There was a time when I would have been embarrassed to say how many of the “great books” I have not read. There was a time when, if someone were to ask me if I had read some classic work like say, The Aeneid, I would have lied, said I read it, and even feigned some discussion with what I knew of it generally. There was a part of me that, because I teach philosophy, history, theology and the like, and because I have a bit of a reputation as someone who knows a bit about a variety of topics, that I was ashamed of the fact that there were so many classics that I had not, in fact, read. What would they think of me, if they knew I had never actually read Moby Dick!?
I have also made it a priority to build a library in my home. When people would see how many books I own, I often got some snide remark about whether I had read them all, and there was a part of me that felt I needed to justify outwardly this “show” of books, even though I knew they were not for show, but for study. As Umberto Eco said on the subject:
The visitor enters and says, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?” At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion. It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already read books and do not think of the library as a working tool. But there is more to it than that. I believe that, confronted by a vast array of books, anyone will be seized by the anguish of learning and will inevitably lapse into asking the question that expresses his torment and his remorse.
Furthermore, while I have taught at a classical school for eight years which draws on C.S. Lewis for its name and is saturated with references to The Chronicles of Narnia: and yet, until two years ago I had never read a single word of The Chronicles of Narnia. I know I faked several conversations at school, and probably during the interview process as well. I’m sure there are more complex reasons for why I felt compelled to be dishonest about this: pride, shame, embarrassment, etc.
Again I have to say that I used to lie about the books I’d read. I have now come to see that there is no shame in having failed to read some “great work”—for there are far too many for anyone to have read them all. Furthermore, there are even far too many of the “essentials” to have read them all! I still get a kick out of people who are shocked to discover I have never read, say, Pilgrim’s Progress. “It’s on my list,” I say, “I’ll get to it!”
The problem is further compounded by the great writers who are still writing great books. I think I would be cheating myself if I only read books published more than 100 years ago. And if I want great writers to keep writing, there have to be people like me who read (and more importantly, who buy) their work. So, I try to keep a balance between the old classics, the new classics, and just the new ones in general.
Like C.S. Lewis says somewhere (but I cannot remember where), for a good book, after you have read it the first time, then you are ready to read it (or something to that effect). So, I can safely say that for many of the “great books,” I am ready to read them now!
So, “No,” I haven’t read them all yet. I’m working on them. I have not yet made it to War and Peace and vast majority of Dickens, but I’ll get there, maybe, if not in this life, then certainly in the next.