs. Is there something I am missing?


Anon 07.10.14 at 1:51 pm

@18 and @22

“18: War and Peace is GOOD. An easy read, even. Just long. Tolstoy is amazing.”

War and Peace is OKAY. It is indeed an easy read, really just a glorified soap opera with token Big Ideas very weakly framing it. Tolstoy’s other works are far superior, especially the short stories, followed by Death of Ivan Ilyich, then Anna Karenina.

Almost every notable Russian author is better than Tolstoy: Dostoevsky, Gogol, Pushkin, Lermenotov, Checkov, Turgenev, Bulgakov, Platonov. Tolstoy’s ADEQUATE, but relative to Russia’s insanely great competition, the worst of the bunch.


J Thomas 07.10.14 at 2:11 pm


It’s been a long time since I read Atlas Shrugged but what I particularly remember is the scenes of desolation. People try to accomplish things and get stopped by the people around them. Over and over and over again. The good people make good plans and try to carry them out, and get thwarted. Over, and over, and over, and over again.

There isn’t much detail about how things work in the Randian heaven. When two inventors come up with two incompatible ways to build railroads, how is it decided which one gets thwarted? The good stuff is vague, the bad stuff gets hammered out in great detail.

So I think to enjoy reading it, you need to enjoy feeling thwarted. There’s a certain perverse satisfaction in feeling like you could do great things if only these other people didn’t stop you. That it’s all their fault for being so stupid and cunningly evil. And if you don’t like that feeling, the book will be hard to read. I got through it, but it was a far worse slog than Lord of the Rings where Frodo had so much abject misery for so long.

At age 14 it kind of bothered me when the copper magnate explained that stupid people could run his business adequately, so he had to carefully sabotage it to stop them. It’s one thing to say that you don’t owe it to the world to use your genius productively even though people will die without it. It’s something else to say they could get along without you so you’re going to carefully make sure that millions of people die.

Oh well. I think under the circumstances the book had some value for its relatively healthy views on sex. Rand proclaimed that sex in itself was not inherently evil. Putting aside the quasi-rapes etc, for its time and its intended audience this was a positive development.


Layman 07.10.14 at 2:28 pm

“I’ve always found Dostoevsky unreadable. When I was young, used to feel guilty about it…”

It was supposed to make you feel guilty, so apparently you got the benefit of it.

A colleague and I used to send each other 2-sentence plot synopses of Great Books. His for Crime and Punishment was, as I recall: “A man kills a woman with an axe. Then he feels bad about it.”

I think we found that second sentence, in some form, is suitable for many of the Greats, e.g. Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, etc.


MPAVictoria 07.10.14 at 2:35 pm

“Putting aside the quasi-rapes”

With notably rare exceptions, Ayn Rand had healthy views on human sexuality….


Anarcissie 07.10.14 at 2:36 pm

Layman 07.10.14 at 2:28 pm @ 59 —
That was a game played on Usenet back in the day, although players were restricted to one-liners. For example, ‘Man walks on water, loses popularity contest, has big comeback’ for the New Testament.


Matt 07.10.14 at 2:46 pm

A colleague and I used to send each other 2-sentence plot synopses of Great Books. His for Crime and Punishment was, as I recall: “A man kills a woman with an axe. Then he feels bad about it.”

Long before the internet, I read somewhere (Maybe the print version of “Cracked”, or National Lampoon? I forget) “Condensed Cliffsnotes, for people who don’t have time for the originals”. My favorite was for Moby Dick: “A whale bites off a man’s leg, and he can never forget about it.”


Anderson 07.10.14 at 3:02 pm

Possibly because I cut my teeth on The Lord of the Rings, long books’ length has never intimidated me. War and Peace is long, but it has few longueurs … the comparison to Proust is instructive. Stuff *happens* in Tolstoy. (Not to bash Proust, just that he’s a much more challenging read.)


LFC 07.10.14 at 3:17 pm

I have War and Peace on my shelf, and its length is somewhat intimidating, at least to me. It’s not just long, it’s very long — the paperback is one of the fattest on my shelf. I’ve dipped into it but not sure I want to, or will, read the whole thing. (I don’t usu. remember BBC adaptations all that well but have a clear memory of A. Hopkins as Pierre. Quite a mannered performance, iirc, but perhaps memorable for that v. reason. Anderson, being somewhat younger than I am, may not have seen that adaptation.) OTOH, there are a few long books I’ve read that in retrospect prob. shdn’t have bothered with, notably Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, which has a few good parts but is, on the whole, rather tedious, as I dimly recollect.


