There comes a point in every reader’s life when they must make peace with all the books they’ll never read. This is true even for the most voracious reader in the world. They say Alexander Pope was the last person to have read every book ever written. Given today’s publishing release schedules and the advent of e-books, a newborn in 2018 who lived to be eighty and did nothing but read their entire life would not even read a small fraction of the world’s library, an exponentially growing Babel straight out of Borges’s most fevered fantasy.
When you’re younger, you know logically that you will not, cannot, read every book. Yet youth’s convincing illusion of immortality is not confined to the realms of romance and illegal substances—it informs your reading as well, and it does so in two senses. First, all books possess a nimbus of potentiality, however faint. True, it may not be likely that you’ll read Finnegans Wake, but it’s possible. Second, believing you possess an infinite amount of life, you can fritter it away on books both trivial and great. A nostalgic rereading of The Hitchhiker’s Quartet? Sounds fun! An abortive yearlong stab at 2666? Why not!
But as holds true for many other things, these illusions begin to fall away around the age of forty. You don’t have time to waste on bad books, and you know yourself better than to seriously think you’re going to learn French in order to read À la recherche du temps perdu in its original language. You know yourself well—too well, maybe. Your tastes can easily become circumscribed by habit, and you venture less frequently afield to the strange shelves that turned up unexpected favorites in your youth. These tendencies should be countered whenever possible, but aging unavoidably shapes a reader.
One manifestation, for me anyway, is an increasing willingness to abandon a book if it isn’t very good. For instance, a recently published and heavily praised novel that stunk like two-day-old fish and that I gave up on after a chapter (I wrote about that experience here). Now that I think about it, I may not even have gotten through the first chapter. I just knew. I knew it wasn’t good, and I knew it wasn’t going to get a lot better, and I knew myself, and I knew there were other books I’d rather be spending my time on. I think when I was younger, I would have finished it, as I finished many other books I hated. When you’re young, hating books (and music and art and film and TV) is important. It’s a vital means of shaping your own artistic taste—I owe a lot as a writer to books I’ve hated over the years. But when you’re older, hating art is an indulgence, a vice, and, worst of all, a waste of the time you increasingly have less of.
More generally, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become aware of the fact that I simply won’t get around to some books. Perfectly worthy books: books with many admirers, by authors of stature and importance. It’s a sad feeling, a little like being in a crowded party and scanning the scene, aware of all the interesting, funny people you might be friends with but will never make the effort to know.
Here is a more or less random list of some of the books I’ll never read:
1. Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet
I have owned a handsome boxed edition of this since I was in high school. I don’t know where I got it—if it was a birthday present, it was a strange birthday present for a sixteen-year-old. I think I actually once read a little of the first volume, Justine. I have a sense of it as antique and mustily erotic, and it brings me pleasure enough as an object: the sturdy box, the color-coded volumes, the original artwork of a domed mosque and minarets. I don’t plan to ruin a perfectly good thing by ever opening it again.
2. Minor Joseph Conrad
The Secret Agent is one of my favorite books, and Heart of Darkness is an influential and prescient—if problematic—part of the canon. But The Arrow of Gold? Am I going to read The Arrow of Gold? It seems unlikely. Likewise minor Henry James. I’ll be lucky if I get to major Henry James. An embarrassing admission: I’ve never read Henry James, except The Turn of the Screw and various fragments. He’s “on the list” as they say, or as I say, but the list is long, and life is not. I fully intend to read The Ambassadors and What Maisie Knew. But will I read The Princess Casamassima? Come on.
3. To the Lighthouse
I read this one in college, but did I really read it? I opened it many times, and my eyes followed the words on the page, but did the words jump from my optic nerves to my brain? Clearly not, as I remember very little of it. Is there actually a lighthouse? I think there might be. A mother inside a country manor? Maybe. Really, this is an example of a larger category: important books that I technically read in a state of adolescent torpor and will now probably never actually read.
4. The Bible
Look, I know it’s important. I know it’s the wellspring of the Western canon. I know I should read it, and I’m not going to. You can’t make me. I’ve read Ecclesiastes, which is totally great, and when I was a kid, I was fascinated and terrified, as most kids and credulous adults are, by the prophecies in Revelation. But I just don’t see myself diving into Corinthians, let alone Colossians. I confess here that I’ll never read it, and I won’t ask for forgiveness.
5. Infinite Jest
I’ve tried it a few different times. I can’t do it. I don’t sense enough reward. The risk, however, is obvious: having to read Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace may well have been a genius, but I like geniuses who edit their work. The signal-to-noise ratio is simply too low for me. Yes, I’ve read “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and yes, it’s pretty good. Still, I’m happy to die without ever trying this supposedly great book again.
6. To Kill a Mockingbird
I somehow never read this one as a kid, and I can’t imagine sitting down with it as an adult. It isn’t so much that I feel too old for the book now, though there is that. It’s more that To Kill a Mockingbird has been so thoroughly absorbed by the culture that I feel like I’ve already read it. It already exists in my mind, a mélange of plot points and character names and historical details and Gregory Peck pacing a courtroom. I’ve made my peace with this version standing in for the real thing.
This is another embarrassing one to admit, but what the hell? We’ve already come this far. Obviously, I should read it, and I intend to—I do!—but I harbor a lurking suspicion that I won’t. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, I know a lot about it. Is that good enough? The names alone—Ishmael, Ahab, Pequod, Queequeg—somehow ward me away. They manage to simultaneously evoke the Bible, nineteenth-century New England deprivation, and fish. My intention to read Moby-Dick feels like the equivalent of my intention to clean out my office closet—well-meaning and more or less sincere, yet too easily averted by things that are more fun (a category that includes almost everything).
This essay is not purely bittersweet—there’s relief in being too old for certain things. I still shudder at the thought of twelve-year-old me and the phone-book-size edition of Atlas Shrugged I hauled around for a year (in a briefcase—could that be right? I may have retroactively embellished the memory for maximum shame). I had no idea what it was about, but the cover was cool, and it seemed to mark me as the intellectual I was (which is to say not an intellectual at all). God only knows what my teachers made of this affectation. I dutifully read On the Road at eighteen, and my Bukowski phase was paired, sommelier-like, with my early twenties. There are simply ages when certain books and authors work best, and if you miss your window, you’ve missed it.
In my later twenties, out of curiosity and perverse hipster irony (with a dash of self-loathing thrown in), I tried Battlefield Earth, The Da Vinci Code, and Ender’s Game. I’m here to report that Battlefield Earth is every bit as bad as you assume it is. I snobbishly wanted to see why people liked those books, and I came away unenlightened. In any case, I would never do that now. I have long since made peace with other people’s taste and the fact that reading doesn’t—shouldn’t!—serve the same function for everyone.
The culling of a potential library is a pleasurable, if melancholy, exercise. I appreciate my friends far more at forty than I did at twenty, and I appreciate books more as well. What a pleasure it is to read a great book! What a joy it is to shed the weight of all the should-have-reads—and admit they’re never-wills. And who knows—maybe I’ll get around to Finnegans Wake after all. But please stop telling me to read Infinite Jest.
Adam O’Fallon Price is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour and The Hotel Neversink (Tin House Books, 2019). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Vice, the Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.