Our Reading Lives

The Appeal of Unread Books or, Why I Don’t Read the Books I Buy

I have a friend with whom I go book shopping on a quarterly schedule. Each season, we drive out to McKay Used Books in Manassas, Virginia. We pile up our baskets with books until we can no longer carry them on our arms for the metal handles pressing deep red marks into our skin, then we realize we should have started with the rolling baskets and switch over to add even more books. It is a futile exercise. Inevitably, we makes jokes about how we will never get around to reading these treasures. Of the dozens of books I’ve purchased from McKay over the years, I’ve read maybe—maybe—ten of them. But there’s something about unread books.

I find a lot of comfort in books not-yet-read. They are stacked high on the floor of my office, next to an overfull bookshelf. For a while, I tried to organize them. I gave up when I had to just start adding to the tops of the towers. I sometimes worry my cat will zoom past one of these towers. Her broad side will brush against it and send all the unread books tumbling down. I try to trust that she won’t. And still, every so often I pass by the office and glance inside to see all my unread books (with a decidedly smaller stack of read books nearby) and get a warm, glowing feeling in my chest. The bookworm who lives in my heart, it turns out, is a glowworm.

It’s not that I get immense joy of having stuff. In fact, clutter stresses me out —though you wouldn’t know it from a look around my apartment and my frequent Target impulse-buys. The delight I find in unread books is, in a word, this: possibility.

Between the covers of any given book I’ve not yet read can be anything. Sure, there’s some contract between the reader and the jacket copy, but contracts are made to be broken. One book may promise therein be dragons, but what I don’t yet know is that it also features a bashful narwhal. Another may suggest a sugar-sweet happy ending but deliver a much more satisfying bittersweet crescendo in its climax. All of the books I own but haven’t read are full of possibilities. And that’s wonderful—both in the sense that it is exceptionally good and also in the sense that it fills me with a dreamy wonder. There could be something magnificent in any one of them.

And then there’s the flip side—my unread books cannot disappoint me. The only books that can disappoint me are the books I am reading and the books I have read. For all the pessimism I spew about life in general and the world, I’m an optimist when it comes to books. I always assume the best of them until they prove otherwise. It’s probably why I am not someone who can bring herself to DNF—there’s always the possibility a book will save itself in those final pages. I can’t pass that up. Disappointment only exists because of what is done.

So what do I read, then? Library books. Lots of them. They’re low-risk, because I haven’t spent any money on them, so any disappointment means my only sunk cost is time spent reading them. I get both print and digital library books and I work at a library (and have cards to five more library systems), so they’re never difficult for me to come by.

Meanwhile, my own stash of books at home keep me happy just by existing in my home. And if I know one thing, it’s that the books will wait.