The top ten: Books people buy but don't read

  • @johnrentoul

At a party to mark the publication of Alan Johnson's memoir of his childhood, 'This Boy' (which is the saddest book I have read), I discussed with some of his friends and supporters the kinds of books that people buy but don't read. Later, Ian Rapley quoted an unknown bibliophile to me: "I don't believe in an afterlife, but I buy books like a man who does." Here are the ones of which most people never reach the end...

1. Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. Millions of copies sold. Millions of spines unbroken.

2. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. Although one correspondent protested that she had read it "all the way through: it's perfectly easy to do, and the cliché about nobody finishing it is boring".

3. Ulysses by James Joyce. A murky one this, on the grounds that hardly anyone buys it in the first place (you can get it free on Kindle).

4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel. "It's got a tiger in it." Simon Wilder tried to nominate all Man Booker winners (Life of Pi won in 2002), but the excellent Howard Jacobson won three years ago.

5. Longitude by Dava Sobel. Nominated by Robert Hutton: "I keep meaning to."

6. Spycatcher by Peter Wright. A 1980s entry nominated by Verbal Refuse, which may be a code name.

7. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Nominated by Carl Engleman, who also tried to nominate Proust, but people do actually read him.

8. My Life by Bill Clinton. So slapdash that long stretches consist of his barely annotated appointments diary.

9. Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton. It would have saved money had the Democratic primary of 2008 been fought as a comparative review of this and Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.

10. Any of Jamie Oliver's books Nominated by Geraint Whitley, who pointed out that most cookbooks qualify. Except Delia, obviously.

Next week: The Top 10 Politicians Who Don't Use their First Names. Send your suggestions, and ideas for future Top 10s, to