Chinua Achebe and The Unread Book Project

Chinua Achebe and Unread Books

Chinua Achebe is a Nigerian poet, professor, and author. His novel, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, tells the story of an African village, its traditions, and the influence of colonialism and Christianity on tribal life. It is considered a classic of modern African writing.

Things Fall Apart has lived in my bookshelves since the mid-eighties, when I was a student at the University of Massachusetts, and Achebe was a visiting lecturer. At the time, I was taking a class with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Madeleine Blais, who encouraged us to read outside of the traditional student genres. Her suggested reading list included the likes of James Agee, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Gabriel Garcia Márquez. So, when Achebe came to speak at UMass that semester, it was a given that I would add him to my own reading list.

Today, I have more than 300 books sitting on my bookshelves—those Achebe, Agee and Didion books I purchased from a used bookstore back in ‘87. And then there are the classics, of course—Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens, Austen. There are older novels, current fiction, and collections from my John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver and Dan Brown phases. There are books that were given as gifts, books that were purchased on a whim, and those that were borrowed and never returned.

And that’s just the literature bookshelves! In this tiny little space, affectionately known as the “hobbit house,” there are also shelves for Business, Home and Garden, Travel, Arts and Crafts, Poetry and Writing. Three hundred books—some…many…unread.

In a burst of “decluttering” recently, I sorted and rearranged my bookshelves. A cardboard box in the doorway housed those destined for the library book sale. I was methodically tossing the unread, the won’t-be-read, and the what-was-I-thinking selections into the box, when I spotted my yellowing copy of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart sitting on the pile.

“It’s been on my bookshelf for 23 years,” I thought.

“I haven’t looked at it since the last time I rearranged my books.”

“It HAS to go.”

The problem with this reasoning, however, is that so many of my books have gone unread for so long, if I got rid of all of them, I would not need bookshelves!

That is the point of “decluttering,” I suppose. And there is something Zen and enlightened about letting go of possessions. But these books are like old friends, touchstones to old stories and memories—like the classes I took with Maddie Blais. Like quitting smoking with David Sedaris. Like the Robert Frost poetry my Dad encouraged me to read.

I could, no doubt, make a more educated decision about which books go and which books stay, if I set myself to reading some of those unreads, won’t-be-reads, and what-was-I-thinkings.

Which is how I came up with…


Beginning today, Monday, November 22, 2010, I will start to read all of the unread books on my bookshelves. I’ll start, obviously, with Things Fall Apart. From there, I’ll move indiscriminately across the shelf, on to Agee, Austen, Bédier, Bellow.

My goal will be to tackle one unread book a week—with reports back here on Random Acts of Writing.

And please, feel free to join me!
Surely YOU have one or two unread books on your shelves.

Like the Turkish proverb says, “No road is long with good company.” And I welcome your company! Your company…and your reports about the books and authors you discover on your own bookshelves.


• • •

Click here to purchase a copy of Things Fall Apart.

10 thoughts on “Chinua Achebe and The Unread Book Project

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  1. Well, I have some never-reads —-but mostly, like Things Fall Apart, books that I haven’t read in a very long time. When we painted a few months ago, lots of books went to the Book Barn —-but there are still those left that I could not part with, but haven’t read in a long time……I love “Things Fall Apart, and taught it at Branford Highschool in the 80’s and 90’s. I’m going to the bookshelf now!!


    1. I’m excited about (finally) reading Things Fall Apart – and about having folks head off on this little reading adventure with me! I look forward to hearing what stories YOU discover along the way, too, Pat!

  2. what a great title – “things fall apart” – i’d love to read it WHEN YOU’RE DONE… implying, of course, that you are going to read this old friend of yours, this wonderful “outside the student genre” book – hmmm – i have read most if not all of my books – so i’ll have to look hard to find one i haven’t already read – but maybe one i read a very long time ago? or perhaps one i always meant to read? and then, of course, there’s my quasi-annual re-reading of The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings… sigh – there’s nothing like a great book!!

    1. I’ll trade you one Things Fall Apart – when I’m done – for “one” The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But, goodness, maybe when I get back up to decent reading speed again? Quasi-annual? THAT’S impressive!

  3. okay, Jen.. this is surely a “task” I’d wish to undertake :) Shall I start with Atlas Shrugged, which I have intermittenly picked up and avoided for decades? hmmmm . . . I’m in!

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