By the book: we are what we read, not what we say we do

There are bookshelves in all but one room of our house, and the one in which there aren’t any is the one in which I perhaps most often sit and read. In our bedroom there are shelves from floor to ceiling that sometimes oppress me as I try to sleep — “you don’t know everything, yet”, they taunt. “you haven’t read all of us.”

Nearer to me are the books I’m currently reading; there are five on my bedside table. Some started already, concert tickets and receipts poking from the top marking my place. Some are placed there as a reminder of their place in the queue, more in hope than expectation as there’s at least one that’s sat there for over a year.

Some never make it, like Paul Kingsnorth’s Booker prize-longlisted The Wake. I backed it on trendy crowdfunding site Unbound as I loved the ideas and the depth of world it wanted to create. I loved the unusual binding and the care that had been taken on the language. And I tried to read it, I really did, but never got more than a few pages in, chewing on the phonetic Anglo Saxon like so much beef gristle in a stodgy pudding. It staked its place permanently next to the bed, looking away with disdain as I skipped merrily through Viv Albertine’s memoir and danced a gnostic tango through the early 90s football and rave culture clutching Julian Cope’s insane One Three One.

I’ll confess, as I was again cheating on it with an ebook , I knew it was over. I would never read The Wake — and I sold it: a rare act of pragmatism in a life that’s seen me acquire more and more books I will simply never read.

This year I’ve bought books on the English Civil War (I had a vague idea for a novel set at the time), a collection of the letters between the Mitford Sisters (I’ve read a lot of collections of letters this year: PG Wodehouse, Orwell), biographies of Orwell, Truman Capote, HG Wells, all piled up on the shelves. There are tumbling pamphlets of poetry, gazed on then forgotten. My literary eyes are bigger than my literate belly.

I’ve read a book about Frank Sidebottom, a trashy biography of Fleetwood Mac, novels by my friends that have made me simultaneously proud and jealous, two books about the history of rhetoric (why?, oh why?, oh why?), more than one book about the Spanish Civil War, GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, which somehow clawed itself out of the the unread pile due to continued recommendation. And I spent months on the monolithic Ragged Trousered Philanthropistsas you may have read.

Jonathan Meades’s An Encyclopaedia of Myself is astoundingly clever and insightful, but by the time I’d finished it I’d turned away many times. A Penguin edition of Nabakov’s Bend Sinister that I started just because it was small enough to take on holiday, another book about the Spanish Civil War and, most tellingly, the second of Danny Baker’s autobiographies (which made me leak with laughter).

The listing of the books I’ve bought but not read this year has helped me realise something about myself; I’m not as well read as I would like to think I am. For every classic or improving work I might get through, there are many discarded. Meades is everything I might want to be, but Baker is closer to the mark.

I’ve just put back onto the bedside table Umberella by Will Self. Will Self I love, his sheer exactitude of language, his invention, his coining of “slapped buttock” to perfectly describe David Cameron’s face, but his last novels have stalled on me. I got Umbrella on release, a signed copy, and started it straight away; months later and I’d given up, relegated it to the shelving. Having done almost the same with his previous, The Book of Dave, it took a degree of self awareness I don’t usually possess not to buyShark, at least not in hardback. That it is a sequel to the unfulfilled Umbrella, now back in rotation as I embarrass myself for giving up too easily — for not being clever enough — might have been the push I needed.

But I can’t be alone in my behaviour. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century spent three weeks on top of the NY Times bestseller lists in the summer, and I would bet that my copy isn’t the only one simply acting as gloating shelf ballast. But looking at previous books and previous years, I knew I was never going to pick Capital up. Not just because it is heavy, but because it is heavy-going — and perhaps more than that because its ideas can be distilled to summary articles and pass notes. I don’t need to understand the graphs to get the picture.

If my shelves were on public display — like the style guides and copy of grammarian’s bible Strunk and White I have on my desk at work, while rarely opening then — I could see why one might buy books that looked good even if one knew that they would gather nothing but dust. But mine aren’t. I’m also not that precious about books as objects — I eventually give them away to charity shops, I (shock) turn pages down, I even buy ebooks.

eBooks that, inevitably, I don’t read all of.

eBook readers, so we’re told, allow a privacy — a self truth — we can read what we like and no one will know. This was given as a reason for the initial success of 50 Shades of Grey, before it and its visual lexicon filled every supermarket book department in the world. The main difference between the charts of the top 10 physical books and their Kindle equivalent this year is Veronica Roth’sDivergent trilogy dominating the ebook top 10. Is young adult fiction secretly popular with people who would be too embarrassed to say, or is this difference more about young adults being more open to reading on screen? If only Amazon would let us know what percentage of the way through these books people made it. My electronic copy of The Wake sits resolutely in the low numbers for “progress”.

As I have no rational explanation for why I keep buying books I’m never going to read, I conclude that I must be self-deluding — at least at the point of purchase. For years I convinced myself I was a decent footballer, so this is not without precedent.

I spent some time talking to psychologist Maliheh Taheri, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, who was reluctant to call this a self-delusion and was happier to list the other reasons why people might buy books and not read them: collecting, decoration, or just comfort in knowing that they were there. None of them apply to me, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself.

Our conversation sort of petered out as I pressed for a diagnosis; it turns out that self-deception (rather than delusion) isn’t accepted as even existing by all thinkers. The paradox, some say, being that it isn’t logically possible to hold two conflicting views. But I must, sometimes; I bought (mistakenly two copies of, but that’s another story) The Establishment by Owen Jones — and remembered thinking to myself that I’d never get round to reading it as I pressed “checkout”. It’s hard to think of any reason why any sane person would do that.

Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, however, suggests that self-deception might have benefits; if we are able to believe our own distortions, we will not present signs of deception (eye movement, voice tone and so on) and will therefore appear to be telling the truth. He says it’s ”hiding the truth from yourself to hide it more deeply from others”.

The delusion is necessary for us to be able to lie more easily, to lessen the cognitive dissonance we feel when presenting the view of ourselves we want to to others.

So in this case I could be buying a 1,000 page treatise on economics because I want to convince other people that I’m the sort of person who can and does read 1,000 page treatises on economics — and it really doesn’t matter whether I have or not.

Not least because we can be fairly sure they haven’t either.

I’m deluded, but it doesn’t matter it seems. No, I don’t fully understand it either — although I have just ordered a book.

Author: Jon Bounds

14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed. His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it's out now. Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It's Not Shit.

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