DaveL 07.10.14 at 3:20 pm

I’ve read The Gulag Archipelago, The First Circle, Ivan Denisovitch several times, GEB once (and began skimming after a while), still working on Anna Karenina, read Brief History of Time several times, hoping to better understand the “for physicists” parts, all of Joyce except never completed Finnegans Wake, read all of Pynchon (except the most recent), much of it twice — I reread The Crying of Lot 49 regularly.

I love big doorstop books in general (has anyone else read Stephenson’s Anathem multiple times, not to mention The Baroque Cycle ditto?). I also love Pratchett, Wodehouse, Banks, and George R. R. Martin’s pickup truck full of doorstops*.

Still, when I reread it’s mostly the Nth time for favorites: Gene Wolfe, Pratchett, George V. Higgins, Bruce Sterling, John Crowley…

*”Dynasty overthrown after losing superweapons; victors squabble while dynasty survivor gets more.”


AB 07.10.14 at 3:48 pm

Leo Strauss had much to say about which parts of books get read. Censors and persecutors will read the beginning and the end, so readers seeking the true content should pay close attention to the middle and to notes, appendices, and the like.


Trader Joe 07.10.14 at 3:56 pm

@64 and others on War and Peace

I agree the book looks daunting on the shelf, but the last 250 or so pages in the hardback and about 400 in the paperback are primarily Tolstoy’s diatribe on wars and men and political systems of governance ….it can be read completely separately (or not read at all) from the main soap opera drama of main story line. The core story reads very easily, its that essay at the end which, while quite good, is much more tedious to get through (and which for many earns it a permanent place as a door stop.)

I’d agree with others above who favor Anna Karenia – its a more compelling story and greatly reduces most of the lecuturing.


Anderson 07.10.14 at 4:15 pm

67: Anna Karenina is a great novel, perhaps the greatest, but I much prefer Tolstoy attacking the “great-men theory” in War and Peace to Tolstoy, disguised as Levin, ruminating endlessly about peasants in Anna Karenina. In both cases, one knows when to skim ….


godoggo 07.10.14 at 4:20 pm

I think Nabokov said Chekhov was the only great Russian writer who was translatable. Then he probably apologized for his English again.


Jim Harrison 07.10.14 at 4:28 pm

I doubt if it’s much of a secret to a bunch of college professors that books don’t get read. It’s been a long while since I taught, but I expect that students still administer the required reading to themselves in homeopathic doses. But it isn’t just kids who have trouble finishing books. Reading is hard for people—perhaps much harder than we admit—and it would be interesting to know not just how much or how little of a serious book like Piketty’s gets read but how much serious writing gets read in the aggregate by the average educated adult in a year or a lifetime. Capital in the Twenty-First Century is 600+ pages long, which means, if you do the arithmetic, it contains a line of print not much short of two miles long. It takes considerable discipline, desire, and practice to confine your attention to so narrow a path for the many hours needed to traverse it. Reading your way through even modest personal library is an iron man performance. Of course you can develop the stamina to actually read books just as there are people who routinely run marathons. There just aren’t that many of either.


Anon 07.10.14 at 4:38 pm

@64 “I have War and Peace on my shelf, and its length is somewhat intimidating, at least to me. It’s not just long, it’s very long — the paperback is one of the fattest on my shelf.”

It’s true that the psychological effect of a doorstop book is real, even when the book itself is not difficult. I read Eliot’s Middlemarch with an online reading group, and some people in the group actually cut the book’s binding to make it into a series of small books (apparently how it was originally published). They said it really made it easier to enjoy, just seeing these small reads ahead of them.

I also find that translation can make a big difference with long books. I prefer contemporary ones that don’t convert everything into florid, overly literary Victorian English. Pevear and whoozits for the Russians are always good.

