When last we were talking about books, RubyT mentioned that she used to read 300 books a year. That's well into outlier territory, it seems to me. While phenoms, speed readers, invalids or the truly obsessed might log more than that, I would guess 300 books is quite a few more books than most people read.
So then posit a 70-year adult reading life, again verging into outlier territory.
That's 21,000 books.
Total. In a lifetime.
Sounds like a lot.
There are ~300,000 new and revised titles published in the United States and another ~180,000 in the United Kingdom, not to mention ~28,000 in Australia, every year. That's just the three leading English-speaking countries. Worldwide the estimate is 2,200,000 titles annually. Most of the non-English titles never make it to translation. Even if you assume that only 5% of all those titles in English reach any level of worthiness (there's a lot of cynical bookstore fodder, specialty titles, children's books, lowest-common-denominator entertainment, and just plain junk that gets published), that's still more titles published in the three leading English-speaking countries every year than our hypothetical heavy reader will be able to read in a lifetime.
Next, add in even just the very best of all the books published in the 542 years since Caxton published Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, the first book printed in English using moveable metal type, in 1475. How many is that? I have no idea, but it's more than a heap.
Further, I have no idea how many foreign-language books are translated into English every year. But if we were to assume that 1% of books published in other languages make it into English, that's another 16,000+ books every year for you to miss most of.
Even if you read 300 books a year—I hit about 65 in a good year, and 2016 was not a good reading year for me—you can't begin to survey more than tiny smattering of all the worthy books that exist.
What to do?
The bull-by-the-horns, brute-force solution might seem appealing: Work at it harder! Devote more time! Read more books!
But that's like buying more lottery tickets. In terms of consuming what's available to read, it increases your exposure to the set of "all books in English" so infinitesimally that it's hardly worth the effort. If you want to read more because you enjoy it or want to learn more, great, but you're still only dipping a toe into the ocean.
I'd like to suggest an alternative: do the exact opposite. Read fewer books, but engage with reading more.
(Credit where credit is due: I got this idea from my friend Jim Schley, one day when the two of use were wandering the musty corridors of a vast used bookstore.)
Jim in the poetry section of the bookstore where we talked about this idea
Read fewer books, but pick them more carefully and read them more carefully; "read around" them, by reading related books, by the same author or different authors or literary critics; own multiple editions, with different introductions and apparatus; learn about the genre, the tradition, the author's influences and ideas; and so forth. Whatever makes the experience of the book richer and fuller for you.
Don't consume more, in other words; consume better.
Naturally I'm not saying you should do this with every book you read, or every author, of course. But if you really engage with one or two authors, two or three books a year, they "become yours" in a way books don't tend to do if you just rush through one to get to the next. The ones you engage with act as stand-ins for all those books you'll never read, all those authors you'll never sample, all those experiences you'll never have. If you can't experience every book, at least you can fully enjoy a few of the books you do experience.
Well, I started out meaning to relate this idea to experiencing photography and dealing with the unending digital tsunami—everything above this paragraph was just the introduction—but I see this is already too long to be a blog post and I haven't even gotten there yet. Hmm, maybe writing books, "writing long," is not such a good idea for me after all! At any rate, as part of the audience for photography and photographers, we can't possibly see more than a tiny, tiny smattering of all the photographs that are available for us to see. Engagement is the best strategy, I think, to make our experience of the photography we do get to see richer and more satisfying. But how we would go about that is going to have to be a topic for another day.
I'm sure you have probably already figured out your favorite ways of engaging with work you like—maybe you could tell me!
Original contents copyright 2017 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
No featured comments yet—please check back soon!