The 106 Most Unread Books

Thanks to Christopher at Catalogue of Organisms for this.

This is a list of the 106 books that apparently people buy because they think they should read them, but never have. Literary ornaments to make you look smart in other words. A high proportion of them are “the classics” as you would expect, although a few modern books get in there.

Books I have read are in bold, those I own but have never read, or started to read but never finished are in italics. I have underlined those books that I don’t own, but would like to read.

I agree with Christopher – this is a very culturally specific list. Anglo-centric, probably American, possibly English. He wonders whether, for example, a list compiled in New Zealand would look different. I know that if the list were Scottish then there would likely be more than one Robert Louis Stevenson novel, and at least one (probably more) by Sir Walter Scott.

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
  • Anna Karenina – currently on the shelf, waiting for me to get to War and Peace first…
  • Crime and Punishment – I read the first few chapters of this on Project Gutenberg, and bought it on the strength of that. It is waiting for The Brothers Karamzov to be finished (this will be a recurring theme, books waiting for other books…)
  • Catch-22 – this is the first book on the list that I think will surprise people that I have never read. It is on the (ever=expanding) list of books that I want to read, but just never got round to…
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Wuthering Heights
  • The Silmarillion – I have read The Hobbit, but not the Lord of the Rings (yet). Whether I attempt this or not will depend on whether I enjoy Lord of the Rings. Christopher enjoyed this more, as it demonstrated Tolkein indulging his own personal enthusiasms for mythology and linguistics. Nothing wrong with that, but a novel written purely for your own personal enjoyment is a novel that ought to stay in your drawer. If you’re going to write, write with at least one other person in mind. Rather than a “commercially-acceptable blanket”, I think the Lord of the Rings was written with other people in mind, making it more enjoyable, let alone commercially acceptable.
  • Life of Pi : a novel – some days I pick this off the shelf in bookstores, only to put it back. The allure hasn’t been strong enough to make me buy it.
  • The Name of the Rose – first one I’ve read from this list! The Name of the Rose is brilliant, and rewards repeated visits. It is heavy going at times, due to Eco’s love of linguistic tricks and expository detours into the architecture of libraries, the contents of monastic physic gardens, and manuscript illustration. But even these are entertaining, and there is a rich vein of humour running through a demanding murder mystery.
  • Don Quixote – if you think you know the story of Don Quixote, you don’t. That whole “tilting at windmills” thing is over and done with by page 30. You then have about 600 to go. I personally felt that it was a little too long, and I would have enjoyed it more had I been more familiar with the genre that it is sending up. When it drags, it becomes turgid and dull. However, for the most part it is very witty, and well worth a read.
  • Moby Dick
  • Ulysses – the first appearance by James Joyce, and the first book on the list that I agree with the underlying premise of the list – that you only own it because it looks good to own it. I find Joyce impenetrable, and Ulysses is the prime example. I have not yet consciously met someone who has (a) read all of this book and (b) enjoyed it. Please, dear reader, if you have, let me know.
  • Madame Bovary
  • The Odyssey – on the list, after I’ve read The Illiad…
  • Pride and Prejudice – there are several Jane Austen novels on this list (I think only two are missing to make the complete canon. I’ve mentioned previously my change of heart over Austen. As with most British people my age, I read this in school, first having been shown the BBC adaptation with Colin Firth. If I may be allowed to be controversial, the 2005 film is a better adaptation, but the book blows them both out of the water.
  • Jane Eyre
  • The Tale of Two Cities – I feel like a fraud for this one, as it was only an abridged children’s version…
  • The Brothers Karamazov – this is currently on my reading pile, and I’m ashamed to say it has been for several months longer than I care to admit! It is dark and funny and tragic all at once. I have a soft spot for both the scoundrels of the story, Fyodor the father and Dmitri, the eldest of the three fathers. I know enough of the plot to know what is coming between them, but I haven’t reached that far yet!
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
  • War and Peace – I appear to like Russian and French authors… War and Peace is on the list. My favourite Woody Allen joke – “I once spead-read War and Peace. It’s about Russia…”
  • Vanity Fair
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife – I think this is the most modern novel on the list. I flicked through a copy in a bookstore recently, and I’m sufficiently intrigued by the concept to give it a go. However, I am still banned from purchasing books until I read through the ones sitting on the bookshelf from the past five years that I bought but haven’t finished. My guilty secret…
  • The Iliad
  • Emma – I’m going to quote Christopher’s comment on this in full: “apparently, Jane Austen commented in a letter when writing Emma that she had invented a heroine whom no-one was going to like but Austen herself. I must admit that I found the character of Emma more than a little annoying.” Yup, I think everyone is annoyed by Emma. From the first line of the book, I hated her. It was only years later I realised this was a testament to Austen’s skills as a writer.
  • The Blind Assassin
  • The Kite Runner
  • Mrs. Dalloway
  • Great Expectations – I am a heretic. I can take or leave Dickens. I’ll probably read Bleak House some day, but beyond that, meh.
  • American Gods
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – this is what I write every day…