Someone mentioned a “8 hours of my life listening to you” rule, but that seems a bit arbitrary unfair. Most people spend 100s of hours a month attending to things that aren’t either really valuable or even very enertaining: crappy tv shows because they happen to be on, stupid random stuff on the internet, repetitive smart phone games. They’ll read mediocre authors by the caseload: put a genre series, sci-fi, mystery, whatever, into a single book and it would make Tolstoy look miniscule. Or stupid office chitchat, you give a lot more than 8 hours to many an idiot. So, why is it only big, difficult books that you draw the line? They’re more effort, but more rewarding than that daily 10 minute chitchat with the next cubicle or angry birds session or twitter update.


Glen Tomkins 07.10.14 at 4:42 pm

The Bible is in a class by itself in terms of unreadedness. It has this massive readability problem from being written in two dead languages, one of which is the only language I know of that has died more than once. And then it has this more serious problem of everyone imagining they know what it says before they read the first syllable. It would have more readers had the mossbacks prevailed and prevented it from being translated into any vernacular.

The next time you find yourself wallowing in self-pity at being underpublished, take heart from the sad fate of the Bible that being overpublished is even worse.


godoggo 07.10.14 at 5:08 pm

I read Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. I figure that’s good enough.


Layman 07.10.14 at 5:37 pm

‘My favorite was for Moby Dick: “A whale bites off a man’s leg, and he can never forget about it.”’

This is good, but it neglects the important song-and-dance numbers ;>)


Layman 07.10.14 at 5:38 pm

“That was a game played on Usenet back in the day, although players were restricted to one-liners.”

Of course that must be right. We were on Usenet back in the day.


rea 07.10.14 at 5:39 pm

War and Peace is GOOD.

Read the war parts, skip the peace parts . . .


navarro 07.10.14 at 6:20 pm

“war and peace” is good but for my time and effort the full “dark tower” collection by stephen king represents some of the best american writing of the past 3 decades. it is amazing, almost deceptively amazing.


MPAVictoria 07.10.14 at 6:24 pm

navarro I also really enjoyed the Dark Tower series. One of the best opening lines ever.

“The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed.”


Sasha Clarkson 07.10.14 at 6:32 pm

Interesting how different we all are. I preferred the Peace parts of War and Peace to the war parts, because of the descriptions of the psyches, interests and obsessions of the Russian ruling class – and how they evolved over the course of the novel. I read through Anna Karenina, but I found Anna and Vronsky unbelievable – or very stupid, and suspected that Levin was a tedious self-portrait by Tolstoy: I wouldn’t recommend the book at all.

The 1972 BBC adaptation of War and Peace was masterful, with some wonderful actors, including a young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. My Russian mum was very impressed, even though she disliked much of Tolstoy because of his preachiness.


TheSophist 07.10.14 at 7:10 pm

I want to know how Bloix (@11) knows the result of the WC final already. I’d nominate Infinite Jest for the list of the great unreads, not because I didn’t like it (I read the whole beastie three times), but simply based on the anecdotal of conversations I’ve had about it.


TheSophist 07.10.14 at 7:12 pm

Sorry, “anecdotal” should be ” anecdata” – autocorrect error.


LFC 07.10.14 at 7:34 pm

Anon @71 and others

I think I shd clarify that the psychological effect of a bk’s ‘fatness’ may not depend on the *actual* length as much as on the particular edition and how it looks by virtue of page size, type size, margins, etc. The particular paperback ed. of ‘War and Peace’ I have on the shelf just happens to look v. fat. (And I take the pt about the long, separate section at the end.)

By contrast, the pb copy of ‘Middlemarch’ on my shelf is the same one I read (raptly) almost 40 yrs ago as a freshman in college. The type is quite small and it looks like a pretty normal size pb. bk.


LFC 07.10.14 at 7:46 pm

Sasha Clarkson:
The 1972 BBC adaptation of War and Peace was masterful, with some wonderful actors, including a young Anthony Hopkins as Pierre.

Didn’t realize it was quite that long ago. It might not have reached the US till a bit later (73? 74?), and then it was prob. re-broadcast after the initial showing. Still, a long time ago.


LFC 07.10.14 at 7:53 pm

Apropos of nothing except the general theme of reading, I read LeCarré’s ‘A Most Wanted Man’ on a plane recently (or 2 plane trips, to be more precise). Good airplane reading b.c the prose, while quite polished, is streamlined, and the story moves along. Basically a critique, in fictional form, of some of the lawless aspects of the ‘war on terror’.


