A stack of books to read – and a pile of excuses not to read them

I have never read "War and Peace" or "Ulysses." I am only slightly ashamed. I have had ambitions to read both. Do I still have them? Maybe. I might make the attempt once again, given suitable circumstances – such as a month or two on a desert island, a spell in solitary confinement, a blackout of all TV channels, irreversible Internet failure,being sent to Coventry by my spouse. That sort of thing.

Long rail journeys don't work for me as far as reading goes. I suspect that when I was a baby, I must have been encouraged to go to sleep by being taken for some sort of vehicular perambulation. The habit still seems to be with me. A train only has to rattle out of the station, and I am away in the Land of Nod, sweet dreams percolating my rhythmic oblivion.

In "War and Peace," it is the Russian patronymics that defeat me. At least, I believe that is what they are called. Why can't Russians have just one or, at most, two names apiece?

In Chekhov's plays, in spite of their relatively simple cast of characters, I can get confused. Even Uncle Vanya seems undecided about how many other names he has. Tolstoy is far worse.

What has started me on this train of thought is an article in our local newspaper about a poll conducted by the Museums, Libraries, and Archive Council. About 40 percent of the 4,000 people questioned admitted that they have "lied about reading certain books just so they could join in conversation."

One in 10 men said he would fib about having read certain books in order to impress the opposite sex.

Fascinatingly, the "younger generation is out to impress the most, with more than half of 19- to 21-year-olds expanding the truth."

This last statistic is perversely encouraging at a time when reading is reported to be going down the chute. So the reading of classic books is still considered a mark of status. Well, I never!

I don't think I have ever dared to lie about reading or not reading a book. It may be that I have not made a point of admitting out loud that I haven't read a certain book; one doesn't like to dampen the enthusiasm of someone who is sounding forth at jubilant length on a book everyone has read.

I had a friend who joined a London book club. He found the day of reckoning – when the members were to sit in a circle and discuss the latest book's merits – always arrived much sooner than he expected. His wife, also a member, would actually read the book. All he would do was rush through the blurb on the flap at the last minute. What flabbergasted his diligent spouse was that he would then expound the virtues and failings of the book with such authority that he always got away with it.

If you aren't a true bookworm, self-confidence is everything.

I remember the glorious feeling, as a child, of being a bookworm – so entirely wrapped up in a book that nothing else mattered – curled in an armchair with a good winter fire ablaze, time vanishing. Lunch and teatime were unwanted intrusions. Talking to people was out. Going to bed not even an option.

And then, arriving at the last page, the final sentence, the "real" world came back with a bump. What a marvelous escape it had been.

Attending university put an end to this. Not that I stopped reading books from start to finish, but the reasons for doing so had altered. The pressure was on. Not only were we expected to read "The Mill on the Floss," "Middlemarch," and quite possibly "Adam Bede" in a week, but then we had to write a long essay about George Eliot's sense of tragedy (or some such thing), ready for the weekly tutorial. Agony! – particularly on summer days when all I wanted to do was float on the River Cam in a punt.

Then there was that other compulsion to read – the fact that fellow students all knew E.M. Forster or D.H. Lawrence backward, and if you didn't, you would seem next to useless socially.

Under such duress, the pure pleasure of reading largely went out the window.

Determination went hand in hand with doggedness, however, and I remember carrying around with me for at least six weeks "The Portrait of a Lady," by Henry James. It was No. 509 in the Oxford World Classics series, and I still have it on a high shelf, dust-frosted, 645 small pages of tiny print between navy-blue cloth covers. I am sure I ground all the way to the last Jamesian sentence, "She walked him away with her, however, as if she had given him now the key to patience." I, too, must have felt I now had the key to patience.

I have never read a Henry James novel since.

Perhaps I should – some year soon.

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