  • Atlas Shrugged
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Middlesex
  • Quicksilver
  • Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
  • The Canterbury Tales – Scottish education tends to bypass Chaucer…
  • The Historian : a novel
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – again, Joyce. I’m sure he has his charms. I just can’t see them.
  • Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Brave New World – ah, the second entry in the “I thought you had read that” list for me. No, I haven’t. Add it to the pile…
  • The Fountainhead
  • Foucault’s Pendulum – another Umberto Eco. Not as good as The Name of the Rose, but then again here Eco is on his home territory of semiotics and playing with language and the idea of language. Detours into the history and experiences of the fight against the fascists in Italy cause the story to drag, but once past those, this probably has the best concept of all of Eco’s fiction. For a new reader of Eco’s work, I would ease in with Baudalino instead, and leave Foucault’s Pendulum last.
  • Middlemarch
  • Frankenstein – for those only familiar with the movies, this will confound all expectations. For a good movie adaptation, see Kenneth Branagh’s version with Robert De Niro as the Monster.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo – I love Dumas, I just haven’t read any of his work. This is in the pile, waiting for me to finish the Muskateer cycle…
  • Dracula – I haven’t tried reading this in a few years. I keep giving up, mainly because I find Mia’s letters so damn boring!
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Anansi Boys
  • The Once and Future King
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
  • 1984 – I own a complete collection of Orwell’s novels. They are in the pile. And 1984 makes the third entry into the “what do you mean you haven’t read it Paul, I thought you had” list…
  • Angels & Demons – on the one hand, it always disappoints to see Dan Brown books in any list. On the other, if they are at least confined to an “unread” list, then the owner of the book has been spared…
  • The Inferno – I’ve read the entire Divine Comedy. Not only does the Devil have the best tunes, but the best writing. After Inferno, it’s a long downhill trek through Purgatorio and Paradiso…
  • The Satanic Verses
  • Sense and Sensibility – oddly enough, we didn’t read this, the second most well known Austen novel, and all accounts arguably the best.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Mansfield Park – at school this was a surprise inclusion instead of Sense and Sensibility when we were studying Austen. I was 17 at the time, and this was the last of the three we had to read. I don’t think I was paying much attention, as I can barely remember the story now.
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles – did I say “study” Austen? My mistake, what I meant to say was “spend your summer reading nothing but Austen, only to return and find that the teacher you thought you were getting had left, and the new teacher decided that the class would critically examine the works of Thomas Hardy”. Tess was first up. I quit the class shortly after finishing Tess. These two facts are not wholly unrelated.
  • Oliver Twist – again, I’m cheating. It was the abridged children’s version…
  • Gulliver’s Travelsone of the very first books I remember reading as a child. The version I read only contained the first two voyages. It was only when I was older that I read the final two voyages, and came to appreciate the satire.
  • Les Miserables – I really cannot say enough good things about this book. Definitely one of my favourites of all time. My one and only criticism is that the entire section on the Battle of Waterloo could be left out without detracting from the character development. But that is the only criticism I can make of this book. Do yourself a favour, and read it. Unabridged.
  • The Corrections
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – bonus points to the person who knows what the title refers to.
  • Dune
  • The Prince – I have read most of The Prince, but not in a long time. Not really a novel, it is sitting with other works of political philosophy like On War by von Clausewitz.
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • Angela’s Ashes : a memoir
  • The God of Small Things
  • A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
  • Cryptonomicon
  • Neverwhere
  • A Confederacy of Dunces
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything – it, along with the entire Bill Bryson catalogue, is sitting on the bookshelf…
  • Dubliners – Joyce. Again.
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • Beloved
  • Slaughterhouse-five
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves
  • The Mists of Avalon
  • Oryx and Crake : a novel
  • Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
  • Cloud Atlas
  • The Confusion
  • Lolita
  • Persuasion
  • Northanger Abbey – given that I do actually like Austen, I should probably get round to reading the rest of the canon…
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • On the Road
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame – as with Frankenstein, if you only know it through the films, you don’t know it at all. I found that the scenes in the Court of Miracles to be the most entertaining. Hell of a depressing ending though…
  • Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
  • The Aeneid
  • Watership Down – yes, it is about rabbits. Despite this, don’t let your kids read it thinking it is a happy little romp through the countryside…
  • Gravity’s Rainbow
  • The Hobbit
  • In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
  • White Teeth
  • Treasure Island
  • David Copperfield
  • The Three Musketeers – thus far I have assaulted The Three Musketeers seven times, each time getting further than the last. Some day I will finish it. And when I do, I only have Twenty Years After, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Valliere and The Man in the Iron Mask to read…

