How many books can you read in a lifetime?

How Many Books Can One Person Read?

Days before my birthday last month, the Washington Post chose to remind me that my time here is finite.

Using the latest actuarial table from the US Social Service, Wonkblog created a life expectancy calculator that allows you to visualise where you are in your life’s journey.

Here’s my graph. (And if you want, you can find yours here).

how-long-is-left

Such information focuses the mind.

In amongst thoughts of yet-to-be-fulfilled dreams and ambitions, I was struck that there are only a finite number of books that I’ll be able read before my hour-glass empties. (Clearly, reading books features highly in my life priorities).

It got me thinking – how many books can I read in my lifetime?

I try to shoot for a book a week, which means 52 books each year.

This goal is more aspirational than fixed, but once you commit to curving out reading time each day it’s an easier goal than it seems.

(Sadly, I’m a bit behind this year, but I think submitting a PhD is a decent enough excuse.)

So, how many books will I read if I maintain my reading average and if I conform to the Social Security’s stats?

Credit: Johannes Jansson/norden.org

Credit: Johannes Jansson/norden.org

Allowing for goal slippage, around 2,000 more books will pass through my hands.

With a limit to my reading adventures, what to read next became a problematic question. How can you justify a place on your reading list knowing how few books you’ll get to read in a lifetime?

I Googled it.

It seems that Beulah Maud Devaney of the Guardian confronted a similar worry back in January.

If we can calculate how many books we will read in an uninterrupted lifetime, at what point should we draw the line? Life is short and books are long. We don’t get to read many of them and I’m starting to realise that some books don’t deserve to be among my theoretical 3,000. – Beulah Maud Devaney

I read this article in total agreement, but it soon dawned on me that worry over what-to-read-next is needlessly paralysing.

If you shun books that there’s a chance you might not like, then what do you miss out on? What discoveries are foregone by only reading guaranteed winners each time?

My guess is that you’d become quite narrow-minded. I know that all I’d read are cold war histories, spy books, sports biographies, and perhaps a few classics to feel clever.

I realised that I’m worried less about choosing the right books to read than reading a healthy variety of books.

The act of reading 2,000 books – or 1,000, or 500 – is far more important than what those books are. Reading long-form text is good for us, even if it’s wading through Twilight fan-fiction.

(Note: I do not read Twilight fan-fiction).

The Decline of Books. The Rise of News Snacking.

A new study suggests that ebook sales have flat-lined, and paper book sales are in decline. Are we starting to read fewer books? (Let’s blame the internet…?)

We now have Facebook (and every other website) desperate to steal our attention. Their job is to conjure up new ways to keep you on their site and are devising clever / manipulative ways to do so all the time.

This type of ‘news snacking’ is fine, but I certainly don’t want it to replace my reading longer form stuff.

If I worry to much about what book to read next am I more likely to avoid the decision entirely and fill up on oh-so-easy news snacking on the interwebs?

Facebook hopes so.

This isn’t to say a text needs an ISBN number to be worthy of attention, but it’s clear that there are dangers of allowing addictive websites – whose very goal is to increase your ‘Time on Site’ – to curate our reading for us.

The question remains: when read a book and when surf the interwebs for interesting stuff?

i.e. Was plugging in my age into an actuary table on the Washington Post website a good use of my attention? I honestly don’t know.

I got a blog post out of it – but is that an indicator of worthiness? Or is this post just a waste of everyone’s time?

Oh – the angst of the information age!

What Should Be Done? Make Time For Good Content.

Rather than sit down and plan the 2,000 books I’ll read over the next 48 years while fastidiously blocking out the internet, I’ve instead come up with the following approach:

Be selective. Demand fantastic content. Don’t let them steal your attention.

News-snacking is fine when you’re consciously news-snacking, and there’s clearly a place for it. How else would you find out that it’s #BacktoTheFutureDay, for example? [Chuckle chuckle.]

Discovery is also fun, amazing content is waiting to be found, and I want to make time for it.

But there also needs to be time for conscientious long-form reading. Otherwise that aspirational goal of reading a varied mix of 2,000 books – and all the good effects that come from reading – will never be attained.

So, the conclusion of my too-many-books-and-not-enough-time train of thought is this:

  • Don’t over-think choosing what to read – anything interesting is worthy
  • Schedule more time to read books
  • Schedule time, though less than for reading books, to discover interesting content

(What I decided to read next – to rebel against my over-thinking self – was a book I’ve already read.)

I’m on Goodreads if you’re into that kind of thing.

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