The great unread

Every so often, there is a feature in which well-known writers confess which books they have never read (there was a TV panel game of a very BBC2-bookish kind in the 1980s which did this too). Craig Raine could be found admitting he’d not read Don Quixote last week (I don’t mean he hadn’t read it last week, I mean, ever). As he said, there’s no shame in that. The concept of the canon (Leavis’s big mistake) is now so ridiculous, and the pile of Allegedly Great Books so high, that there is no chance of ploughing one’s way through anything but an infinitesimal number of them. I have reached that almost serendipitous stage at which I know that I will almost certainly never read Finegan’s Wake, Daniel Deronda or anything whatsoever by Proust.

Yet it was definitely implied to me when I was fifteen that this – reading everything – ought to be the main aim of a literature student, particularly in the fiction department (at the time, non-fiction was regarded as a sort of bolt-on, and poetry was a lucky dip). Since ‘everything’ to my teachers excluded anything written before 1939, anything written by Americans, Australians and Africans (etc., but Russians were treated as honorary ‘English’), and also anything written by women unless your name was Bronte, Austen or Eliot, the idea of the well-read individual was just a bit limited in scope.

I probably read most voraciously when I was about eleven (bored at boarding-school), and also shortly after I left university (bored of avoiding reading nothing because I was conscientiously being rebellious) and then again when I started to review fiction. I was forever being sent second novels, and I can’t read a second one without reading the first: the same is true today. I also read a lot when students I taught were obliged to write an ‘extended essay’ of their own choice on a theme of their own choice, involving three books. A group of eighteen would come up with at least forty books between them (allowing for some duplicates), and, assuming that you’d recommended some in the first place, this still meant reading about twenty books per group. This was a brilliant experience. It goes without saying that its random nature (what was so good about it) got it, to all intents and purposes, banned. (Overlooked in all this was the fact that it was making teachers read – not a fact that could always be taken for granted.)

If I’ve been reading seriously (i.e. with intent) since I was about eight, then I am not very far off my fiftieth anniversary of reading. If I have read on average 300 books a year, probably not very wide of the mark, that still means I’ve read only 15,000 books. A visit to any reasonable library (and its underground stack) is enough to put the frighteners on me, in that case. All ignorance is relative, and anyone who ticks me off for not having conquered Barnaby Rudge or Clarissa (dipped into the latter, mind) ought to have their heads examining, in particular to see what bits of fiction are in there.

I can’t imagine either a) how I have read 15,000 books, or b) how I haven’t read more, given that I have read at least a hundred Perry Mason novels, and about the same number by Enid Blyton. In fact there are quite a few writers whose almost every word I’ve read: Raymond Chandler, Lawrence (not T.E, but D.H. – I only got to the first pillar of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom), Michael Dibdin, Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel. And of course, Emily Bronte, whose Wuthering Heights I must have read about twenty times.

It is a great novel, but it was certainly the case at university that there were hundreds of experts on the Brontes, largely because they’d written fewer than ten novels and a mess of poems between them. The same was true of the complete work of Harper Lee. Say what you like about the woman: she knew when to stop.

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