How many of these do you have on your bookshelf, and how many of them have you actually read? Are there any books notable by their absence? If we are thinking about books owned purely to make you look good, then I think there are a fair few copies of “A Brief History of Time” on the shelves, with the spine uncracked…

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15 thoughts on “The 106 Most Unread Books”

  1. It’s late here and I’ll have a crack at this tomorrow. We have a house full of books. My partner reads all manner of interesing highbrow and international ‘literature’ … I’m more up for a good yarn – so our bookcases are eccletic to say the least.

    I have a list of the best books of each year for the 20th century. I’ll type it up and we can compare lists!

    I can hear where a certain person is coming from with bans on books until those in the wings have been read. We have a huge second hand book sale in Brissy twice a year and we promise that we wont buy more books until we’ve read the ones from last time – but it never happens. I’ll have to post a photo taken at BOOKFEST in January this year – they sell a million books for charity over a week.

  2. I’d be interested in seeing that list Jodi, thanks for that.

    Some of these books were birthday presents for my 24th and 25th birthdays. I’m 29 in two weeks, so feeling a little guilty about not reading more.

    I’d like to get an electronic bookreader soon, either as a Christmas or birthday present. Maybe having something fairly slim and portable on hand will encourage me to read more. Usually I have a book (or two) in my bag (along with notepads), but the best times to read are always when I don’t have one to hand! Mind you, it would help if the reader came pre-loaded with all those classic books I’m intending to read, but don’t have time!

  3. I have dozens of unread books, of course! Some of the ones I got because “I really ought” to read them are Things Fall Apart, Das Boot (in German), no less than three books by Voltaire, On Liberty (JS Mill), Orientalism (Edward Said).

  4. Well, I can’t comment about the “books bought but not read”, but I can give you a list of the top 100 NZ bought books as there’s a list and shelving section devoted to it in almost every bookshop here. There are some interesting differences and similarities with the BBC list from a few years ago.

    I’m not technically allowed to buy myself books anymore, but that’s a combination of not having read the ones I’ve got , really supposed to be reading text books and papers, and worrying about shipping them around the world next year. So,um, we’ll ignore the fact that I’ve bought all seven of John Marsden’s “Tomorrow” series since I got here, shall we? They are brilliant and I think everyone should read at least the first one, but I’m not sure where they’re going to fit in my luggage….

