Fifty-five per cent of those polled for the survey, commissioned by Teletext, said they buy books for decoration, and have no intention of actually reading them. Rachel Cugnoni, from the publisher Vintage, said the apparent unpopularity of tough literary texts like Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment - all voted in the top 10 - suggests readers are purchasing ‘intellectual credibility for the bookshelf’ rather than books they actually want to read.Which reminded me of Seneca’s po-faced but rather amusing rant against people who buy books just for show. ‘Since you cannot read all the books which you may possess,’ he intones self-righteously, ‘it is enough to possess only as many books as you can read’ (Ep. Mor. 2).
He goes further than this though: Seneca has a problem not only with people who buy lots of books and don’t read them, but also with people who buy lots of books and do read them:
“But it is a pleasure to be acquainted with many arts.” Therefore let us keep only as much of them as is essential. Do you regard that man as blameworthy who puts superfluous things on the same footing with useful things, and in his house makes a lavish display of costly objects, but do not deem him blameworthy who has allowed himself to become engrossed with the useless furniture of learning? This desire to know more than is sufficient is a sort of intemperance. Why? Because this unseemly pursuit of the liberal arts makes men troublesome, wordy, tactless, self- satisfied bores, who fail to learn the essentials just because they have learned the non-essentials. Didymus the scholar wrote four thousand books. I should feel pity for him if he had only read the same number of superfluous volumes.
(Ep. Mor. 88)