Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Unread Book Route

So, about that "One third of people buy books to show off" thing. Yes, I know I'm days late; the dog ate my excuse. And yes, I know it's a "funny poll" story, the lowest form of press-release journalism. But there are some interesting distinctions not being made.

In the first category, there are the books bought to show off with no intention of reading. This is what the poll-answerers appear to be confessing to; few if any of the crowd of commenters on the blog entry are joining them, perhaps because that would be genuinely shameful.

Then there are the heavy or trendy books bought with the intention of reading, on which we give up; most commenters are confessing to this, but it seems hardly a sin at all. If, as Q.D. Leavis approximately said, good reading means living beyond your intellectual means, then it's not surprising if good readers shoot the moon once in a while. Shows ambition.

And then there is a category one of the commenters did mention: the show-off books read without understanding. Five years ago, I "read" Anna Livia Plurabelle, the supposedly most crowd-pleasing section of Finnegans Wake; I followed the advice of someone cleverer and took it in one gulp, as a sort of abstract word-painting, rather than attempting to decode it line by line. I believed myself to be enjoying it. I even had a hazy, distant sense of comprehension. This is now entirely vanished, along with every single word. Someone has failed a test there, and I think it's me.

Deeper still, and stickier, is the distinction between reading to look good and reading to be good, in the sense Q.D. would want you to. In front of a sceptical pollster, attempting to confess to the second could be even more embarrassing.

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