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Well worth not reading

Some of my favorite books are the ones I’ve never opened

By Kirsty Logan
February 13, 2011

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Like most readers, I love browsing in bookshops and libraries. I enjoy running my fingers along the spines of books and reading titles and authors’ names, pulling the books out and flipping through them, thinking about the stories inside them.

And like most readers, sometimes I buy or borrow the books and read them. This is where an unexpected and troubling thing happens. As much as I enjoy the books, I often find that the book I have read is somehow not as exciting as the book I had imagined reading.

There are hundreds of films I’ve never seen, thousands of songs I’ve never heard. But I don’t anticipate them the way that I do books. I don’t imagine the things I would learn from them, how my life would be subtly but surely different after I had experienced them. With books, the anticipation is different. In fact, with books, it is sometimes the best part.

Last week I bought a book. I looked at the blurb and read the first paragraph, and I could feel the texture of the book in my mind. It was going to be a steadily paced yet exciting coming-of-age story about three young girls who go camping in the woods, stumble across a couple vacationing in a cabin, and see things through the windows that upend their world. It would move from the girls in their clumsy tent, to their fable-like journey through the forest, to the glowing windows of the cabin. The story was going to be overflowing with the smell of mulching leaves, the stale sweetness of fizzy drinks on the tongue, the crackle of empty sweet wrappers. It was going to be honest and real and uncomfortably sensual.

Except that it wasn’t about that at all: It was a thriller about a woman having an affair. With every sentence I read, the book I had imagined shrank smaller and smaller. By the end of the third page, it had disappeared. The actual book was by no means bad, it just wasn’t the book I thought it would be. That dense, bittersweet story I had anticipated reading did not exist, and I felt a sense of loss, a yearning for something unreal. And yet somehow I had read that nonexistent book, because I had created it myself. I was not changed by the experience of reading that book, but perhaps I was changed by my own anticipation of what it could have been.

So I save books. I buy a book with every intention of reading it, but then the more I look at it and think about how great it is going to be, the less I want to read it. I know that it can’t possibly live up to my expectations, and slowly, the joy of my own imaginings becomes more precious to me than whatever actually lies between the covers.

Most books I read just get chewed up and spat out. I enjoy them, but ask me in a year and all I’ll remember is a vague shape of plot, the sense of a character, perhaps the color of a sky in summer, or the taste of borscht. My favorite books, of course, do stay with me. They shift and color my world, and I am different for having read them. But before reading a book, there’s no way to know which it will be: a slick of lipstick that I wear for a day and then wipe off, or a tattoo that stays on my body forever. An unread book has the potential to be the greatest book I have ever read. Any unread book could change my life.

I currently have about 800 unread books on my shelves. Some would find this excessive, and they would probably be right. But to me, my imagined library is as personal and meaningful — or perhaps even more so — than the collection of books I have read. Each book is intense and vivid in my mind; each book says complex things about my life, history, and personality. Each book has taught me something about the world, or at least about my own expectations of the world, my idea of its possibilities. Here are some examples:

I think that Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” is at once claustrophobic and expansive. It has the texture of solid green leaves crunched between your molars. It tastes of sweetened tea and stale bread and dust. When I read it, I will feel close to my father because it is his favorite book. Reading the Gormenghast books will allow me to understand my father in ways I currently do not, and at certain points in the book I will put it down and stare into the middle distance and say aloud, “Oh. Now my childhood makes sense.”

Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” will make me sad and proud and indignant. I will no longer get tangled up in discussions about gender issues, because I will finally have clear-cut and undeniable examples of how gender stereotyping is bad for everyone. Reading it will make me feel like an integral part of queer history and culture, and afterwards I will feel mysteriously connected to all my fellow LGBT people. Perhaps I will even have gaydar.

Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” is an obsessive and world-shifting epic. When I read it, I will be completely absorbed by it. It will be all I think about. It will affect my daily life in ways I can’t fully understand, and when I finish it, I will have come to profound revelations about the nature of existence. I will finally understand all the literary theory I wrote essays on when I was at college.

Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” has been on my shelves for 10 years, dragged from house to house without its spine ever being cracked. It was given to me by a friend when I was a teenager, and I cannot read it because when I do, I will finally understand my friend, and that scares me. Her life is a set of nesting dolls with something solid and simple at the center, and I do not know whether that thing is pure gold or sticky-dark tar-poison. Holding the book is holding my friend’s hand, and that is as close as I dare to get.

Jeff VanderMeer’s “City of Saints and Madmen” is an entire universe between two covers. It contains sculptures and mix tapes and skyscrapers and midwives and sacrifices, and everything else that exists in my own world, but with every edge crusted in gilt and mold. It will open my eyes to a new way of seeing, and when I finish it, I will somehow have been transformed from being just a person who writes into A Real Writer.

Anais Nin’s “Journals” will shatter my illusions and create new ones. Anais Nin is everything that I fear and hope that I am; when I read her “Journals,” she might be everything I think she is. This is thrilling and terrifying at the same time, because then I will be forced to emulate her life of complex heartaches, pearls and lace, all-day sleep, and absinthe-soaked dinner parties — and those things are just not practical. And, even more frightening, she may not be who I think she is. If she is not special, then no one can be special.

I am not ready for Françoise Sagan’s “Aimez-Vous Brahms.” At 18 I read her novella “Bonjour Tristesse” and I was transformed: This book held a truth I didn’t even know I knew. The protagonist of “Aimez-Vous Brahms” is 39, and so when I read it at 39 it will tell me the truth the same way that “Bonjour Tristesse” did when I was 18. Like 18, 39 is a the perfect meeting of anticipation and experience, and this book will guide me through into the next phase of my life.

I have not read these books because I worry that they’re not the books I think they are. I’m sure they are wonderful books, but no book could possibly contain all the knowledge and understanding I am expecting from these. Perhaps I will never read them. This is the same logic that means I will probably never visit Russia: I imagine that a trip to Russia will be the crux of my life. Every moment will be candy-colored buildings and strong coffee on silver platters, steam trains slipping past quaint farmhouses and huge black bears glimpsed through the snow, furred hats against my ears, and history seeping into my veins. I know that if I actually go to Russia, there will be moments where I don’t like the food, or my feet ache, or I can’t sleep, or I get annoyed at not being able to read the Cyrillic signs. If I keep it in my imagination, it stays pure and perfect.

There is another reason to leave books unread: because I know I really will love them. This might seem nonsensical, and I suppose it is. I am a writer, and I know that certain books will resonate deeply and perfectly because they are similar in some way to my own writing, though vastly better. This is why I have not read Alice Greenway’s “White Ghost Girls,” a short and lyrical novel about sisters in 1960s Hong Kong; or Francesca Lia Block’s fantastical erotica novellas, “Ecstasia” and “Primavera”; or Stewart O’Nan’s small-town ghost story, “The Night Country”; or anything ever written by Martin Millar.

I know that I will love them and want to learn from them, and so I don’t read them: firstly because it is tiring to read that way, with your eyes and ears and brain constantly absorbing; and secondly because once I read them they will be over, the mystery will be revealed. These books have affected my writing, and I haven’t even read them. Maybe we can learn as much from our expectations of a story as we can from the actual words on the page.

Try an experiment with me. It might seem odd at first, but go to your bookshelves and pick a book you have not read. Hold it in your hands. Look at the cover and read the description on the back. Think about what the story might be about, what themes might be in it, what it might say about the world you inhabit, whether it can make you imagine an entirely different world.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that book. It might prove to be a great book, the best book you have ever read. But I suggest that the literary universe you have just created might be more exciting and enlightening than the one contained within those covers. Your imagination contains every possible story, every possible understanding, and any book can only be one tiny portion of that potential world.

Kirsty Logan is a fiction writer in Glasgow. This article was adapted from a post on TheMillions.com.