Mortimer Adler once observed that authentic readers have no regard for the physical condition of their books. They will be found, he wrote, "dogeared and dilapidated, shaken and loosened by continual use, marked and scribbled from front to back." By contrast, the books of the intellectually pretentious are pristine, an oversized and overpriced collection of pulp and ink.
It is not quite correct or fair. I have an exceedingly well-read friend who likes to display pristine books; she even will go to the extent of buying two copies - one to read and one to display. Still, I confess that I try to inspect a book or two at every house I'm a guest in. Under normal circumstances, you can learn a lot about your hosts thereby. I know a woman who positively claws her way through books – she writes the definitions of unfamiliar words in the margins, underlines passages she likes, curses those that she does not, and leaves scraps of note cards and Post-Its jammed between the pages. You get the sense of a reader making a serious effort to really get at what the book is about and even — this is unfashionable — know the mind of its author. An invitation to her home brings with it the promise of good conversation.
I'm professionally obligated to read, and my profession is very obliging about paying me to do so. Much of what I read, however, is work, and in every sense of the word, for a great deal of academic writing is not just drearily but shabbily written. Most of it is of little interest to anyone other than specialists, which is to say that it is of interest to a minority of a minority. Consider the Canadian Historical Review, widely regarded as the gold standard in Canadian historical writing. Picking an issue at random from my shelf, I find an article about centralizing entomological research in Canada prior to the First World War, and another about litigation that stemmed from Hydro Quebec's activities around James Bay. Readers still awake at this point will see the problem straight away. Jane Austen wrote six novels. I have read five, and it's this sort of thing that's keeping me from Northanger Abbey.
Last year I read or took a good swing at about fifty books (some of them are piled on my bedside table, above.) In a very good year I might get through sixty or seventy. Given — let's be optimistic, here — another fifty-five years of reading, I could put paid to perhaps 4,000 more. According to R.R. Bowker, compilers of Books In Print, last year in the United States alone 291,920 new titles were published. I read perhaps twenty and – this is even more depressing – wrote none of these.
My wife, who is a far more careful and perceptive reader than I am, tends toward classics, interspersed with good-quality mysteries. She is very particular about what she reads and I have given up buying her books. But her reading only compounds the problem: she is herself a fount of continual book recommendations. And so my problem is twofold: the more I work, and the more my wife reads, the further I fall behind in my reading.