Oh the shame.
January 17, 2004 1:04 PM   Subscribe

Books I Did Not Read This Year: For novelty or perhaps for gleeful one-downmanship, Kieran at Crooked Timber shares a list of books he did not read in 2003. Literary guilt is hardly new, but some argue our neuroses about unread books grows as our distractions multiply. Of course, this attitude (besides bordering on criticism of the glib, "pop lite" type) usually comes part and parcel with the common complaint that paper culture is dead. And one could easily make a distinction between neurotic englit-geek Guilt and the casual reader's mere missed opportunity. Without rehashing either of those discussions, what are the (presumably) best books (or any pieces of art) you didn't consume in 2003?
posted by ifjuly (44 comments total)
Lovely post.
posted by the fire you left me at 1:36 PM on January 17, 2004

Well, it's not a book from 2003, but David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest has been on my shelf for several years now, ever since I got a discounted hardcover copy for about $6. My brother has read it and tells me it's excellent. But I've never even started it. Mainly because I do most of my reading on the bus to and from work, and the thing is just too damn heavy to carry around.

The two books that I heard everyone talking about last year that I haven't even touched are Life of Pi and The DaVinci Code. My mom is insisting on sending me her copy of the latter, she says it's that good. I suspect I've already heard the subject treated much better in Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, which I have read.
posted by dnash at 1:37 PM on January 17, 2004

Thoreau: why read books when you can read Nature direct.
posted by Postroad at 1:49 PM on January 17, 2004

Speaking of Infinite Jest, I just put it down five minutes ago after coming to a ten page footnote. That book requires patience but pays off with moments of sheer poetic brilliance.

I'll get back to it in a few hours.

However, I am still refraining from starting Stephenson's Cryptonomicon.
posted by xmutex at 1:55 PM on January 17, 2004

I too have been working on Infinite Jest for several years. It sits there on the shelf mocking me. I read it for a few days --and enjoy it for the most part-- but my attention will always drift to something shorter and more portable.

I read a lot of books in '03 but none on Kieran's list. Rereading 1984 last year was kinda spooky.

And like in the Slate article, there are a lot of the classics I haven't read yet. Maybe I'll get to them right after I finish Infinite Jest.
posted by birdherder at 1:57 PM on January 17, 2004

dan simon's comment after this article is worth reading. i almost cut+pasted, but it's too long.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:04 PM on January 17, 2004

Well, it's not a book from 2003, but David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest has been on my shelf for several years now, ever since I got a discounted hardcover copy for about $6.


The two books that I heard everyone talking about last year that I haven't even touched are Life of Pi and The DaVinci Code.

I have read all three, so I will let you in on my own personal rating system for the books in question....

If you can't make it through Infinite Jest ( an excellent book that reads like Faulkner on Prozac - if you like Prozac, that is.....) , read Life of Pi ( a book that was hyped up a bit too much, but still an "okay" read on a rainy day. ) ...and if you can't make it through Life of Pi, take the copy of The DaVinci Code and through it out the window.
posted by bradth27 at 2:13 PM on January 17, 2004

Oh, I almost forgot.... here's my list of unread ( although sitting on my nighstand/table/desk waiting to be picked up) books for 2003....

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander

Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1) by Neal Stephenson

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Benjamin Franklin : An American Life by Walter Isaacson

Alfred Hitchcock : A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

Playboy: Fifty Years: The Photographs by James R. Peterson (yeah, there might be something to read in there.....)

Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market by Eric Schlosser

and one that I just bought yesterday.....

Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (Great Discoveries) by David Foster Wallace
posted by bradth27 at 2:31 PM on January 17, 2004

I have not read the LOTR trilogy for 15 years now. I pick it up every year, get about 50 pages in, and put it down again. Boy, that's one I get a lot of shit for, especially in the past three years.

Books I own that I have busy not reading for more than a decade: Foucault's Pendulum; A Clockwork Orange; The Sun Also Rises; Steppenwolf; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

I really like Neal Stephenson (and I've read and own everything else he's written) but I did not read Cryptonomicon or Quicksilver.

dnash, I also have not read Life of Pi or The DaVinci Code, despite recommendations.

