Dec 9, 2011 – National Post
Why read Moby-Dick, indeed? I’d lived 30 years without reading a page of Captain Ahab’s crazed pursuit of the great white and the world had not come off its axis. Still, I felt there was a gap the size of a sperm whale on my personal reading list. So, midway through my interview with Kish, I blurted out that I intended to finish Moby-Dick by the end of the year. I’d made a similar promise a few weeks earlier, while talking to Harbach, but had yet to even find the book on my shelves. This vow to Kish, who had just finished a project that saw him complete one painting for every page of the book, was like signing a contract with myself.
“I have a very small library upstairs, and I often say one day maybe I’ll read all the books I have,” George Jonas told me during a recent interview. “We’re not scratching the surface of what’s worth reading, [even] in one language …”
It’s true. There are scores of books I have not read, and it saddens me to think that I will never read most of them. I have not read War and Peace, nor Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment or pretty much any of the Russians. I have read Pride and Prejudice, but that’s it for Austen. I’ve read To The Lighthouse, but not Mrs. Dalloway, though I have seen The Hours (but I haven’t read that, either). I’ve read Dubliners (well, most of it) and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but haven’t even attempted Ulysses and was scared off by the first page of Finnegans Wake. The only Brontë sister I’ve read is Emily. I have all of Roth and Bellow and most of Updike to look forward to. I’m embarrassed to reveal how little Atwood and Munro I’ve consumed. If any of these books come up in conversation, I’ll offer a polite smile and quickly change the subject.
I’ve even left books by most of my favourite authors unread. Thomas Hardy? Never touched Far from the Madding Crowd. F. Scott Fitzgerald? Still need to read The Beautiful and the Damned and The Last Tycoon. Ernest Hemingway? I’m saving To Have and Have Not for a rainy day.
It’s not just the classics. While the gaps are far fewer if we’re talking about the past 15 years, I still haven’t read many of the Giller Prizes winners. I’ve read Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, but I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or The Hunger Games or Twilight. I’ve read lots of Stephen King but none of his recent offerings. These are cultural touchstones, and it seems to me not having read them is the same as not having watched Star Wars or The Simpsons.
And yet still more books are published, and the pile of unread books grows ever higher.
Is it even possible to read all the classics? In 2009, The Guardian published a list of 1,000 novels everyone must read. Of this British-skewed library that doesn’t include short stories, poetry or non-fiction of any sort, I can recall having read a paltry 87. I read about 500 words per minute (the average person reads somewhere between 200 and 250 w.p.m., according to studies) and let’s suppose I read two hours a day — that’s 60,000 words a day. Moby-Dick has more than 210,000 words, so it should take me four days. I’ve already been reading it for five.
For, as we all know, very few people read two hours a day. The most recent numbers I found were from a 2005 study by the Department of Canadian Heritage, which reported that, on average, Canadians spend 4.5 hours per week reading, and read 17 books per year. That means it would take the average Canadian 58.8 years to read the Guardian’s list in its entirety. If I quit my job, and devoted my entire life to the list, I figure I could get through all 913 remaining books in two or three years. As it stands, I read about 100 books a year. Of those, all but four or five are new releases. That means that if I continue to read five classics a year, it will take me approximately 182 years to read all the books on the Guardian’s list.
So do I read 1984 or Brave New World? Tom Jones or Vanity Fair? Lolita or The Woman in White? The Adventures of Augie March or Solomon Gursky Was Here? On The Road or Don Quixote? The Crying of Lot 49 or The Handmaid’s Tale?
Read the full entertaining piece at The National Post.