  5. Christopher enjoyed [The Silmarillion] more, as it demonstrated Tolkein indulging his own personal enthusiasms for mythology and linguistics. Nothing wrong with that, but a novel written purely for your own personal enjoyment is a novel that ought to stay in your drawer.

    And as I also alluded to, this is exactly where Tolkein kept it. He considered The Silmarillion pretty much unpublishable – apart from a few readings at conferences and sending drafts of a couple of sections to a publisher to see what they thought (they said no), he kept it to himself. It wasn’t until the Lord of the Rings was such a huge success and J.R.R. himself had kicked the bucket that his son compiled all of Tolkein’s drafts and published them.

    Not only does the Devil have the best tunes, but the best writing. After Inferno, it’s a long downhill trek through Purgatorio and Paradiso…

    And let’s not even mention how many leagues Paradise Lost stands ahead of Paradise Regained.

    The version [of Gulliver’s Travels] I read only contained the first two voyages. It was only when I was older that I read the final two voyages, and came to appreciate the satire.

    To be fair, the satire of the Lilliput section was based pretty heavily on the political events of the time, so it hasn’t dated as well as satire as the last two sections that deal with less directly topical themes.

    I can’t help pointing out that when Gulliver’s Travels was written, Japan had a strict policy of exclusion of foreigners (except one small Dutch trading post on an island in Nagasaki). I therefore found it telling that Swift includes Japan among his fabulous countries such as Laputa and Brobdingnag.

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – bonus points to the person who knows what the title refers to.

    Never read the book, but I assume this refers to a comment of Sherlock Holmes.

  6. Woo, comments! I like them…

    Vasha, I fell foul of the “buying because you felt you ought to” with Voltaire too. I bought Candide and other stories. It got added to the pile of books to read. Then I forgot I had bought it. So bought it again, and realised my mistake when i got home. This is one of the reasons I am banned from buying new books now…

    Usch, I’ll take a look at that list – it might be interesting to compare it to the one that Jodi is going to send – see how Australia and New Zealand are similar and different in tastes. You’re an ideal example of why electronic books should start to take off soon. It would be great to have my entire library in my carry on luggage. Of course, as a disadvantage, a book can’t run out of batteries half-way through a 30 hour flight….

    Christopher, I hadn’t realised that about Tolkien. I guess it is a similar situation to the new Nabakov book – although he explicitly asked his son to destroy the book, I’m guessing Tolkien would have been happy with it being studied.

    Christopher gets the bonus points – the curious incident of the dog in the night-time is a detail that Holmes draws Watsons attention to. Watson remarks that the dog did nothing in the night-time, to which Holmes replies “That was the curious incident”.

    There ought to be some Sherlock Holmes on that list…

  7. You’re quite right, electronic books that I could cope with reading would be fantastic. I’ve tried ereader but I hate having so few words on a page – I find having to “turn” the page so often is seriously annoying. And let’s not talk about DRM, shall we?

    I seriously toyed with the idea of getting an iRex iLiad before this trip but it’s a little out of my price range and other epaper devices aren’t really functional for what I want. I want to be able to read both books and pdfs and it’s the only epaper device that copes well with pdfs as far as I can tell – it has a larger screen than others which helps, plus you can write on them, which is fantastic as I’m one of life’s annotators – all my books and papers have underlinings and scrawled notes in the margins. It would enormously reduce the amount of paper I’m hauling around the world at the moment. Of course, it’s just occurred to me that the cost of all that postage is not insignificant and would have made the price a little more justifiable. Sigh. It has potential to make my life so much less bulky!

  8. Am I philistine because I can’t bear the idea of ‘reading’ on the screen? I’m even adverse to listening to a an audio book. And I’m a bit of a techno feb at all – there seems to be all this technology out there that I dont even know about!

