Shelf after shelf of unread books

Bookshelf Image copyright Thinkstock

A survey to mark World Book Day has found that the majority of books found in British houses have not been read - but is that really surprising, asks Ben Milne.

The average British household has 138 volumes on its shelves, less than half of which have been read, according to research by storage company Shurgard. "It is a kind of peacock-feather display," says the writer and critic John Sutherland. He thinks that the proportion of unread books will depend upon their location in the house - "Living rooms are display windows." Sutherland says he suspects the volumes in the lavatory are more likely to have been read, as are those on the bedroom shelves.

It would be a slightly scary household where every single book had been read. That said, there's arguably something suspicious about someone who hasn't read any of the books on their shelves. Those prominently displayed volumes of Karl Ove Knausgard or Margaret Atwood may make you look like a heavyweight intellectual, but inevitably there is going to come a point when a visitor looks at their unbroken spines and asks: "Just how many of these have you actually read?" On the other hand, one could adopt the defiant stance of Lord Redesdale, father of the famous Mitford sisters, who claimed to have only ever read one book in his life - White Fang by Jack London. "He enjoyed [it] so much, he vowed never to read another one," Deborah Mitford once recalled.

So, there's a balance to be achieved. "A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing," writes Susan Hill in Howard's End Is On The Landing, her memoir of trying to read all the books in her house, "but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with potential to burst into new life." And emotional attachment is one of the main reasons people give the survey for not throwing out books - they're "particles of ourselves", says Sutherland. If nothing else, they're decorative. In the words of a title by the novelist Anthony Powell, Books Do Furnish A Room. Perhaps you own a copy. Maybe you've even read it.

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