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Tuesday, 26 December, 2000, 09:42 GMT
Be honest, have you actually read them?

They make perfect presents and look great lined up on the shelves, but how many of the books given away at Christmas are actually read? By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy.

Bookshops these days can be daunting places - retail empires given over to the printed word; great stacks of novels, biographies, social histories and so on, that line the walls and stretch to the ceiling.

The question is, does anyone actually read all these books?

Nobel winner Gao Xingjian
A Christmas book reflects well on giver and receiver
As many as 50 million paperbacks and hardbacks will have been given to friends and loved ones this Christmas.

And it's a fair bet that many thousands will go unloved and unthumbed.

Nobody knows quite how many, although it could be as many as one million books given this Christmas will never even be opened.

While there is no shortage of information about book sales, once publishers have your money they tend to lose interest.

The one million figure is based on a pilot survey carried out by Book Marketing Limited in 1994, which found 2% of books given at Christmas would not be read. Many more will be only partially read.

Unspoken agreement

Valentine Cunningham, a professor of English literature at Oxford University and former Booker Prize Judge, calls it the "Christmas book syndrome": a weighty tome is picked to reflect well on the giver and the receiver.

The great unreads
The State We're In, by Will Hutton
Ulysses, by James Joyce
A Man in Full, by Tom Wolfe
Anything by Salman Rushdie
Both silently acknowledge that it will never be read, although it might be exhibited for all to see on a bookcase.

Sometimes the process is less calculated, but equally as clumsy, says Leslie Henry, research director of Book Marketing Limited.

"A large proportion of people receive books that they would never have chosen themselves. Sometimes it's a good thing, because you discover a new author," says Mr Henry.

But not always. Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time may have sold nine million copies world wide, but it is also supposed to have earned the dubious honour of being the world's most unread book.

Not brief enough

Billed as a guide to the "origins and nature of the universe" the book, which numbers a modest 234 pages in paperback, has beaten some of the most well-intentioned readers

Derek Jacobi
"I'll just break the spine and thumb the pages a bit"
And even those who got to the last page did not necessarily come out wiser.

"I read it. Well, I read the words. How much I understood is another question," confesses Erica Wagner, literary editor of The Times.

At the other end of the intellectual scale, but perhaps also guilty of having gone largely unread says Ms Wagner, is the Guinness Book of Records.

Traditionally, the book shoots to the top of the bestseller list every Christmas, and this year is no exception.

"I feel sure that it's avidly read by 10-year-old boys but is also given to other people who say 'thanks' but they would never read it," says Ms Wagner.

Mr Men books
Be honest about your literary limitations
In America, efforts have been made to measure the unread book phenomenon. In 1985, Michael Kinsley, then editor of New Republic magazine, hit upon the idea of slipping coupons redeemable for $5 in the back pages of 70 selected books in Washington bookstores.

The works, which included the elaborately titled Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in the Nuclear Arms Control, by Strobe Talbott, were chosen as "sort of books" Washingtonians might claim to have read.

It could have been a costly experiment, but thankfully for Kinsley not one coupon was returned.

No staying power

In fact, says Leslie Henry, many unread books have not been totally neglected. Rather, people give up reading before reaching the end.

Man in bookshop
"Hmm, this will look nice alongside their peach antimacassars"
Women more than men, tend to give up on books, says Mr Henry, although this is because women are more willing than men to dip into books they wouldn't normally read.

So are books more likely to go unread now than in the past?

Dr Cunningham believes so. He says flagging attention spans mean we do not have the ability to digest large books. He notes the growing trend in audio books.

Fancy jacket designs may also have something to do with it. Today, books look the part; whether they read well is another matter entirely.

But, it seems, even the best read people fall victim to the syndrome. Dr Cunningham, who gets through about 100 new novels a year, confesses to a literary nemesis.

"Moby Dick. I've got five editions on my shelf. I keep thinking if I buy a new edition I'll get to the end, but so far I've never made it."

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