Matt 07.10.14 at 8:26 pm

I don’t read genre fiction exclusively but I read a lot of it. I’m not ashamed to admit that.

Popular series are often popular for good reason! I enjoyed Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. I was prepared to enjoy Dan Brown too, setting aside all learned criticism to the contrary, but I bounced hard off of The Da Vinci Code. It really was terrible. And speaking of authors that are popular at least in their subgenres, I find Stephen Baxter and Peter F. Hamilton unbearable even though both write about big sweeping space opera stuff that I enjoy thematically. I enjoy reading the Wikipedia summaries of Baxter’s Xeelee Sequence more than the books themselves.

I have read more than half of Stephen King’s published output. Somehow The Tommyknockers didn’t work for me. I read about 80%, to the point where everything was coming to a head, and just lost interest in finishing it.

On doorstops: I ordered Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy online after loving The Golden Gate. That’s what prompted me to get a Kindle. I couldn’t imagine lugging that cinderblock of paper around.

I actually enjoy Pynchon and, even more, Umberto Eco. I think I’ve read The Name of the Rose a half dozen times. Both write a lot of weird, fantastic stuff that would be awkwardly-shelved genre fiction if they hadn’t somehow escaped the genre fiction ghetto.

When I still believed I made an effort one summer to read the Bible cover to cover. I’m pretty sure I bogged down less than halfway through the Old Testament. When there’s nothing violent, bizarre, or poetic it’s like reading a telephone book.


navarro 07.10.14 at 9:16 pm

matt, i believe “the tommyknockers” was written during the worst excesses of his drinking and cocaine use but then so were some of his books i consider quite good. i know he was a hot enough property at the time to allow him to go pretty much without an editor and it really shows in this book. his tendency to ramble was never more painful than it was here. in some ways the books is almost a self-parody and might be worth re-reading from that perspective.


John Costello 07.10.14 at 9:31 pm

Samuel R Delany’s Dhalgren has sold over a million copies and even though I love the book immensely I find it hard to believe that the majority of those million people made it all the way through (especially when he reaches for the unconventional text layout in the back half of the book).

Maybe I’m wrong though. I’d love to be wrong. It’s such a fantastic book.


Anderson 07.10.14 at 10:02 pm

I got as far in Tommyknockers as the beagle being turned into an alien, or whatever, and put the book down. Life is short enough without reading books that mess with beagles.

(Not unlike my reason for never reading McCarthy’s The Road; Jessa Crispin disclosed that it has “A baby. Roasting. On a spit,” and I was all, oh good, another book I never have to read.)


Bloix 07.10.14 at 10:44 pm

#80, yeah, I belatedly realized on my own that “the Germans lost” has a different meaning this summer.

#88 – The Road is one of those books that, when you finish it, you think that those other books the author wrote that you thought were great were maybe not so good after all. If you like Cormac McCarthy, don’t read The Road.


Alan White 07.11.14 at 2:01 am

I just have to say please do read The Road. Yes there are tough passages, but then again these reflect no doubt passages of real time in the world that have already taken place. It is a terrific book, and for all its horror contains the grain of hopeful humanity that sustains us day-to-day as it is on our own awful road.

And if you quit Gravity’s Rainbow before the ending chapters, again you’ve missed images of modernity seldom so well blended in an existentialist Osterizer set at the highest speed.


PJW 07.11.14 at 2:31 am

On one of my trips to the Wittliff Collections to look at early McCarthy drafts of Outer Dark, Child of God and Suttree, one of the staff members there told me they wouldn’t read Blood Meridian because they knew it had a scene in which dead babies were hanging from a tree.


bad Jim 07.11.14 at 7:22 am

As a teenager I cruised through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I did quit reading halfway through Of Human Bondage because I was struck with a bout of jealousy over my sort-of girlfriend. I’m probably not the first person to have Oedipal issues with Maugham.


godoggo 07.11.14 at 8:12 am

Anybody read In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile?


godoggo 07.11.14 at 8:16 am

I just got back from seeing Richard Thompson for free! Kickass. Only played two songs I knew though, leastwise after I arrived.


PJW 07.11.14 at 12:06 pm

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Universally famous and influential yet largely unread?


J Thomas 07.11.14 at 12:51 pm

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Universally famous and influential yet largely unread?