I will continue not to read Infinite Jest or Gravity's Rainbow with pleasure.
posted by Melinika at 2:34 PM on January 17, 2004

The two books that I heard everyone talking about last year that I haven't even touched are Life of Pi and The DaVinci Code. My mom is insisting on sending me her copy of the latter, she says it's that good.

I had to read DaVinci code because I was scheduled to sit next to Dan Brown at a dinner where he was speaking, and I felt like I needed to be able to have some idea what his books were about.

DVC is the second book in a series -- I believe Angels and Demons is the title of the first (which is set in Vatican City and involves a plot around the selection of a new pope). I read it in one sitting, in just a few hours. At its core its really just a standard whodunit murder mystery, but I can see why its caught fire -- a lot of the ideas contained in it must seem revolutionary to middle America. Its a good book to read on the beach, or on a car/train/plane trip.

Truthfully I was far more impressed with the author than with the book. He's a sharp, funny guy and I get the impression all this success has taken him by surprise. He's also now besieged by people who want to share their "spiritual journey" with him, which doesn't seem like any fun at all.
posted by anastasiav at 2:40 PM on January 17, 2004

The guy in the initial link mentions "The Rothschilds" by Niall Ferguson, which I witnessed my wife buy and start reading in bed with the greatest eagerness -- only to see her driven to sleep night after night with the sheer tedium of it. You can safely skip anything by Mitch Albom, unless you have never for one second in your entire life ever contemplated the fact that someday you will die, in which case you should find his elementary expositions of this fact a real wake up call. As far as the classics are concerned, I believe you can skip anything by George Eliot, you can skip "Ulysses" (although not anything else by Joyce), "Ada" (every other book, story, essay, lecture and poem by Nabokov, however, must be read), and you've already skipped George Meredith, I'm sure. And that's about it. Many people think they can skip "Don Quixote," but they are wrong. To skip the Don (in modern translation) is to miss out on what is sure to be one of the most pleasurable episode of your life.
posted by Faze at 2:41 PM on January 17, 2004

I'd like to add myself to the list of people who are actively not reading Infinite Jest. I've actively tried to actually read it on several occasions, but I'm not a hundred and fifty pages in, and have entirely forgotten how it started a year and a half ago. I did read all of the essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, so I'm not anti-David Foster Wallace, just anti great big long books that appear to mostly be about chemicals with a few characters thrown in for narrative purposes.

To follow up on some other items mentioned in this thread, while I am not reading Infinite Jest in the bedroom, my choice of books to not read in the bathroom has been Foucault's Pendulum. On the other hand, I read Cryptonomicon in the living room last year. I have been not reading Don Quixote for some time now, 3 years at least, along with the rest of the books in Dumas' Three Musketeers series which were bought on the same day. I'm not reading Don Quixote because I planned to read it after the set of Dumas books, while I'm not reading the rest of the books in the Three Musketeers, because I neglected to buy the second one.

And some new mentions: Currently, the book I am not reading in the living room is Learning Perl, but that's a relatively new arrival so I don't think it counts for official non-reading status yet. I plan to continue neither buying nor reading Oryx & Crake until it is released in paperback.

Sad to say, that while my not-reading list is long and distinguished, the book I am currently reading is by Jeffrey Archer.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:47 PM on January 17, 2004

Infinite Jest, brilliant, surprised how many people on Mefi have read it. Brief Interviews... and Girl with Curious Hair sit unread.

That new translation of Tale of Genji remains unread. Same with Granta's Best writers of 2003. I enjoyed Oryx and Crake, but after reading some negative comments about how it was tired compared to "real" science fiction, I tried to read some "real" science fiction, Victor Vinge's A Fire Upon Deep but got bored after fifteen pages.

If you skip Ulysses (which you shouldn't) don't even contemplate Finnegans Wake (unread by myself).
posted by bobo123 at 2:57 PM on January 17, 2004

Many people think they can skip "Don Quixote," but they are wrong. To skip the Don (in modern translation) is to miss out on what is sure to be one of the most pleasurable episode of your life.