    Bulky for me was getting about on holiday with a laptop in tow. For the amount of writing that I got done it would have been far easier and more convenient to have taken a note pad – but that wasn’t really the intention. I was meant to be writing a 100 page script … enoug said about that though.

    Who thought that lists could spark such interesting conversation … and looking forward to seeing the results of your list perusal Paul. I should be putting together a list of books to read and see if I can get them read this year. That would be an accomplishment.

  9. I had a look at the iRex Iliad, then I saw the price tag! I’m keen on the Amazon Kindle, especially as if you buy your books from Amazon, you get to download it an unlimited number of times, so your library is essentially backed up online.

    But whatever I get would need to have the ability to handle PDF files too. More research needed…

    Jodi, the new ebook readers are getting very good with “electronic paper” – a few of them have screens that rival the printed page (including still being readable in direct sunlight!) and a few of them allow you to “flip” pages so it is more like a real book.

    I would have got a post about the list put up by now, but had almost no internet access today – severe IT problems, hopefully tomorrow I’ll get it posted.

  10. Looking forward to reading your list … and commiserations on the IT dramas. Have a post on ideas over at my place … would love to hear your musings on that topic!

    Oh and by the way – hasn’t this become a lively little place of late .. who’d thought a list of old and apparently unread books could evoke such lively discussion.

  11. Hmmm. An entire comment I wrote out about ereaders vs books and what I thought about the Sony paperless device appears to have disappeared into the ether. That’s sad.

    It basically boiled down to: Books are fabulous and I doubt they’ll loose their place in my heart, but at the moment being able to reduce weight and volume would be good. However I haven’t seen an epaper device that meets all my criteria – such as the display of ebooks (too large font, having to turn the page too often, etc) and being able to use pdfs.

    Perhaps soon there’ll be a device I can afford that does what I want.

  12. Jodi, I’m loving the conversation that this has turned into!

    Sorry about what happened to your post Usch! For me, I’ll always love having a physical book, but as with CDs it is going to have to mean something to me now for me to own it physically. I have bought a lot of cheap paperbacks of books that I have always wanted to read, but which I am sure I will probably only read once, to say I’ve read it. These I’d want electronically. But books that are a little more special to me (like the Sherlock Holmes stories) I’d want to own a physical copy.

    Some of the newer ones display the page as it is in the printed version, so you shouldn’t have to turn the page too often. I know the Kindle allows highlighting, but not sure about annotation. But a big thing for me would be displaying PDFs (and I imagine for you too – could keep a lot of research papers on there!)

  13. On the subject of CDs – I broke my rule of never buying (nor obtaining illegally either) downloads because I wanted ‘Magic Alex’s’ album that was in limited release in the UK and now only available through e-music. I happened upon some other CDs that I was planning to buy … but its really just not the same.

    But I know they said the same about CDs when they became the standard instead of vinyl. There are few albums that I will NEVER buy on CD because they have to be listened to with the crackle of the needle (such as Gracelands for me)

    I hate to think of a time that there were only book files … but there are advantages to ebooks etc. Something I’ll hopefully be discussing soon … as I’ve got an idea mulling away in my head.

    Have agreat day … I’m off to bed!

  14. I used to feel that way about audiobooks, but I found audible and got over it 🙂

    No, but really, I listen to a lot of stuff – podcasts on all sorts of, novels, non-fiction, it’s what I do while knitting, walking or busing around the place, in the car (especially as the car I’ve just got doesn’t have a working radio), cooking, doing routine mindless analysis and so on. It’s not just a question of cost (though downloading mp3s is cheaper than buying the equivalent) but if I had all the packaging etc that went with all the books on my mp3 player (which hit it’s capacity this week and had to have some things deleted, distressingly), it would take up a lot of space.

    There are a few audio cds I would actually buy, depending on how much I love them, the cost and their avaiability as mp3s, but on the whole, I’m quite content to not own physical CDs.

    The pdfs are a deal breaker for me with an epaper device – I look at how much paper I brought with me on this trip and weep a little.

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