How many good books can you read in a lifetime?

How many books do you read a week? A month? A year? This article for The Guardian by Hugh Ryan puts forth a terrifying concept – how many books you might be able to read in a lifetime, and it’s a lot less than you think.

Eight years ago on Christmas morning, my older brother John casually ruined my life.

“Let me ask you something,” he said, gesturing with his coffee mug at the piles of books we’d gotten as presents. “How many books would you say you read a week?”

“One?” I shrugged.

“Let’s be generous and say you have 40 years left at that pace,” offered John. “One book a week for 40 years, rounded down a little for weeks where work is crazy or you spontaneously go blind, that equals … 2000.”

My brother leaned back in his chair, savouring the moment.

“That’s it,” he said. He shook his head, as though contemplating some distant tragedy. “Two thousand books in your lifetime. That’s what you get. So every time you pick up a new book, you gotta ask yourself: is this worth it? Is this really one of the 2000 best books ever written?”
There’s nothing wrong with reading bad books – they can help you enjoy good books even more. And sometimes you need to read something that isn’t a classic, or that perhaps is an easy read, no pressure; something that perhaps won’t win any awards but is entertaining none the less. But the sudden thought that I might not be able to read every wonderful amazing book that is out there is a little unnerving. Reading this article, it really has made me think that I should try and make every book count. With the changing world of publishing, and the instant availability of so many titles by so many authors via e readers, it’s all too easy to read something that certainly wouldn’t be classed as “one of the best 2000 books ever written.” And then there is the issue of re-reading… This image has more than a few examples of books I have read more than once, meaning they have potentially taken the place of something else new and wonderful and exciting.

Like Ryan, I have just looked on my To Read pile and wondered if all of the books to be found there are “good enough.” Are they all worthy of my precious reading time, of which there isn’t as much as I would like (certainly not enough for a book a week)? A lot of them are; some of them are not. But is that just a matter of personal taste? What makes a book worthy? What would make it “one of the best 2000 books ever written,” in my opinion at least? And as for re-reading books, I think if a book is so good it can be enjoyed as much if not more the second time around, then it is worth my time. As I said, the books in this image represent several I would highly recommend reading over and over again.

So, also like Ryan, I have decided to simply read what I want to read, and not worry about how many books I might get through in a lifetime. Because who cares what anyone else thinks? It’s what I personally enjoy that matters.

So I decided to embrace my fate. If every book I read from now on would be entered on my Best Books of All Time list, then I would treat them that way. If I was motivated to pick up a book – those solid, stolid objects that never ring or send us push notifications – then something about it was awesome, and I needed to recognise that. I needed to stop caring about what other people thought of my book choices, even if the book in question was intended for 14-year-old girls obsessed with money, fashion and private schools.

I realised that the “quality” that mattered wasn’t that of the book itself so much as the quality of the experience I had reading it. Reading, for me, was primarily an act of love – and love and shame have no place together.


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