Once, a boyfriend stood in my bedroom and perused the top of my dresser, where I had some books neatly lined up for display. "Have you actually read these?" he knew me well enough to ask. "Yes," I reflexively answered with a tone of indignance that did a poor job of masking my guilt. "Well, almost."
Most of the time, you're not going to catch me feeling too guilty about all the titles I haven't read. While I'm sure that Ulysses, for example, is a very good way to pass the time if you are an angst-filled person who doesn't get enough run-on sentences and confusion in real life, I'm currently coasting on having read my fill of disturbing and/or labyrinthine titles as an English major in school (Light in August, anyone? How about Clarissa?). I feel a little bad that I never read Dave Eggers' memoir, even though it seemed nearly all my peers between the ages of 25 and 35 living in New York City in 2000 had read it and loved it, and even though appearing in Eggers' journal McSweeney's has been a lovely thing in my life. I never read For Whom the Bell Tolls. Never read Fast Food Nation... and so on.
Eggers aside, I don't feel bad about missing these books because I have never pretended that I'm going to read them. You can talk to me all day long about what a classic Beowulf is or how interesting The Da Vinci Code was, but I just don't care. (It took me a little longer, but I have also been able to liberate myself from the idea that I am required to hold on to an issue of The New Yorker until I have read almost every article in it.) What I do feel bad about are the books that I consciously took note of, marched myself to the bookstore for (or worse, made unsuspecting relatives march for me, because I asked for the book as a gift), put down on the counter and paid for -- sometimes even in hardcover. Now, they sit unread, testaments to my unworthiness.
The books you buy but never read are the ones that betray who you think you are, or would like to be, but really are not. That's why they cause discomfort. Here are the "dummy titles" I have accumulated:
A Good Life, Ben Bradlee. Thought I was interested in being a gritty, enterprising journalist. But then I found work, as so many others do, as a fake journalist.
John Adams, David McCullough. Somehow, a comprehensive detailing of our second president's career didn't make history exciting and new again. Did I mention it's about John Adams?
The Daniel Boorstin Reader. Who was I kidding? Another failed attempt to achieve historical literacy.
How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker. Guess I didn't really want to know.
Up in the Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell. I actually did manage to read at least 10 percent of this while I was living in New York. While it might make one feel slightly better about the state of one's "junior one-bedroom" and credit card debt to read about New Yorkers who lived significantly darker lives, it remains a depressing exercise to read about a more affordable, more colorful version of the city you are living in.
I'm sure there are more titles to list, but I'll have to vist my parents' and get back to you.