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Confess: The must-reads you never actually read

Our staffers confess to letting ”The Satanic Verses,” ”White Teeth,” and other acclaimed best-sellers sit on their shelves — what about you?

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Confess: The must-reads you never actually read

I was cleaning out a little-used bookcase the other day and there it was: My original copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In mint condition. Untattered. Like brand-new, and for good reason: After glancing at a page or two once, I never so much as cracked it open again. I can’t actually even remember buying it, though I’m sure I did right when thousands of other Americans were. The fatwa against Rushdie, the way he went into hiding — it was all great media fodder, and the book shot up on the best-seller charts.

But did anyone get through it? Or is it one of those books that almost no one has actually read? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. There are always a few books out there getting great critical acclaim, books people are talking about — and so we all start thinking we’ve got to buy them too. And though we may plan to read them, the truth is, we never actually do. These are the books that start out on the bedside table, occasionally move to the coffee table, and then (in my house, at least) get donated to the local library for its annual book sale. (How the Rushdie escaped that fate is beyond me.) Also on my own short list of unread best-sellers? Off the top of my head: anything and everything by Stephen Hawking and Thomas Pynchon, as well as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

I know, I know: I’m going to get a million e-mails telling me how great these books are, that I should just buckle down, that I should try again. The thing is, I Don’t. Think. I Can. And here’s another thing: I know everyone has a similar list.

Here at EW, the opinions ran fast and furious when I canvassed the staff on the subject. A lot of people mentioned Pynchon and Rushdie, as well as Proust, Joyce Carol Oates, and Philip Roth; five people put Yann Martel’s Life of Pi on their list. Dave Karger told me his two never-reads were Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (”I was bored halfway into the first page and then the movie REALLY turned me off”) and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (”just too thick!”). Neil Drumming never finished The Autobiography of Malcolm X: ”Although in fairness, I did make it halfway. It’s just not as much fun after he becomes a good guy.” Two staffers mentioned Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; one of them, Will Bottinick, says he’s been meaning to read it for the last year, ”yet for reasons I can’t explain, it remains pristine.” Abby West says that The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri, ”has lived in every room in my house as I ‘planned to read it.”’ Michele Romero never managed to open James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces: ”I loved the cover, and I thought I was going to read it, but because I have too many people in my life with their own crazy recovery stories, I thought, No way….”

While they were on the topic, a fair number of EW folks even owned up to finding some of the ”classics” downright unreadable. Lynette Rice, for one, freely admitted she could never get past the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities: ”I’ve lived with my embarrassment for decades, secretly knowing that I turned my nose up at Dickens. But I will carry the shame no longer. I’m coming out today!”

How about all of you? Which books — even ones you went out and bought yourself — have you managed to avoid reading?