Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In theory: the unread and the unreadable

We measure our lives with unread books – and 'difficult' works can induce the most guilt. How should we view this challenge?

Monday 18 February 2013

James Joyce pictured in 1934
Samuel Beckett said of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake … 'It is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to.' Photograph: Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

There was a time when a learned fellow (literally, a Renaissance man) could read all the major extant works published in the western world. Information overload soon put paid to that. Since there is "no end" to "making many books" – as the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes prophesied, anticipating our digital age – the realm of the unread has spread like a spilt bottle of correction fluid. The librarian in Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities only scans titles and tables of contents: his library symbolises the impossibility of reading everything today. The proliferation of lists of novels that you must, allegedly, have perused in your lifetime, reflects this problem while compounding it. On a recent visit to a high street bookshop, I ogled a well-stacked display table devoted to "great" novels "you always meant to read". We measure out our lives with unread books, as well as coffee spoons.

The guilt and anxiety surrounding the unread probably plays a part in our current fascination with failed or forgotten writers. Hannah Arendt once wondered if "unappreciated genius" was not simply "the daydream of those who are not geniuses", and I suspect there is indeed a touch of schadenfreude about this phenomenon too. On the book front, we could mention Mark O'Connell's Epic Fail, the brilliantly idiosyncratic Failure, A Writer's Life by Joe Milutis, and Christopher Fowler's Invisible Ink: How 100 Great Authors Disappeared, based on the longstanding column in the Independent on Sunday. Online, there is The New Inquiry's Un(der)known Writers series, as well as entire blogs – (Un)justly (Un)read, The Neglected Books Page, Writers No One Reads – devoted to reclaiming obscure scribes from oblivion. One of my personal favourites is The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure, which celebrates the lives of writers who have "achieved some measure of literary failure". The fact that they all turn out to be fictitious (à la Félicien Marboeuf) and that the website will vanish after a year, make it even more delightful. I recommend the tale of Stanhope Sterne who, like TE Lawrence, lost a manuscript on a train – at Reading, of all places: "Is there, I wonder, some association with that dull junction's homonym, that it is a writer's fear of someone actually reading their work that causes these slips?"

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