WHEN MARGARET COHEN first coined the term “the great unread,” she was referring to the vast swaths of literary history that remain unexamined by scholars. In this sense, these books are not “not read,” but simply not studied, or studied only by a small cohort of later readers. Indeed, many of these supposedly unread books may have been some of the most popular, and thus most read, by readers of the past. As Franco Moretti's later work would underscore, addressing the great unread is about reclaiming the study of certain types of books that have been overlooked and attempting to construct a more representative sample of the past. New digital techniques of text analysis have allowed scholars to be less selective about the books they study and have allowed them to reconstruct more accurate representations of past literary practices.
Left out of this discussion is the larger question of what it means for something to be “unread.” There are many books, for example, that we have read but no longer remember anything about. Do these count as read or unread? There are also many books (all too many) that we stopped reading well before the end. Our bookshelves are littered with books with bookmarks positioned far from the back cover. Do these count as read or unread? And there are numerous moments when we’ve read a passage but stopped paying attention. Our attention waxes and wanes when we read. What is read and unread in such scenarios?
Historians of reading have long wrestled with these problems. What can we know about what people have read? As Leah Price has suggested, when a book most impresses us, we are often apt to put the pen down. When a book marks us, we don't necessarily mark it. Studying marks, whether in the form of underlining, marginal annotation (or now highlighting), misses a good deal about what matters to reading. Part of the value of reading has been its inscrutability, its capacity as a cultural practice to wall us off from the world.
Reading and unreading might be thought of then as complementary practices, as behaviors that are intertwined with each other.