I’ve met creationists who appear to have read the whole thing.

They treat it like some opposing religion’s bible.


Harry 07.11.14 at 1:31 pm

93: not sure I can bear to
94: Lucky you! Look at his forthcoming acoustic album. Saw him in April (not for free) and he was fantastic, better than I’ve ever seen him (maybe 12 times in the past 30+ years).


DaveL 07.11.14 at 2:00 pm

#88: I read The Road and found it up to McCarthy’s writing standard, but it also disgusted me in a way that Blood Meridian did not, and I really have zero interest in reading it again. I had a similar reaction to Thomas Harris’s Hannibal even though I liked The Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon.

My theory is that The Road and Hannibal are utterly, relentlessly, enthusiastically nihilistic, and the others are “only” nihilistic.

#90: My diagnostic for people who claim to have read Gravity’s Rainbow but haven’t is if they start their comments with “The banana breakfast chapter was awesome, wasn’t it?”


MPAVictoria 07.11.14 at 2:07 pm

“Popular series are often popular for good reason! I enjoyed Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. I was prepared to enjoy Dan Brown too, setting aside all learned criticism to the contrary, but I bounced hard off of The Da Vinci Code. It really was terrible.”

I agree with everything in this paragraph. I also enjoyed all of those series and hated the Da Vinci Code. Though the Da Vinci Code is brilliant when compared to its prequel, Angels and Demons, which may be the most predictable book I have ever read. The “surprise” bad guy is obvious from like page 2.

/I am still angry I wasted time on that piece of crap.


Harry 07.11.14 at 2:18 pm

I was just thinking maybe I’d read the Da Vinci Code.

Last year my campus made A Tale for the Time Being its GO BIG READ book — ie, the book we were encouraged to work into our syllabuses, etc. I had a freshman class in the Fall, so I read it in the summer, deciding whether to include it. I got about 3/4rs of the way through it, increasingly disturbed, not by the book which I merely found quite distasteful, but by the fact that it had been chosen by actual responsible adults as something our freshmen should be encouraged to read. It seemed (of course, if I’d finished it this impression might have been dispelled, but I didn’t) to embody a pretty straightforward glorification of suicide. The fact that it was interesting and well-written just made it worse.


bianca steele 07.11.14 at 2:29 pm

I haven’t read the most recent one (I’ve been told it’s hard to plow through), but Dan Brown’s books are readable if you realize they’re a kind of stylized movie script, where each chapter has to have a certain form that allows a certain kind of event and a certain kind of interaction between the characters to happen, not a regular novel where you can comfortably read from page to page until the end. Also if you take a kind of clinical approach to wondering how he’s going to take his ultra-over-educated female character, describe her weird relationship to her unusual father-figure, and make the story her subordination to our hero, the “symbologist” (and you ignore the fact that Harvard does not have a professor of symbology), and how he will then tell her that she should accept herself and be proud. I do remember Angels and Demons as being better than The Da Vinci Code but it’s also more irreligious.


bianca steele 07.11.14 at 2:31 pm

I think Angels and Demons is the one with the scene for anyone who’s ever been afraid of getting caught in those mechanical sliding library stacks.


AcademicLurker 07.11.14 at 2:48 pm

Even though I haven’t read it, I confess to vaguely resenting The Road for SciFi geek reasons. It annoys me when a main stream author gets praised as a genius for doing what genre authors have been doing for years. It’s not as though there isn’t a whole subgenre of post-apocalypse science fiction.


bianca steele 07.11.14 at 2:49 pm

I think I’d rather read Kate Mosse’s new sequel to Labyrinth (not out in the US yet I think) than the new Dan Brown, though the “insight gained through memories of a past life” thing seems annoying to me. She treats the Templars like real people who lived through history, not like super-prophets who knew everything and coded it into the physical world.


AcademicLurker 07.11.14 at 2:50 pm

And I agree with folks up thread, War and Peace is a brisk read until near the end when Tolstoy abandons the idea of actually telling a story and starts simply giving his opinions on politics, religion, marriage & etc.


Trader Joe 07.11.14 at 4:08 pm

@104 bianca
If you mean Citadel, its available. My wife is reading it currently and I’ll look at it next. She says its largely on par with the prior ones….I’ve enjoyed them except they go in a bit more for the occult than I tend to prefer, but still quite well done.


