Before last year ended, before this year began, before it became March, of all things, my girlfriend and I sat around and talked about the number of books you could read in your life.
Yes, we’re that kind of people. Anyhow: it was a simple proposition. First, you work out how many books on average you read in a year. It’ll be different for everyone, but I would say that I read around fifty. Occasionally it is more, occasionally less. I read at what I consider a reasonable pace, but I know it’s nothing flashy, not like others. I had my fill of speed reading during University and, to be truthful, I kind of dislike the practice. A lot of bad and simple writing gets a pass because people want to read quickly. Because people don’t want to sit in the language of a book and enjoy it for simply being language. But, anyhow: Fifty could be improved upon. I could bring that average up more. I plan to do so, actually, because if you read fifty books a year, in ten years, you read five hundred. Now, if you accept that you will read five hundred books in a decade, the question that remains is, how many decades do you have left?
I’m thirty-eight (sadly, in this particular instance; in other instances I have no problem being thirty-eight, since it seems to be fine and offer little downside). My father died when he was forty. My mother, who is still alive, saw her parents die in their nineties last year. My father’s parents died – if I remember right – in the early and mid eighties. So you could argue that I have anywhere between forty and fifty years of life ahead of me (or, y’know, two – but my father died from smoking related cancer, so we’ll push that to the side and focus on the fact that his brothers and sisters are all still alive and approaching their seventies). Of course, in the last ten years of my life, my eyes could go, my mind could fade, or I could suffer an illness, or something else, which will get in the way of my ability to read. In many ways, I’ll have to take care of myself to keep that average and improve on it. But despite all these, lets take the best case scenario and suggest that I will live easily for another fifty years and therefor have five decades of reading ahead of me.
By the time I am eighty-eight, I will have read two and a half thousand books.
I currently own more than two and a half thousand books. I imagine I will own much more than that by the time I’m eighty-eight. As my partner said at the time, we could spend the next two decades reading the books each of us bought into our combined library when she moved in and maybe be ready to read new work at the end. Which means, to anyone who plans to write and publish a book in the next two decades that you’ll have to wait, cause I’m not ready. I haven’t even gotten through those Russian classics yet. So, like, wait… Well, okay, you don’t have to do that. I mean, I’ll buy your book anyway. Lets be honest: I’m not going to stop buying books and writers aren’t going to stop writing them and the publishing industry isn’t going to stop publishing them.
Two and a half thousand books.
Its just not that much. Maybe you read seventy five books a year. Maybe a hundred. Maybe you read five. Whatever you read, it’s not enough, not even slightly.
The thought returned to me last week, when I had lunch with a friend. He reckoned he had only forty years on his life, but agreed with me on the average of fifty books in a year. Maybe at earlier times in our lives, we read more. Maybe less. But we both agreed that it was a bit of a dim outlook, and kinda made you think about what you were reading, and what you were spending time with, and if it was truly worth it, given the limited amount of time you had. Not, of course, that this is an endorsement not to read widely or diversely: if anything, it is an argument that you shouldn’t put off reading diversely, both in terms of the genres and types of literature, as well as the authors who are responsible for producing it.
I’ve been reading more, lately. I suspect it is because of this conversation, or at the very least, this realisation. It’s a bit like realising your mortality in books – a somewhat shocking realisation not that you’ll be dead one day, but that upon that day, you will leave a huge amount of work in the world behind you, unread.
And you will not, sadly, be able to pick it up later.