Jul/Aug 2009 Nonfiction

Confessions of a Hapless Reader

by Gregory Dunn

Kotman drains his glass of beer, sets it on the worn table, and asks, "Have you read Cod, by Mark Kurlansky?"

I shake my head. "No, but I remember seeing it on the front table at the bookstore."

"I know from the title it doesn't sound promising," he replies, "but it's really good."

Englesman points his index finger at him. "I didn't read that one, but his Basque History of the World is brilliant."

The two of them talk a bit about fish and Basques and Basque fishing. Then Kotman turns to me. "It's a great book. You really should read it." He refills my glass. "You can borrow my copy. In fact, I'll bring it over to your house."

I smile and thank him, but, inside I'm cursing. Despite the fact he's a great friend who sometimes buys me beer, I think, Who are you to tell me what I should and shouldn't read?

I already know what I have to read. I have a list.


I didn't always have a list. I had stacks. They would start innocently enough—say, with me sifting through a pile of old National Geographic magazines at a used book sale. In one issue, I found a photo essay on Hemingway's northern Michigan. Paging through it made me want to reread "Big Two-Hearted River." Once I got home, I pulled a collection of Hemingway's short stories from my bookshelves. Next to Hemingway, I'd placed books by Jim Harrison, another Michigan writer. I remembered what a great book Legends of the Fall is, so I grabbed that, too. But then I thought I ought to read something new by Harrison, so I headed to the library and checked out his novel Warlock. Scanning the dust jacket, I discovered that part of the story occurs in Key West, where Hemingway also lived. It made me wonder what other writers are connected to the place.

After a quick Google search, I learned that Annie Dillard spent time there. This prompted me to grab my copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I love, as well as her later book, For the Time Being, a book I found difficult but decide to give another try. Through it, I learned about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who I'd never heard of before. Dillard is so enthusiastic about him, I decided to hunt down his Divine Milieu. I eventually discovered a copy at a local secondhand bookstore and was pleased, until I remembered that I started with fishing and ended up in mystical theology. I found this somewhat disorienting.

These books—plus six more from the used book sale, three more from the library, and one more from the bookstore—all went on the stacks on my nightstand. But not only on my nightstand. Also on the desk in my study and next to the easy chair in the living room.

Then the anxiety set in. I worried about losing focus. I fretted that I hadn't finished reading a single one of these books. And I grew tired of knocking over all those stacks cluttering my home.

So I started a list. I entered all the books in all my stacks into a word-processing document and returned them to my shelves. In the habit of a highly effective person, I even prioritized the titles. When I finished, the list was nearly a full page, in two columns, in eight-point type.

I promptly ignored this list and began stacking as before. The anxiety returned. I lengthened the list and returned the books to my shelves. And then I made more stacks.

Clearly, I needed another approach.

I purged my list, which was easier than expected. The justification for half the books had evaporated with time. (Why, again, did I want to read Peter Drucker's Effective Executive?) Another quarter of them, upon reflection, no longer interested me. (Did I really want to read an eight-hundred-page history of the city of London?) The final cut was harder, but eventually I trimmed the list to thirty-two books. I got out my typewriter and typed the titles onto a three-by-five index card, ten of them in red ink to indicate they were bona fide members of the canon.

When I finished, I put my typewriter away and set the index card in the center of my cleared-off desk. The list was perfect. Thirty-two books, ten of them genuinely great books, the others entertaining or edifying works of fiction, theology, ethics, history, and biography. An utterly manageable list contained in a convenient three-by-five format that could double as a bookmark.

Three years later, I'd read exactly three of these books. I also had two new piles of books on my nightstand, two more on my desk, and one by the easy chair. In addition, I had a second list, also on a three-by-five index card but handwritten, of twenty-two books, mostly fiction. This list I made a year after the first, when I realized those edifying books weren't nearly as interesting as I expected.

I'll concede that my reading anxiety may be idiosyncratic. People, probably most of them, simply read—pull a book off a shelf and then read it without reservations, just because they want to. I envy such people.

So why make lists at all? Partly for the pleasure of crossing things off the list. To confess, I am a habitual—some might argue, compulsive—list-maker. Things-to-do lists, daily, monthly, and seasonally. Lists of errands to run, movies to rent, trips to take. Grocery lists, project lists, address lists—if it's listable, I've listed it. I've even made lists of things I've already done, just for the joy of crossing them out. "See what a good person I am," I want to say. "Look at my crossed-off list."

Which brings me to a second kind of list I keep: books I have read. I started keeping this list after a friend mentioned that, since grad school, he kept a log of each book he read and the date he finished it. It struck me as an interesting experiment, so I tried it. From it, I see that over the past three years I have read forty-one books, twenty-six of them fiction, seven memoirs, and the rest nonfiction.

I felt pretty good about my reading pace until I read three books: Education of a Wandering Man by Louis L'Amour (number 32 on my "have read" list), The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby (number 39), and On Writing by Stephen King (number 40). These guys kept lists of books they read, too. Hornby, according to his list, reads nearly sixty books a year. King reports he reads from seventy to eighty. And L'Amour claimed in his youth to have averaged over a hundred a year.