Good God, I want that on my headstone. I read the Don in High School,and have since salivated my way through it more than a few times. There's a new translation of it out, by the way...
posted by bradth27 at 2:57 PM on January 17, 2004

I bought a copy of Infinite Jest at a local used bookstore, let it sit unread on my shelf for two years, and then sold it back to the same bookstore--where I was offered more than I originally paid for it!

So for the first time, let me present an actual, _complete_ three-stage road to riches:

Step 1: Buy Infinite Jest;
Step 2: Don't read it;
Step 3: PROFIT!!!

(I just couldn't bear to even begin reading Jest. That said, I have read a lot of Wallace's non-fiction and enjoyed it immensely.)
posted by Inkslinger at 3:24 PM on January 17, 2004

jacquilynne does well to skip "Infinite Jest", but upon finishing the Jeffrey Archer, should proceed directly to the Dumas. She's missing a lot of fun there (depending on the translator. If its one of those odd or stodgy 19th Century translations, better seek out a newer one). If found that a good way to avoid even starting novels I won't like, is to see if the cover blurbs describe the book as "Pynchonesque" or "Faulkneresque." While both Pynchon and Faulkner earned our respect by the sweat of their brows, their literary offspring are living off their trust funds.
posted by Faze at 3:45 PM on January 17, 2004

For those who can't make it through the Jest, try out the stories in 'Girl With Curious Hair' and 'Brief Interviews w/ Hideous Men' because his fiction and wordplay and inventiveness really do deserve to be read and relished.
posted by xmutex at 4:06 PM on January 17, 2004

Quicksilver, damned Quicksilver, but not for lack of trying. Currently I am not-reading DFWallace's newish book about infinity. Also not-reading The Da Vinci Code but keeping it checked out just because I am that sort of librarian. Should have left Gravity's Rainbow and Sometimes a Great Notion on the not-read list, historically.
posted by jessamyn at 4:24 PM on January 17, 2004

The trouble with Infinite Jest is that about 100 pages in it gets a bit boring for maybe 200 pages. Then it gets good again. It's worth slogging through. Foucault's Pendulum, on the other hand, was not worth the effort.

How's that for a list: books read out of guilt, then later regretted? Underworld is on my list of regretted books. Some beautiful prose, but Don DeLillos just isn't as deep as he wants to be.

For all of my slogging power, I've never been able to plow my way through Gravity's Rainbow.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:43 PM on January 17, 2004

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. I bought this book a very long time ago but I have never ever managed to read it all the way through, despite several attempts. I'm sure it's excellent, but every single page is like a four course meal.
posted by chrid at 4:43 PM on January 17, 2004

I commend and envy those of you who haven't read The DaVinci code. Would that I had shown as much wisdom in building my not reading list.
posted by orange swan at 5:19 PM on January 17, 2004

I still haven't finished Updike's Rabbit books (I have them all in one modern library edition). I've started them a dozen times in the past five years.

Who was it that said "The difference between the person you are today and the person you'll be in five years depends on the people you meet and the books you read."?
posted by dobbs at 5:43 PM on January 17, 2004

I started reading Gravity's Rainbow in 1997 and still haven't made it to the end. Pychon's writing strikes me sort of like some of the Coen brothers' films: dazzling technique but with too little heart. Infinite Jest on the other hand (which I did read) is far more engaging, IMO (although not for everybody, particularly if you don't have an open mind about what constitutes good story).

I've found that a great way to "read" those sorts of books that you can't bring yourself to devote your spare time to is to get books on tape (if you have a commute to work, anyway). I listened to a lot of great history books that way (two that particularly stand out were Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror and Harold Schonberg's The Lives of the Great Composers) that I would never have been able to sit down and read in book form.
posted by boltman at 5:45 PM on January 17, 2004

I got about two thirds of the way through Howard Bloom's "The Lucifer Principle" and had to let it rot.

