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Is there anything more shaming than shelves full of books you will never read?

Adrian Chiles
·3-min read

It is nice to have a wall full of books. Being signallers of great intellectual virtue, bookshelves are enjoying their moment in the sun, choicely lit in the background of a thousand Zoom interviews on TV. The sight of my shelves gives me limited pleasure, as I am reproached by the spines of so many books I have never actually, you know, read. It’s cheating, that’s what it is. You should only be allowed to display books you have finished, or at least got more than halfway through. Watching some opining clever dick on a news channel, with hundreds upon hundreds of weighty tomes displayed behind them, I find it impossible to concentrate on anything this intellectual fraud is saying. “You can’t have read them all!” I yell, throwing one of my own unread Grantas at the screen. “You haven’t been alive long enough to have read them all.”

Over the weekend, I met a nice guy at whom I couldn’t throw any paperbacks for this crime because he has done a deal with himself to get through all his unread books before he buys any more. John Budden, sometime footballer once on the, er, books of Crystal Palace among others, went on to be a headteacher and then chief executive of a group of academy schools. He is presently on a bit of a career break, which is just as well because he has got 125 books to read.

“It started with a house move when I was sorting them out and realised how many I’d never read,” he told me. “Also, one of my best pals died at 50. He was the first of my friends to die of natural causes rather than an accident or anything, and it really made me think. I looked at those 125 books and thought: ‘I’d be lucky to read them all before I die.’” And so he has committed himself to doing just that.

John is fascinated by the fact that all the books have either been bought by him or given to him by someone who knows him well, and yet he has never read them. “It raises a really interesting philosophical question about why we choose the art we choose at that time. And I still don’t really know what the answer is.”

He reckons he is now around halfway through his reading list and says the joys have been many, including finally reading a copy of Oliver Twist he bought on a school trip to Rochester 35 years ago. The glue had gone from the spine and the pages were falling out. He has at last got to the end of it and realised that the book is not very much like the musical at all; it was, he says, “like a big reveal”. He also adored two Philip Roths: I Married a Communist and Patrimony.

But this mammoth task has not been without hardship. He is one of those people who can’t not finish a book once he has started it. Patrick White, the Australian Nobel prize winner, was recommended to him by his English teacher when he was 17. Thirty-two years on, he finally got around to grinding his way through Riders in the Chariot. I salute his diligence.

Nigh on flinching with shame, I squint at some of the pristine paperbacks on my shelves. I have picked three to be getting on with: American Pastoral by Philip Roth, The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy, and West Bromwich Albion: The Complete Record by Tony Matthews. But before I can start, John texts me, confessing he couldn’t finish The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer. So, I am going to read that one, just to earn myself a small patch of literary high ground next to him.

• Adrian Chiles is a Guardian columnist