Harold 07.11.14 at 4:46 pm

The final philosophical chapter of War and Peace is an addendum. You probably need background in political philosophy and history of ideas in order to make sense of it. (There is something similar in the final chapter of Henry Adams’s “Education of ..” — ” “The Dynamo and the Virgin”, which I vaguely recall has a lot of theorizing about now-obsolete physics.)

I found when reading a book for a college class, I needed to read it three times (at least) in order to grasp it — or even remember it. But it is probably good training.

Books like the Bible (or, say, The Journey to the West) are compilations of earlier stories and are not really meant to be read, much less absorbed, in a sustained reading. People traditionally focused on select passages, I believe. Nevertheless, as a teenager I got caught up in listening to the entire Old Testament on the radio, on a show that used to come on in 20 minute segments before the Jean Shepherd and Long John Nebel shows on WOR in NY, to which I was devoted, much to the detriment of my senior year high school grades. Later I studied the historical books in a comparative near eastern literature course in a college course — with attention to all the inconsistencies, contradictions, and parallels to other near eastern lit, which I would never have done otherwise.


bianca steele 07.11.14 at 5:53 pm

Lurker @ 105

I’m actually not sure I like them. There’s something off-putting for me about the narration, and I was nonplussed when at the end of Sepulchre (this isn’t much of a spoiler, really) it seemed the present-day character had learned she had to do penance (or at least suffer and not drink to conceal it) for the fact that her ancestor had been a leader of the Paris Commune. And she does seem ambivalent toward the occult, which seems to have made her aristocratic family vampiric toward the peasants, though at the same time the Tarot seems to be a metaphor for art, so it’s complicated.


Jim Buck 07.11.14 at 7:21 pm

“That was a game played on Usenet back in the day, although players were restricted to one-liners.”

It’s fun to do this with plays too, e.g. Snakes on a barge ?

Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Universally famous and influential yet largely unread?

I’ve met creationists who appear to have read the whole thing.

They treat it like some opposing religion’s bible.

I’m reading, right now, Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope . This is a 1348 page (Count ’em!) building-block of a book–by a liberal—whose contents right-wing conspiracy theorists have clumsily interpolated. The effect is like traversing some unfamiliar city where pranksters have switched signposts round–so the map you brought with you appears to be lying. Being more than a little dumb myself, it has taken me until page 4959 (of the 7841 ibook edition) to twig that when Quigley appears to arbitrarily switch from parenthesis –to the use of square brackets– interpolators, and Menardists, are at work, e.g.

…Darwin, whose writings came to stand for [alleged] proof of the animal nature of man, and of Sigmund Freud, whose writings were taken to [allegedly] show that sex was the dominant, if not the sole human motivation…

Despite its length, Tragedy and Hope is a fascinating and easy read.


Harry 07.11.14 at 8:08 pm

I’m in the middle of Labyrinth right now, funnily enough, and find it entirely readable, readable enough that I’ll read the next one, and that when I realised bianca was going to give a spoiler for another book I stopped reading the comment.

Now, C. J. Sansom and S.J. Parrish, they are both terrific.


DaveL 07.11.14 at 8:37 pm

What about Infinite Jest? I haven’t read it, but I have heard it praised by many people, many of whom also say they hadn’t … yet … finished it.


Unlearningecon 07.11.14 at 8:53 pm

Don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve tried multiple times to read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and found myself unable to continue due to the unsupported arguments, repetition and general feeling that I being sold snake oil. I’ll happily trudge through a Marxist history book, but that kind of salesman-esque ‘pop’ social science is just unbearable. In fact, I think TTP is the only non-fiction book I’ve ever not finished.


Hix 07.11.14 at 8:53 pm

Counting the long list of footnotes at the end as part of the book is just not fair to capital 21. The book itsself is neither hard to read nor very long.


bianca steele 07.11.14 at 11:24 pm


I hope you like it. If it wasn’t so long, I’d probably be planning to read it again someday. I’m not sure I recommend reading three or four of Mosse’s books in a row, but that’s probably the case with any writer, and your mileage may vary.


