Last weekend Allison and I undertook the mammoth task of sorting out our shelving unit, a task we’d been meaning to do for a while. When it came to the books, they’d clearly outgrown the space we’d designated for them and needed sorting out. Of mine, I was not exactly surprised to find that I am in possession of nine books that I have not yet read; after all, I own a lot of books. Of the ones that I have read, I managed to purge about a dozen or so that I do not intend to revisit, and when I put the survivors back I made sure that the ones I hadn’t read were at the front where I can see them. The intention is to actually read them before I buy any new books.
Among them is the one book currently in my possession that I started reading but never finished. It’s T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which I bought several years ago in a second-hand bookshop while holidaying in Devon. I vaguely knew of the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ story from the movie and a few TV documentaries so I figured it was a book that I should read at some point. After much procrastination (and many other books), I started reading it a couple of summers ago; I got about half-way through before giving up, having found this magnum opus about the Arab Revolt to be very heavy going. I put it back on the shelf and forgot about it.
Until last weekend.
I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out as I had never finished what I am reliably informed is an important book. Although it does happen occasionally, I do not like to give up on a book as I feel it would be a waste of the time already spent reading it.
Thus, Seven Pillars of Wisdom is now on the front row with the unread books, an old Tube ticket poking reproachfully out of its pages at around the half-way mark. Which in a sense is appropriate, given that Lawrence himself is said to have lost the original manuscript on a train.
My sense of literary guilt at not having finished what is supposed to be a masterpiece has been assuaged by an unlikely saviour. The late Norman Lewis is one of those travel writers who I’ve always intended to read more of but have never quite got round to doing so. Well, at the moment I am reading his autobiographical work The World The World on my daily commute, and in between enjoying his accounts of the countries he visited and the interesting people he encountered I was very much reassured by what he said about Seven Pillars of Wisdom (he may have met a lot of people but he never met Lawrence – he just happened to have the same publisher).
Here’s what he had to say: “It runs to 672 pages on excellent paper, is poetical and sometimes biblical in style … a suspicion remains that few readers soldiered on to the end of the recital of the minutiae of a military campaign in the desert. Borrowing a copy recently I found that, characteristically, many pages had been left uncut.”
So it seems that I am not one frustrated reader but one of many frustrated readers. As a result of this revelation, giving up on T.E. Lawrence half-way through doesn’t seem so bad. But I’m not going to get rid of my copy just yet.