I’m not alone in having unread books on my bookshelf. (Sometimes they don’t even get that far.)
“Tsundoku,” the Japanese word for the new books that pile up on our shelves, should enter the English language
There are some words out there that are brilliantly evocative and at the same time impossible to fully translate. Yiddish has the word shlimazl, which basically means a perpetually unlucky person. German has the word Backpfeifengesicht, which roughly means a face that is badly in need of a fist. And then there’s the Japanese word tsundoku, which perfectly describes the state of my apartment. It means buying books and letting them pile up unread.
We readers all have books we can’t seem to finish, but the same seems to be true of authors.
In praise of unfinished novels
A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels …
In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”
Not so much left on the shelf as never made it to the shelf in the first place.
Speaking of not reading books though, here’s a great passage from Umberto Eco’s review of Pierre Bayard’s book, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.
On unread books
But the most interesting thing is that Bayard has failed to notice that, in admitting his three intentional errors, he implicitly assumes that one way of reading is more correct than others, so that he carries out a meticulous study of the books he quotes in order to support his theory about not reading them. The contradiction is so apparent that it makes one wonder whether Bayard has actually read the book he’s written.