AJtronTheInvincible 07.12.14 at 1:43 am

> I am pretty sure my first book has been cited much more often than it has read,
> and I have pretty compelling evidence that two of the reviewers didn’t read it.
Entire careers have been destroyed or significantly affected negatively because reviewers didn’t read the article/the paper/the book. This s**t has to end.

The whole idea of “blind peer review” must be revisited, imho. I don’t think there were any peers for one particular paper of mine and that was a big deal. I don’t think there are any peers for many papers out there, not because they are so awesome but because there seems to be a lot of very smart people who have acquired in depth knowledge in all sorts of areas that it is hard these days to even know who can qualify as a peer for paper X of scholar Y.

I had a paper on how to -rapidly- improve literacy rates in developing countries (specifically, India), but I got a negative blind review. I was never even told who the reviewers were. If this paper were seriously debated within the norms of academic discourse, I am pretty sure it would have gotten much further (and we are talking about rapidly improving literacy rates in a matter of years, not decades). I say this because my own career was significantly affected because of this bulls**t “blind peer review” process. Richard Sproat, IIRC, has also said that one of his papers (it was on the Indus Script hypothesis) was wrongly rejected, and he still seems bitter about it. He doesn’t believe the reviewers even knew what they were exactly reviewing. I had the same problem. I don’t think any of the reviewers had any clue what they were doing.

If anyone is interested in knowing more about how to rapidly improve literacy rates in the developing world, please get my email address from Corey Robin and feel free to contact me.


QS 07.12.14 at 6:36 am

At around page 100 of a good, large book my mentality shifts from “god this book’s big” to “I have so much more to read–awesome!”


Anarcissie 07.12.14 at 1:40 pm

@109 — What’s a Menardist, other than Miss France?


JW Mason 07.12.14 at 2:06 pm


What would have happened in your case if the review hadn’t been blind?


Glen Tomkins 07.12.14 at 5:21 pm


Pierre Menard is the French Author who wrote Don Quixote. No, not a retelling of the work by Cervantes, but the same book, line for line, word for word. But Menard’s work is far superior because it was written three centuries later than Cervantes’, and thus, according to Menard’s reviewer, Borges, it has a much richer allusional structure.

Now, you can be assured that I’m not making this up, because Borges mentions it in a printed book, and now we have Jim Buck mentioning Menard — on the internet — so you know it has to be true.

If you still don’t believe me, look it up in the Encyclopedia of Uqbar.


Jim Buck 07.12.14 at 6:31 pm


novakant 07.12.14 at 8:04 pm

Unread and want to read:

Brodkey: The Runaway Soul
Gass: The Tunnel
Nadas: A Book of Memories
Gray: Lanark
Joyce: Ulysses


Glen Tomkins 07.12.14 at 8:27 pm


This announcement may be a bit premature, and I certainly don’t want to inspire imitators who might pre-empt me in this venture, but I myself am planning to write Das Kapital. It will be much more meaningful and convincing as written in 2014, given all the supporting evidence that has accumulated since Marx penned that crude and unsubtle version back when.

The chief remaining difficulty I am having with this project is that I can’t decide whether to write it in German — I language I have the misfortune to not be conversant in — or English. Either choice has the potential to negatively impact the credibility of my work.


Jim Buck 07.12.14 at 8:37 pm

In honour of Borges–who greatly preferred to read Don Quixote in English–you should Menard Marx in our mutual mother tongue.


godoggo 07.12.14 at 9:55 pm

For what it’s worth Nabokov said Cervantes was a hack or something to that effect. Dostoevsky too.

Was a hack, that is. Said Nabokov.

The one translation of Don Quixote that I ever started reading was a modern one in very simple English that was supposedly more accurate than the best-known translation, but it just seemed so stupid I don’t think I got past page 10.


Glen Tomkins 07.12.14 at 10:10 pm

You and Nabokov, and even Dostoevsky, need to go back and read the Menard version. It’s knowing and ironic in all the places that Cervantes is naïve and unthinking.


Meredith 07.12.14 at 11:42 pm

Sorry for reading no comments, and also for skipping over this previously. My excuse: “Unread books” makes me think of only one thing, my mother, and while I like thinking of her, I miss her enough already.

She used to tell the story of standing in the Washingtonville, NY Public Library one summer (a small library, btw) and, a young girl, weeping, because she would never be able to read all those books! Even as a young girl, I never got this story. I would weep if I HAD read all the books to be read.

