The books you bought but never read

Mike Cormack

The Japanese call it Tsundoku. And it's very easy to do, but these are the "unreadable" works you should definitely make an effort to reach out for

We all have those books on our shelves and perhaps, nowadays, our Kindles—the books that looked impressive, that secretly gratified our ego rather than spurred us on to read them. Maybe you got a few chapters in, maybe the size of the book put you off from picking it up ever again. Well, we’ve all been there: no shame in it.  

Here then are some of the books and writers most often bought to attest to intellectual heft and then remain gathering dust while we pick up our well-loved Stephen Kings and John Grishams. 

 

Das Kapital 

Karl Marx spent years of his life grubbing through economic data in the British Museum to produce his magnum opus, Das Kapital (or simply, in English, Capital). Subtitled “A Critique of Political Economy”, it was intended to be a three-volume investigation and analysis of patterns underpinning the capitalist economy. Though Marx published the first volume in 1867, he never completed the others, which were compiled and published from his notes by Friedrich Engels in 1885 and 1894 after Marx’s death in 1883.  

Though Das Kapital eventually became perhaps the most influential book since the Bible, with one-third of the entire globe living under governments inspired by its philosophy, the book is however no easy read. It is an unfailingly rigorous economic analysis, far from the scorching pamphleteering of works like the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marx for most of his life earned a living through journalism and had a remarkable turn of phrase, but Das Kapital is Marx at his least readable (anyone genuinely interested in Marxism should try the Manifesto, the Grundrisse (“Foundations”), or even Francis Wheen’s highly readable biography).  

 

Ulysses

 

Joyce’s earlier works, the short story collection Dubliners and the bildungsroman A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, are magnificent works: often spare, but richly symbolic; humane, empathetic, and thrilling to both the life of the mind and the senses.  

But Ulysses often seems more like a crossword puzzle: its impossibly overwrought structure, where every chapter, modelled on Homer’s Odyssey, has its own theme, technique, time, colour, and part of the body. Beyond that much of it is in stream-of-consciousness, a technique it helped it to invent. This might not have been so bad, were it not for the constant allusions and references that make much of it incomprehensible.  

“Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes”, thinks Stephen Dedalus in the “Proteus” chapter. This has a certain poetic beauty but will probably baffle the 99 per cent of those unfamiliar with the Aristotelian concepts of perception and knowledge on which Stephen is musing. I have an excerpt of Ulysses in a literary anthology, and literally half of the page is footnotes explaining references and allusions. That simply asks too much of the general reader, making Ulysses a book to be studied rather than enjoyed. 

 

Jacques Derrida 

Derrida may lay claim to being the most influential philosopher of the late 20th century. Post-structuralism, as a philosophy, really began with Derrida’s reading of his essay “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” at a conference at Johns Hopkins University in 1966; the movement, and Derrida’s “deconstruction” strategy, would go on to strongly influence western thought, especially on university campuses, and particularly in English departments, as they concern the nature of meaning and signification.  

But important though Derrida may be, his books are—to put it kindly—notoriously difficult. It’s not just that the writers Derrida likes to discuss are themselves quite abstruse (such as Heidegger, Beckett and Kafka), though there is that. It’s not just that his ideas are often demonstrated rather than clearly explicated, though that is also true. The great problem that his prose has a wilful obscurity, a murky, slippery allusiveness which sounds remarkably clever at the time but evades all efforts to clarify.  

Here he is on Romeo and Juliet: “No contretemps, no aphorism with the promise of a now in common, without the pledge, the vow of synchrony, the desired sharing of a living present.”  

On Joyce and Ulysses: “Now if laughter is a fundamental or abyssal tonality in Ulysses, if the analysis of this laughter is not exhausted by any of the available forms of knowledge precisely because it laughs at knowledge and from knowledge, then laughter bursts out in the event of signature itself.”  

And on Kafka’s Before The Law: “Though the authority of the law seems to exclude all historicity and empirical narrativity, and this at the moment when its rationality seems alien to all fiction and imagination—even the transcendental imagination—it still seems a priori to shelter these parasites.” 

All of which sounds ominously impressive, but try putting it into your own words. You can’t. And that, to me, says everything about Derrida.  

 

A Brief History of Time 

One of the surprise bestsellers, A Brief History of Time made Stephen Hawking world famous. But the book is also known as one of the great unread books, which is rather a shame. Hawking made a conscious effort to simplify the text as much as possible, leaving in only one scientific formula: the one every schoolchild knows, Albert Einstein’s famous E=mc2.  

In the book, Hawking discusses concepts and phenomena such as time cones and red-shifting, the nature of time, quantum mechanics and string theory, trying always to keep the general reader in mind (the illustrations are a great help). Looking at the reviews now, it’s easy to pick up that many reviewers didn’t understand much of it, praising the author for who he was rather than engaging with any of the concepts within. This is, in poker parlance, a tell. Which is a shame, because A Brief History of Time is a fine and often humourous effort to explain the most profound physical concepts and phenomena. 

 

William S Burroughs  

Most famous—or notorious—for the novel Naked Lunch, Burroughs is in many ways the personification of the counterculture. An unapologetic homosexual and heroin addict at a time when either meant jail time or persecution, Burroughs wrote openly about his own life and founded the Beat Generation cultural movement with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.  

Yet Burroughs’ works have not stood the test of time—certainly in comparison with Ginsberg and Kerouac, whose greatest works Howl and On The Road remain fascinating examples of the Beat energy and outlook. Naked Lunch for instance has neither plot nor character development: it is a series of vignettes (apparently intended to be read in any order), with several recurring characters and dreamlike, allegorical settings. Some passages are straight narrative, while some are indebted to the “cut-up” method, where completed texts are cut up and rearranged by a combination of chance and method, in order to break up the stranglehold of temporal narrative. (Or something.)  

Other Burroughs novels stick to one method, such as his autobiographical novels Junkie and Queer, while The Soft Machine and Nova Express take the cut-up method to the bitter end. But while Naked Lunch retains the shock of the new and has a fever-dream hallucinatory intensity, Burroughs’ standing as a writer really rests more on who he was, on his attitudes and influence, than what he wrote. For an artist this is reputational death.  

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