December 16, 2003

Books Not Read

As 2003 draws to a close, itís time for me to reflect on all of the great books I did not read this year. This has been a particularly good year for not reading books. I would go so far as to say that there are more books I did not read this year than in any year in the recent past. Although a significant part of my job consists in sitting somewhere and reading something, I have still managed to find the time not to read a very wide range of material from many different fields.

-- Kieran Healy, Books I Did Not Read this Year

Kieran Healy offers a list of his "ten favorite nonfiction books" that he did not read this year, carefully arranged in the order in which he did not read them. "It is a nice question," he notes in connection with Robert Skidelsky's John Maynard Keynes: Fighting for Freedom, 1937-1946 (a "superb three-volume study [which] will likely be displaced by an abridged one-volume edition due out soon, which will be shorter and therefore easier to not read"), "whether shorter books are easier or harder to not read than longer books."

In the comments to Kieran's entry, Katherine offers a "not quite read" list, which I think raises another nice question: how much of a book can you have read while still being allowed to boast of not having read it? I'd say that if you perused the table of contents, read the acknowledgements and perhaps even took a glance at the preface, you're still on solid ground. A quick peek at the index might also be permissible. Once you have at least briefly skimmed the first chapter, however, you will have to concede that you have "looked at" the book, which is not quite the same thing as having read it, but not quite the same thing as not having read it, either.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at December 16, 2003 10:37 AM

Some days I think about all the trees that have to die so that we historians can produce all these books that no one really reads. It just seems wrong.

Posted by: DM at December 16, 2003 11:25 AM

Hmm, that opens a whole new can of worms. The 'looked at' category. Now, I can fairly and honestly claim that I've 'looked at' a hell of a lot of books. If that counts, I can even call myself a well-read person. But sometimes - in the cold blue hours before dawn - once in a long while it crosses my mind that there could possibly be something ever so slightly fraudulent in claiming that. But apparently (this I had not realized before) I have also compromised my claim not to have read them. Alas, I seem to have the worst of both worlds. From now on I guess I will just limit myself to touching the spines lightly with a fingertip now and then.

Posted by: Ophelia Benson at December 16, 2003 12:16 PM

ok i have a question.
"Some days I think about all the trees that have to die so that we historians can produce all these books that no one really reads. It just seems wrong."
I know DM is only kidding, but you guys do seem to churn out a lot of published material that no one reads, and sometimes I wonder if it ever gets you down. I was poking around for a copy of paradise lost the other day at our big research library, one that hadn't been edited and footnoted to death (found a little gem called the viking milton anthology which rocks and also is not heavy). anyway to find it i had to wander through entire aisles of books with strange titles like "milton: the pre-postmodern colonialist deconstructionator" and 'milton's prose and animal cruelty' and then of course all those bound theses with research questions like "what milton would have thought about campaign finance reform if he were alive today and weren't blind" and i just thought wow, you know? it's kind of sad. People worked so hard on this stuff . They must have known how weird and pointless it was when they were writing it, and must have had to write it anyway because 'publish or perish'. Can it have been fun? I read Milton for fun. I'm a freshman, and although i cannot consistently capitalize the letter I (or do much else for that matter) i have contemplated one day going to grad school. This message board makes the whole affair seem pretty grim. Tell me you read those strange published materials. Tell me you enjoyed writing them, and maybe i won't give up hope. ps sorry for barging into your little cyber sanctum and being a sort of a kid-no rest for the weary.

Posted by: anonymous undergrad (we're everywhere) at December 16, 2003 03:37 PM


For real, you're a freshman? You're a fantastic writer.

But if you're not a freshman...remember the Simpsons episode where Bart has a crush on an older girl and at some point she reaches into his chest, rips out his heart, says something like "you won't be needing this anymore" and drop-kicks it into the wall of his treehouse, where it slides down to the floor?

Actually, even if you are a freshman, you just did an very nice impersonation of the girl.

Posted by: ogged at December 16, 2003 03:49 PM

Ah, is there no end to the applicability of the Simpsons to real life?

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at December 16, 2003 04:40 PM

Dear Anonymous Undergrad,

Who says I was kidding? If it helps, I enjoyed writing my dissertation, I welcome the chance to publish it as a monograph, and I hope others will like it. I am also one of those weird historians, who tries to read most of the pages within the books that come my way. It's not easy.

Posted by: DM at December 16, 2003 04:55 PM

The weirder a book is, the better I like it. I'm looking forward to "The History of the Caucasian Albanians" by Movses Dasxuranci (tr. CJF Dowsett).

Posted by: zizka at December 16, 2003 07:20 PM

"is there no end to the applicability of the Simpsons to real life?"

The Simpsons makes real life look like something out of the Simpsons.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at December 16, 2003 09:41 PM

Eventally someone, somewhere will read them. When my grandfather died, one of the things I got was his copy of his thesis, written in 1943. It was typed on a typewriter, something like seven carbons. I sat looking at that thing, realizing that some person had typed every single page, and pulled the page out and started over if they made more than one typo. Thing about THAT next time you hit the "print" button.

And here's another thing: his Ph.D. was in mathematics, and his thesis was defending the value of including mathematics as a required field of study, rather than an elective. In the 1940s, people really didn't think that math was all that important, especially for farmboys - he grew up in Kansas, and attended and always taught at agricultural colleges.

Think about an America where math was considered about as useful as Greek. Wowie wow wow.

And, I don't read much at the moment, but someday (ha) when my kids are grown, I'll return to the book-a-day habits of my bookwormy youth.

Posted by: Teri at December 16, 2003 11:53 PM

AUwe, Sometimes I enjoy it. Even when it's a slog, I'm pretty confident it bothers/bores me less than 90% of what people do for a living in our society probably would. For many of us, research/writing is a generally pleasant, sometimes annoying(ly difficult) activity that occupies around 25% of my workload. But I only do it so I can continue to do what I consider my true profession: teaching, which is about 75% of my workload. Officially, it's supposed to be the other way around, but whatever.

Posted by: DJW at December 17, 2003 08:44 PM