Worthy ideas and all, but he's a bit of windbag.
posted by dong_resin at 6:54 PM on January 17, 2004

i'll chime in with y'all above about a few titles: infinite jest was well worth the patience expended, gravity's rainbow still sits on a shelf waiting to be exhumed, and cryptonomicon and quicksilver together are totally tubular. books decidedly not read last year include dietrich dorner's the logic of failure, where mathematics comes from by George Lakoff et al, jared diamond's guns, germs, and steel, everything and more by dfw...the list goes on.

but now that i look at it, that not-read list is purely non-fiction. i think i read all the fiction i wanted last year. yay!
posted by carsonb at 7:27 PM on January 17, 2004

I Wish I Knew How To Read. ;(

I Guess I Will Have To Continue On With My Charade & Carry A Copy Of The Great Gatsby Where Ever I Go...

::Sitting In A Classroom::

Dreamghost: Hu-Haw! Gatsby Does It Again!
Overweight Chinese Kid: Shh! Were Studying.
Dreamghost: But I Am Reading! ( In My Best Jon Lovitz "The Great Thespian" Voice"

::Class Laughs::

posted by Dreamghost at 7:27 PM on January 17, 2004

I just finished Quicksilver after what seems like an eternity, but was more like one month. I'd like to put it back on that unread list though...
posted by ejoey at 7:47 PM on January 17, 2004

... oh, I bought but did not read Salam Pax's book. Feel about that.
posted by bobo123 at 8:47 PM on January 17, 2004

... bad about that.
posted by bobo123 at 8:48 PM on January 17, 2004

I can't fathom the noise about The DaVinci Code. It's a decent thriller but it's certainly nothing more; and it certainly shouldn't even be mentioned in the same sentence as Foucault's Pendulum. I suppose I ought to give my copy of DaVinci Code to the library, where there is inexplicably a lengthy waiting list for it.

And Ullman's The Bug was one of my favorite books this year.

Quicksilver is mocking me on my end table. I've been about 10 pages from the end of J.G. Ballard's Super-Cannes for about a week now.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:42 PM on January 17, 2004

On the shelf for the entire year of 2003, unread:

-The Big Money (part III of the Dos Passos USA trilogy, read the first two with no problem, but couldn't quite handle the third part....yet.)

- Ulysses

- Dog Years (again, third of a trilogy, this one Gunter Grass's Danzig trilogy, I really want to read it though)

I'll read the first and third for sure this year. Ulysses...well, we'll see.
posted by Ufez Jones at 9:42 PM on January 17, 2004

I finished Infinite Jest on January 1, 2004, at 9:42 a.m. EST.

And it's a good thing, too, because it was getting to the point when I could not have a conversation that didn't remarkably resemble something from the book, which of course seemed really interesting to me, much less so to my conversation partners. I was doing pretty well, until I inadvertently referred to it in conversation tonight, and promptly got called on it. D'oh!

Unread books of 2003:

· The People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn. The bulk of my history education was administered in a fundamentalist Christian school. My history textbooks, through 12th grade, were published by Bob Jones University Press. Needless to say, I think I need to read a version of American history that does not include a hagiography of Columbus the Great. I expect to get to it sometime this year.

· Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence. I got far enough in this book that I think it's fair to say this will make my list of Unread Books of the 21st century. Who dubbed this a "classic"?

· Harry Potter books 4 and 5, J.K. Rowling. After hearing about Harry Potter from everyone in the world, I binged on the first three books one weekend in '03 as a break from Crime and Punishment, which was depressing me. I intended to get back to Rowling after I finished the Dostoevsky. Didn't.

Also, White Noise (Dom Delillo) and Atonement (Ian McEwan).
posted by grrarrgh00 at 10:04 PM on January 17, 2004

I, too, have not read Infinite Jest ... I had it read aloud to me. Yes, all of it, including the footnotes. How lazy is that? (For our honeymoon, my husband and I did a cross-U.S. roadtrip; I drove, and he alternated between playing DJ with the tape deck and reading Jest aloud. We finished it in Elko, Nevada.) I enjoyed it immensely, partly because I didn't suffer a hernia from lifting it.

We tried the same method with Ulysses on our recent NYC-Portland move, but since he spent more than half of the time reading explanations of the text from a different book, we only got to Chapter 3. I'll probably finish it on my own ... soon.

