Books I Haven’t Read (part two)

In which we discuss An Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin


On Friday, I took the morning off work to take the car for its service. I’d told the garage I’d stop and wait there, in the hope that it would get done a bit quicker. Expecting to be stuck in one place for a couple of hours, I took a book with me in the hope that I’d continue reading it once I was at home. This week’s Book I Haven’t Managed To Finish Reading: Samuel Pepys: An Unequalled Life by Claire Tomalin.

When I was small, I had a children’s biography of Pepys;* second-hand, falling apart, probably from the ’60s and probably about 50 pages long. It was an intriguing introduction to the great journal-writer, but was really just about everyday life; very little of it specifically about the diarist himself. He lived in such interesting times that it didn’t need to be. When PepysDiary.com started serialising the diary in real-time – over two years ago, now – I intended to read it daily, but soon didn’t manage to keep up. It still left me knowing little about him.

An Unequalled Self is a very good book, it has to be said. It’s also a large, complex book; and to do justice to its subject, it has to go into seventeenth-century politics in-depth. That’s vital, because – especially around the start of the Diary – Pepys’ life was affected so much by the changing politics of the period; but it was also my undoing. So many events and figures blur together that I start getting to the bottom of the page without having taken any of it in. That’s always a sign that I’m going to give up reading before long, if only because on picking the book up again I can’t work out where I am.

The common thread here, between this and our last book, is that my downfall is Too Much Information. If it’s something I know about: no problem. If it’s a new subject, and the information is packed too densely: that’s when I stop paying attention.

* Well, I almost certainly still have it somewhere.

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