It's hard not to find that depressing.

According to the harsh reality of my list, I read about a book a month, a little more if I really push myself. A dozen books a year, give or take. It will take me over four years just to get through my index cards, and that's only if I read nothing else. And comparing my "have read" log with my "to read" list shows that's not going to happen.

What chills my heart are statements like Thoreau's: "Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them all." Or this one from Harold Bloom's Western Canon: "Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read." Bloom, of course, made a nice living telling people which books are worth their precious time and, so, presents his own list of what one ought to read. It reaches well over one thousand books. If I started today, at my current pace, I'd need to live to be one hundred and twenty to read them all.

It's hard not to find that really depressing.

But it gets worse. The problem with sticking to the canon is summed up neatly by Joseph Epstein. "If one tried to read most of the world's good books," he writes, "there would be scarcely any time to read many of the world's interesting books, for, as any veteran reader will tell you, good and interesting books are sometimes but not always the same."

For me, book catalogues are a maddening source of this kind of book. I used to receive one such catalogue called The Common Reader. Initially, I was excited when it arrived in my mailbox. I dutifully thumbed its pages, usually in the bathroom, and dogeared particularly interesting ones. I promised myself that after I made a little headway on the books on my list and in my piles, I'd order some. I never did. Every couple of months another catalogue would arrive, with new interesting books, and I'd thumb and dogear again. I did this for years. Although I never ordered any books, I did accumulate an impressive stack of yellowing, dogeared catalogues on the top of the toilet tank. I finally contacted the company and asked them to stop tormenting me.

Add to this situation other lists of interesting books I've come across—lists of "Best Adventure Books" and "Best Nature Writing," the Modern Library's list of the best one hundred fiction and nonfiction books of the twentieth century, lists of the Pulitzer, Nobel, and Booker Prize winners—it's clear that if I added the interesting books to the great books, I would need several lifetimes to read them all.

It's too depressing to even consider.

Merely spending time in the bookstore is now a challenge. This is difficult, since my wife and I go to there every Sunday after church. At first, it's not so bad. The light is good, and the air smells like books. The new-release table stands right by the door, and, though one or two always look tempting, I am prepared for them and am able to resist their advances.

Then I walk deeper into the store for the complimentary coffee, browsing as I go, and things start to go south. To the left is the history section, and I am reminded of my resolve to include more of it in my reading diet, maybe a book on the McKinley administration or on the development of bathyspheres. Behind the information desk is the section on religion and theology, and I think maybe it's time to read Calvin's Institutes or make a study of Zoroastrianism.

On the way back to the front of the store, paper cup of coffee in hand, I weave my way through the fiction area. I see all those books I think I want to read, or ought to read, or should have already read. By the time I return to my wife, I have a mental list of another three dozen books and a new anxiety attack.

My wife finds this hilarious. "It's not a test," she says. "Just read what you want to."

I do not find her attitude helpful.

Near the front of the bookstore, the management reserves a table for books being discussed by local reading groups. Most are pretty good. Some are even on my list. I often browse the table, sip my coffee, and think it would be nice to join one.

Until I remember how reading groups stress me out. As I said before, I know what I have to read. I have a list. A couple of them. The last thing I need is another book I haven't read, sitting on my nightstand, highlighting my shortcomings as a reader.

This is especially true if that book is borrowed and carries an imperative to be read, preferably soon. A friend once loaned me a copy of Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire. I spent a whole year not reading it. From time to time, my friend would ask if I had finished it.

"Not yet," I'd reply, "but soon."

He eventually stopped asking. Now and again I'd unearth the book from a pile and make a resolution to read it as soon as I finished what I was reading at the time. I once even leafed through it, glancing at the table of contents and author's foreword. Usually, though, I just weighed it in my hand, considering its mute accusation, and, in shame, hid it away.

A couple of years later, I came across a copy of Botany of Desire at a used book sale, bought it, and returned the borrowed copy.

"I was wondering where this was," my friend said. "I thought I loaned it to my brother-in-law." Then he added, "Did you read it at least?"

"Yes," I lied. "It's a fine book."

I still haven't read it.


I once read that the disciples of the political philosopher Leo Strauss read and teach only some two dozen books. I've not yet found a list of these books, but I can guess at them, and the purity and simplicity of such a rule appeals to me. These surely would fit on an index card. Indeed, they could all fit on one shelf, greatly freeing up room in my house for other things. But such a rule isn't really feasible. I'm not sure it's even desirable. Life is too riotous to accommodate such attempts at simplicity and purity.

My wife is right. Reading is not about passing a test, implementing a system, or, even, working through a list. It is not a task, something that can be itemized, crossed off, and finished. Reading is a practice. Being well-read means reading well.

Nevertheless, I still like my lists. Maybe it's the promise of focus a list asserts. Maybe it's a result of too much schooling and a residual reverence for syllabi. Probably it stems from the sense of being in a broad, unknown country and the need for a map and an expedition log, a sense of where I'm going and a record of where I've been. So I'm going to keep my lists. I'm going to keep making them. And I'm going to keep ignoring them.


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