Filling in the gaps … a set of crowded bookshelves. Photograph: RayArt Graphics / Alamy/Alamy
There's a particular pleasure to be had in browsing someone else's bookshelves – the smile of recognition when you spot a much-loved novel, the mild bemusement in finding an enthusiasm for an author you can't stand, the warm glow of discovering a taste in books that resembles your own. Gazing at the shelves of a new acquaintance, flicking through an old friend's stack of paperbacks, we feel a little closer, a little more connected. As Alan Bennett says, a person's bookshelf is as particular as their clothing, a personality "stamped on a library just as a shoe is shaped by the foot". But what about the books that aren't there?
Sherlock Holmes famously solved the case of the missing racehorse Silver Blaze by noticing the "curious incident" of the dog that did absolutely nothing in the night-time, reasoning that the absence of a bark proved the horse's midnight visitor was "someone whom the dog knew well". Sometimes the books we choose not to read, the books we can't bear to finish, reveal our literary taste more powerfully than an armful of the ones we keep on our shelves.
Here's Jessa Crispin, explaining why she's no fan of Anna Kavan's Who Are You?, a 1963 novel she summarises as:
"Girl is in a bad marriage. He abuses her, rapes her. She stays. People try to help her. She stays. He is a bully and brute and has no personality other than Abusive Man. She is small and weak and helpless and men heroically want to save her but she can't be bothered to save herself. She also has no personality other than Wet Puddle.
"God, why is this an interesting story to tell? And why do we tell it over and over again? Which is not to say it doesn't happen, God knows I know that it happens. But without any psychological insight, without any momentum, without any interest in even writing a character, why tell that story again?"
It's not only boring, Crispin says, but poisonous. These "passive girls" who can't change their lives, who make excuses and "make their homes inside their trauma" are her "enemy". Crispin doesn't even want to talk about this book. "No! Let's rip the book into pieces and toss them out the window, let's not give [these passive characters] another moment's thought."
Crispin's copy of Who Are You? somehow managed to survive her reading of it, but this violent reaction to a bloodless heroine strongly reminded me of reading Madame Bovary many years ago and wishing she could just get a grip. She loves Léon, she loves Rodolphe, she dreams of running away from Charles, she gets bored, she hankers after embroidered collars and Algerian scarves and slips into financial disaster without ever looking it in the face. I couldn't stand it. Clearly the opportunities for changing your life in the ways Crispin suggests were very different for women in 19th-century provincial France, but I just couldn't see why Emma Bovary couldn't see what was going on.
I can't remember now if it was after despairing of that novel that I gave up on Anna Karenina – another missing piece in my literary collection. I couldn't make it past part two. But the books we never complete, the books we're never even going to pick up, are shadows of our reading lives which throw them into definition. Our literary identities are fragile vessels, surrounded by the vast sea of the unread. Every time we walk into a bookshop, every time we browse the library shelves, we leave behind many more books than we could ever pick up. With hundreds of thousands of new titles published each year, our tastes are sometimes defined as much by the books we'll never get around to reading as bythose we proudly display.