Unread Library, an update

I started my Unread Library project in July, 2010, and aside from a post here and there, I haven’t mentioned it since. Come to think of it, I don’t even think I explained the impetus behind the project! Last summer, right before we left for Lake Tahoe, I meant to stop for a few books, either from the library or from the bookstore. I also considered taking some of the many books I had laying around the house, but I wasn’t excited about the idea. Time got the best of me, and I was left with no choice but to pick from what I already owned. I brought Persuasion by Jane Austen, a book I had sitting on my shelves for over ten years.

The View

I brought it to the beach and struggled with it a bit at first, having been out of practice reading classic literature and critical reading in general. I kept at it, mainly from lack of options, and decided to approach it much like I did law school. Back then, I couldn’t read a paragraph without a pen in hand. I underlined, marked, circled, and took notes along the margin of my casebooks so detailed there was little need for me to write out briefs (but I did).

For the first few paragraphs of Persuasion, hell, the first few pages, I used a mechanical pencil to underline while I read for no grander purpose than to slow down my eyes and mind enough to comprehend some of the text. Soon, my efforts were rewarded. Reading critically, it turns out, is like riding a bike.

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliott, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion. –Jane Austen, Persuasion, Chapter 1

I chuckled. That was funny. Even better, I caught the joke! Not long after that, I started to get into the story and the characters. I couldn’t put down the book I spent over ten years trying to read. And then, Captain Wentworth.

You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight and a half years ago. Dare not say that a man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. –Jane Austen, Persuasion, Chapter 23

Hello there, big boy.

So I got to thinking, maybe there were other great books I was missing out on because I was afraid of the hard work it might take to read them, that the part of my brain I needed to read literature had long ago turned to mush. I decided since Persuasion was good, so might be many of the other books I had collecting dust. That didn’t stop me from buying a few more books in Lake Tahoe when I stumbled across a bookstore going out of business, but that’s actually part of the story. I bought those books on the condition they became part of my yet to be named Unread Library. A few weeks later, I pulled the trigger on my plan and committed to it here on the blog. It was the best thing I could have ever done.

My critical reading has improved. I’m not up to where I was in college, but I am close. Actually, maybe I am better because I have 15 years of life experience to bring to the table. I find that I am able to understand the themes from an emotional perspective as well as a critical one. I value more what I am reading because I can relate to it better.

I’m constantly inspired. Captain Wentworth, with all his impassioned speeches, ended up inspiring a number of posts here, as many of you know (here is the first). My Compositions series is in large part funded by the reading I do from my Unread Library. Notes for novel and short story ideas litter many of the pages, too.

I feel better about myself. I’m not a dumb girl, but as one of two stay at home moms in a large circle of professional women, I sometimes feel a bit…insecure. Reading literature makes me feel smart, or at least like I am doing something to better myself.

A little more than six months after starting the project, I have read 12 of the 45 books in my Unread Library. I’ve also read a few books off the shelf from the library and some I bought with birthday money, but for the most part, I’ve stuck to my shelves. Not everything I read from the shelf was fine literature, some of it was downright tawdry, but they were fun to read nonetheless. That’s something else I learned. Reading the classics is a lot like drinking a fine wine. There are layers and notes to the work, and the reading can have its own special procedure. All of that is to be expected and has its rightful place in my life but, I have to say, every now and then it sure does feel good to sit down and crack open a cold beer.

Jules Kendall writes about books, family, and easygoing simplicity.


  1. says

    So inspired by this project. I used to have a hard and fast rule with my library checkouts – one trashy book (usually murder mysteries for me) must be balanced by one piece of fine literature, always.

    Sadly, I’ve let myself slide quite a bit. I give myself breaks and devour trashy books when I’m feeling tired or down. And that’s fine, but then it’s hard to get back into the good stuff. I need to get back to it.

    • says

      That’s so funny, because this week I was sick and in the last four days I have read–wait for it–THREE romance novels on my kindle. (I limit it to ones that are more love story and less soft porn–I can’t handle the cheesy love scenes without rolling my eyes or laughing.) I used to be a huge Patricia Cornwell/Kay Scarpetta fan, too.

  2. says

    this post is such a beautiful tribute to the real art of reading. i love a good “fluff” book every now and then too (although i think even fluff can be well done…), but there is something about pushing the mind to underline and think and meditate on more classical or complicated literature. i have a tendency to almost speed read through books that i love, but i find that when i read with a pen or pencil in hand, it helps me stop and savor the pages.

    (p.s.~ i am scared to tackle my own unread library. i’m afraid i’d be ashamed at how many books i have bought without reading…)

    • says

      Don’t be ashamed. I didn’t list all of mine, either. I listed most of them and prior to that had already donated a good amount to charity. I had to be realistic. There were many books I bought that I knew I would never read. In fact, some of those books are in my Unread Library, and I really don’t know how I will finish them. I haven’t figured out exactly what to do about that. I suspect I’m going to give myself a certain amount of time + chances at reading it before I am allowed to donate or give away. It is annoying, though, because it’s admitting I tossed money down the drain at one point.

  3. says

    You have inspired me to embark on my own unread library project. When I moved to my new apartment I noticed I had an entire box of books and a large duffel bag of books I hadn’t read yet. I’m almost done with A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. I’m on a literature kick right now. I read so many fluff books I could feel my brain turn to fluff.

  4. says

    I just walked over to my bookshelf and counted my “unread library”. 15. That number would be higher, but at some point I just stopped buying the books I knew would be added to that collection. You may have just convinced me to give reading them another go. After all, the Twilight and Harry Potter series are long done and I need to stop re-reading them.

  5. says

    I noticed the older I got, the moreI leaned toward books heavy on fluff … which is one reason I started my book blog. And then prompty abandoned it. Last week, on a whim, I looked at google analytics and realized–eek!–I’ve actually been gaining visitors while was away.

    That said, perhaps you would ponder being a guest when we’re back up and running?! We’ll chat … :)

  6. says

    God, I love this!

    “Actually, maybe I am better because I have 15 years of life experience to bring to the table. I find that I am able to understand the themes from an emotional perspective as well as a critical one. I value more what I am reading because I can relate to it better.”

    I had a poetry class in college that I really liked so I kept the book. I keep it with all my other books and pull it off the shelf from time to time to go back and re read my favorites. I love how the older I get and them ore life experience I have, the better and richer those poems become. I guess getting older, is good for something!

  7. phaedra says

    you’re on an inspiring roll this week! yet again i feel that your words are motivating me to pick up my own Unread Library and take a crack at it (again). I used to be the girl who enjoyed reading the work AND the literary criticisms (yes, for fun) and really wrap my brain around things for a while. Now that I’ve less time to spendreading I seem to be spending it on things that are easily read but that don’t feed my soul in any way-
    Unread Library, here I come!

  8. elena says

    as a fellow book nerd, I loved this post! I have yet to read Persuasion. Its on my list – I need to stop rerading pride and prejudice and watching the BBC series over and over and actually pick up something different by JA. Although I did read Mansfiled Park a while ago, it was very hard to get into!

    May I suggest Cutting For Stone by Abraham Varghese? It is an excellent read, not classic literature by any means, but powerful and exceptionally written!

  9. says

    Hi Jules – I’ve been a bit…behind on my blog reading, so I just saw this post. It makes my insides happy. I tend to speed read, but four of us started a book club last year. It’s been so wonderful to force myself to sloooow way down. And then I received a Kindle for Christmas! It’s so easy to make notations and then find them later. I can’t imagine how much that would have helped me out in college. Those lucky kids.

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