“Have you read all those books?” they ask.
It may be a merely rhetorical question, an automatically generated sally sparked by the sight of overloaded shelves. I could always say yes, but then I might be caught out: “Ah, tell me, what did you make of Being and Nothingness?” “Well I thought it was quite good on Being …” Of course I haven’t read them all. Years ago, obviously a little rattled by the question, I went through a few shelves, taking them as a sample, and came up with an estimate of about fifty per cent. I’m afraid it would be somewhat lower now: you take on more work, or more demanding work, you earn a bit more money, you buy more books … and you don’t read them. Plenty there for retirement anyway, if I make it.
Of course you could factor in the ones you’ve read more than once to give your percentage a boost … Austen, except Mansfield Park (does it deserve “another chance” I wonder?), Middlemarch, lots of David Lodge, Dubliners, and the hugely enjoyable ones that are crying out to be reread like Vanity Fair or Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky was here, Montaigne, likely to be dipped in and out of rather than being reread as such. Anyone out there want to issue a new edition of Bleak House with the sickly chapters of Esther Summerson’s narrative rendered simply through précis of essential information?
Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, in their somewhat rambling and frequently pretentious miscellany This is not the end of the book; (“A conversation curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac” – did I say it was pretentious?), ponder the question “What will happen to your book collections when you die?” Eco is concerned that his library should not be broken up (he’s referring to a specific thematic collection he has assembled, not just all the individual volumes he has bought or been given – “those that people have sent me as tributes”). Carrière on the other hand can see the merits of dispersal: “ … when ancient books come back on the market they can once again scatter, travel, make people happy, nourish the passion for books.” That’s if they are ancient books. If they are less rare, it’ll be the Oxfam shop. And they won’t be hanging around for very long after the ceremony either – “gathering dust”, as widows tend to say.