I mourn too many writers of my lifetime who died — what? no more books from XXX? Somehow, if they’ve been dead long enough, I accept with equanimity that they wrote what they wrote. And in most cases (there are A LOT of books to read!), I haven’t gotten to what they wrote, not yet.

Not yet. The promise of books still unread is sweet.

How about the books not read because they haven’t been written yet? That thought makes me yearn for some sort of afterlife, an eternity of library.

My mother’s story and my own converge in the end, don’t they?


Anarcissie 07.13.14 at 12:01 am

I had heard about Menard’s project but had forgotten the name. The story about Žižek is really more interesting; just the thought of a ‘International Journal of Žižek Studies’ cheers me up. But Menard is not a plagiarist.


Alan White 07.13.14 at 12:06 am

Meredith: your comment reminded me of the famous Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last”, which was adapted from a short story by Marilyn Venable written the year I was born. It takes the inverse of Sartrean hell-as-other-people by making heaven a stocked library after the apocalypse for Burgess Meredith’s bibliophilic and anthrophobic Henry Bemis, and throws in bad luck to convert it all back to hell. Even as a kid first watching that episode, it really resonated with me (especially because I was so myopic that my uncorrected focus was about 1 inch in front of my eyes).

Great story about your mother.


Anarcissie 07.13.14 at 12:08 am

Meredith 07.12.14 at 11:42 pm @ 126 —
Even when you have read a book you have not read it. As Heraclitus noted, you cannot step in the same river twice. Thus Stevie Smith, when a publisher wanted her to write another book of poems, told him to read the first one again. If only our friend Menard had been there to assist!


MPAVictoria 07.13.14 at 12:31 am

“My mother’s story and my own converge in the end, don’t they?”

Beautiful Meredith.


Anon 07.13.14 at 12:34 am

@124 godoggo 07.12.14 at 9:55 pm

“For what it’s worth Nabokov said Cervantes was a hack or something to that effect. Dostoevsky too.”

When I read Lolita, I thought it was inordinately silly, both in concept and in style. What a hack, I thought. I decided I should reread it to be sure, but then I later ran into that quote about Dostoevsky. That made me seriously reconsider my plans to give Nabokov a second chance.

Now I’ve recently learned Nabokov “improved” his personal copy (English translation) of Kafka’s Metamorphosis:

For example, he changed the first line from awoke “from uneasy dreams” to “a troubled dream.” That’s just awful. He’s on my permanent shitlist/no-read list now.


LFC 07.13.14 at 1:20 am

Anon @131
Why in God’s name should anyone care what Nabokov did with his personal copy of the English translation of ‘Metamorphosis’? It’s not like he was putting it out in the world, even if he did lecture on the bk. Appears to have been more a case of amusing himself, somewhat trivially.


Meredith 07.13.14 at 6:41 am

My mother and I were (I still am) wrapping-paper-and-ribbons nuts. We expended (I still expend) inordinate amounts of time, energy, and imagination in wrapping the most trivial present. (Some others in family share in this, including a a couple who don’t share so easily my fond memories of my mother — she wasn’t an easy person.) What’s this to do with reading? A lot. Start with, re-use. A serious wrapper saves and re-uses everything: paper, ribbons and bows, and the myriad other baubles of wrapping. (My mother and I would use this principle to justify buying some gorgeous paper or ribbon we couldn’t really afford: we’ll re-use it!)

This a happy response to Anarcissie re re-reading. And also a larger observation about books and writers. All that re-wrapping! (which is why Nabokov’s Ovid is actually interesting — what story may lurk there?). A present we give one another over and over again.


trane 07.13.14 at 7:04 am

@90. OK, Alan. I will give Gravity’s Rainbow a third try :-)

The Name of the Rose, by the way, is my Most Re-read Book. But maybe that’s another thread.

Re: Hofstadter, I really enjoyed his Metamagical Themas.



Jay Livingston 07.13.14 at 4:21 pm

The Japanese have a word for it: tsundoku.


Jeremy Fox 07.15.14 at 8:06 pm

@95 and 96:

A substantial fraction of ecologists and evolutionary biologists have read Darwin’s Origin of Species, though I wouldn’t venture to guess the exact fraction. No idea what fraction of folks outside those fields, or outside science altogether, have read it.

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