Discover more from MILLER’S BOOK REVIEW 📚
All the Books You’ll Never Read
You Can Only Read So Many Books in This Lifetime. What if You Knew How Many You Had Left? Would It Matter?
“So many books, so little time,” Frank Zappa supposedly said. You can take it as longing or lament or both. Of the countless millions of books in circulation you’ll only read a fraction.
Italian novelist and polymath Umberto Eco died in 2016 at the age of 84. He owned a library in Milan that housed 30,000 books and another outside Urbino with 20,000 more. How many could he have read? Eco gave a roundabout answer while discussing Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.
“Even if we read a book a day,” Eco said, “we would read only 365 a year, around 3,600 in ten years, and between the ages of ten and eighty we’ll have read only 25,200. A trifle.” By way of comparison, he said, “Good libraries hold several millions of books. . . .”
But most of us will never come close to reaching Eco’s trifle either. Finishing a book a day is doable. An average adult can read roughly 250 words per minute. That’s about one page every minute or so, depending on the book. At that rate, you can put away a 300-page book in five hours, give or take some trips to the coffeepot and bathroom.
But doable and done are very different. For most of us five hours a day is more time and mental energy than we can dedicate. I only do it once every few months—and I read a lot.
For most of us, reading is a marginal activity; that is, we squeeze it into the margins of our lives: between this and that, after work, before bed, waiting in line. Unless a free afternoon presents itself, we can’t afford to dedicate that kind of time.
The library may never run out of pages, but the calendar will. Given the constraints, how many books might we read? Let’s rightsize Eco’s thought experiment and extend it a bit to discover how many books you might still read before you the Grim Reaper breaks your glasses.
Let’s assume you beat Eco by a year and live to 85. The key considerations are your current age and the pace of your reading. American adults average a dozen books a year, according to the Pew Research Center. That figure includes people who haven’t read more than street signs since high school; the typical American reads just four books a year. Serious readers would cover far more ground.
Then let’s say you’re 40 right now and read two books a month, plus one extra, for a total of 25 books a year; you can expect to read a little more than eleven hundred additional books. If you’re 25, you’ve got fifteen hundred books to look forward to. The numbers go down as your age increases and up as your pace does.
Whatever your particular age and pace, you can visualize the dwindling stacks you’ve got left with the adjoining graph. A middle aged power reader could reasonably hit another 4,000 titles on top of whatever they’ve already consumed. Of course, if you read while walking and wander into traffic, you’ll manage fewer.
Discouraging. But maybe we’re thinking about this all wrong.
An eye toward the dwindling stacks might assist us in making better literary choices. “You should pick them wisely,” concluded economist Russ Roberts after rehearsing similar numbers. And awareness of the ebbing piles might lend another advantage, as well, per Roberts: a reasonable justification for quitting bad books. As you know, I fully endorse that move. Sticking with a snoozer is the literary equivalent of the sunk-cost fallacy.
But such awareness might also lead to disadvantages. If you only had so many books left, would you ever reread? Roberts is iffy on the question. But I can’t imagine not rereading books I love. Neither could C. S. Lewis.
“I can’t imagine a man enjoying a book and reading it only once,” Lewis wrote in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1932, declaring much the same a year later: “One must read every good book at least once every ten years” (emphasis added). He overstated the case but hit upon something worth acknowledging. A reread book has value all its own.
Some books deserve going slow, reading and rereading. Some books are worth little when read young and much when read later. It’s the same book, but we’re different readers. “The words in a book you love will not change from year to year,” says writer Joseph Luzzi, “but your interpretations of them will. . . .” Booker-nominated novelist Karen Joy Fowler regularly revisits Jane Austen and is “always surprised by how often I see something new.”
And then there are books we never quite finish reading but visit often, like our favorite coffeeshop or restaurant. I’ve never found the bottom of Montaigne’s Essays. Why would I want to?
Infinity and Beyond
Maybe speed and tallies just don’t matter all that much. “When I was sixteen I read ten books a week,” recalled U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall in his essay collection, A Carnival of Losses. “I thought I progressed in literature by reading faster and faster—but reading more is reading less. I learned to slow down.”
Hall died just months before turning 90, beating our illustrative actuarial experiment by five years, but confessed he hadn’t finished a book in a year.
When Death revokes our library card, it’s good to remember that books are among the few things we take with us when we die because, unlike other possessions, they live in our minds and shape our selves. We carry whole libraries within us—plus room for more.
And if Jorge Luis Borges is right and Paradise is a library, then Frank Zappa was wrong anyway. We might have all the time in the world.
Thanks for reading and shaping the community here at Miller’s Book Review 📚. If you enjoyed this review, please share it with a friend.
More remarkable reading is on its way. Don’t miss out. Subscribe for free below.