I've had a copy of Don DeLillo's Underworld unread on my shelf since about '00 -- odd, since I liked some of his other work. I didn't even know it was about vampires and werewolves until the movie came out this year.
posted by lisa g at 12:13 AM on January 18, 2004

I'm currently plodding through Underworld, although I think Lisa might just have ruined it for me.

It's sloooow.
posted by cell at 2:28 AM on January 18, 2004

If you think it's that important to read a certain book, read it all ready!
If you can't be arsed, it's obviously not that important a book to you.

Bleedin' middle-class melodrama. </grumble>

posted by Blue Stone at 5:44 AM on January 18, 2004

Funny, I had no problem reading Underworld, it was the 209 pages of Cosmopolis I couldn't get through this year.
posted by btwillig at 7:01 AM on January 18, 2004

I read Inifinite Jest when it came out, Pynchon's Mason and Dixon around the same time, but Underworld simply defeated me. The prose was fine, it was just dull. Nothing seemed to happen. I got through the baseball part (already read it once in a Harper's excerpt.)

I'm now reading a reader's guide to Infinite Jest that purports to explain it. Pretty good. Years later I do feel as though this book has been hard-wired to my DNA. Kind of like a virus. But in a good way.
posted by Slagman at 8:24 AM on January 18, 2004

Oh God. Books are boring. Why the hell should anyone feel obliged to read any book? I don't like this kind of snobbbery and pretentiousness.
posted by mokey at 11:16 AM on January 18, 2004

Good, this thread is still live. This is one of the reasons I read metafilter, thanks people.

Concerning Infinite Jest, it's just one of those things you'll love or hate, but will feel something about it one way or another. It's a book that inspires love or loathing, but never ambivalence. BTW, i read that fucker three times now and it is really much better with each re-reading. It takes some time to figure out the narrative structure.

I've been avoiding many books these last few years, mainly the mainstream liberal-as-whiners crap like Nickel and Dimed or anything by Mikey Moore. This is surprising in that I'm pretty liberal, but I hate being told why to be a liberal. Why should I read Nickel and Dimed when I'm being nickel and dimed? I did read Lies by Al Franken, but that was just for entertainment purposes (and it is very funny.)
posted by elwoodwiles at 2:49 PM on January 18, 2004

Books are boring.

And yet not nearly so boring as those who don't read them.

My 2003 Not-Read List: Quicksilver by Stephenson (but I've only had it since mid-November); Kavalier & Clay by Chabon; Al'Quran; Post Captain by O'Brian; The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty; The Phenomenon of Man by de Chardin and The Anatomy of Melancholy by Burton.

Those are just the ones on hand, of course. There are hundreds of others I should have liked to have read.
posted by rushmc at 2:59 PM on January 18, 2004

And yet not nearly so boring as those who don't read them.

Well, I used to read, but I've stopped. So there.
posted by mokey at 12:30 PM on January 19, 2004

After years of starting and getting about 200 pages into Gravity's Rainbow, I am now only 25 pages away from then end. I can't wait to get back to read something that I actually have a chance a understanding without a guide that is just as thick as the book.
posted by jessnoel at 5:33 AM on January 21, 2004

Infinite Jest and Cryptonomicon are two of my favorite books ever. I did, however, not read Giles Goat Boy again in 2003, which brings my grand total of years of owning but not reading Giles Goat Boy up to seven. Huzzah!
posted by jennyb at 9:40 AM on January 21, 2004

Infinite Jest is a blast, unless you hate it, in which case it is not so much. I can easily see why some people can't stand DFW, but I love this book.

Everything and More, however, is a tedious slog, and should only be read by deviants.

I do not understand people who don't like Underworld, but that's why these discussions happen, I suppose. Cosmopolis is thoroughly wretched, and reads like DeLillo reverted to his undergrad years, and was immediately assigned to write a book imititating DeLillo.

The DaVinci Code is pretty bad, but harmlessly bad, especially since it takes only 15 minutes to read it.

I could barely make it 300 pages into Quicksilver before I suddenly died. Being a corpse is pretty shitty, but it beats trying to read Quicksilver.

Everyone should read Stiffs and Jarhead.

Corpse signing off.
posted by Skot at 10:05 AM on January 21, 2004

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