Isn’t All Reading Good?

Photo by Ryan Hyde. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Ryan Hyde. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Short answer: YES.

But some nuance is needed here.

And reading anything, I submit, is probably better for you than a lot of other ways of consuming your diversions. I’d rather have my son reading Daredevil comic books than watching the (admittedly excellent) Netflix series. All reading is good.

But acknowledging all reading is good is not the same as saying that all reading is equally good. The fact that a printed word winds up between covers is no guarantee of quality (nor, for that matter, is the inclusion of a work in a prestigious bestseller list, or on some professor’s list of required reading.)

“Good” and “bad,” “great” and “fish wrap” are all subjective. Entire libraries have been written to cover the debates about how to judge whether a book is good or not. I propose a highly subjective measure that fits the purpose of this project: a book is good if it means something to you.

Does a book raise you up just by reading it? Does it make you a better person? Does it change your life? Does it alter the way you see the world, the universe, or your role in either? Does it force you to question your pre-conceived notions? Does it make you happy, sad, angry?

Above all, is it unforgettable for a good reason?

Answering “yes” to any of those would imply that a book might belong on your list.

So all reading is good. What we’re focused on here is reading better. After all, making your reading unforgettable and meaningful is what raises it to more than just an activity with which to fill our shrinking inventory of empty hours.

 

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How Many Books Can I Read?

Not me, but you get the idea.

Not me, but you get the idea.

I love books, and I think I always have.

I remember at a very young age rushing home from school with the Scholastic* mail-order catalog, and later riding my bicycle into Westwood to browse the shelves of B. Dalton or A Change of Hobbit.† Drawing my inspiration from meeting Louis L’ Amour and taking a guided tour through his own 7,000 volume library‡ when I was eleven, I have built a collection of something over 4,000 books. I built it one book at a time, starting in elementary school through my adulthood (even during my two decades living in China), and continue to build it today (in fact, a volume of Ross MacDonald novels has just landed on my Welcome mat from Library of America.)

To some, that’s a massive collection, the symptom of a compulsive acquirer, and to others it is a demonstration that I am a literary dilettante. (“A mere four thousand? Feh! Piker!”) They’re both right. Bookwise, I have been both an obsessive-compulsive and a glorified dabbler. My collection pales next to those of people like Umberto Eco, and my sole guiding principles in acquiring the books has been to buy books as long as I could afford them, and to buy whatever looked interesting at the time.

But time is the ultimate scarce commodity, and when you subtract the hours taken by work, sleep, family, friends, camping, boating, and all of the other things that are important in life, you are suddenly overwhelmed by the tiny corners into which a reader must shoehorn all of the world’s books. So the first step in deciding what to read is figuring out how much you CAN read.

Here is how I figured it for me:

  • I am 52. Looking at an actuarial table, I have 20 good reading years left (I’m hoping for 30 or 40, but if I go with 20 and I wind up with more, I can add more books later.)
  • Based on my current reading habits, I can comfortably commit to a minimum of 1 hour a day reading.
  • Looking through my library, I’ve discovered that the average book on my shelf is about 400 pages long.
  • I read about a page a minute
  • So 20 years, an hour a day, and a page a minute, that gives me 20 x 365 hours, which is 7,300 hours total, a bit less than four full working years.
  • Multiply that x 60 pages per hour and you get 438,000 pages. Divide that by the 400 pages per book, and that gives you 1,095 books. Round that down to be conservative, and you get 1,000 books.

Et voila! Do the math yourself and see what you come up with.

Next we’ll answer the question “why books?”

 

* Scholastic deserves credit for at least two major contributions to reading in America beyond the obvious. First was getting my generation accustomed to ordering books sight-unseen based on a photo and a brief description. I am convinced they created Amazon’s critical early adopters. Second, of course, was for bringing Harry Potter to America.

† Both of those establishments have gone to the great book mall in the sky. B. Dalton was bought by Crown, whose idea of a good selection was something like 4,000 titles. The greater loss was A Change of Hobbit, the south-of-Wilshire establishment that looked and felt suspiciously like Bag End, albeit with higher ceilings, and was THE salon for speculative fiction. When I win the lottery, I will be reopening A Change of Hobbit.

‡ L’ Amour’s library grew considerably over the next 13 years. Truism: give a bibliophile a library that will hold 7,000 books, and he (she) will set about trying to squeeze “10,000 books and half again as many journals” into it. 

Why Am I Sharing my Reading?

So a guy walks into City Lights Books...

So a guy walks into City Lights Books…

Why am I doing this?

My goal in recording all of this in a public forum is not the desire to be flagrant in my erudition. It is, rather, to share a process that I hope can help others do what I am doing. My focus here will be to pass on what I learn so that you can:

  • Understand why we should care what we read into ourselves;
  • Discover what reading would be the most meaningful to us;
  • Choose our books well, based less on what they will mean to us rather than on what They think we should read (whether “They” are our peers, the editorial staff of the London Review of Books, the English Department at Yale University, or the recommendation bots at Amazon.com)
  • Share what these books mean to us. There will be a comments section here. A blog is a conversation, not a lecture, and I invite/beg/challenge you to talk to me about this process and share your own.

The goal of this effort will be to develop a process by which people can select, read, absorb, and share the books that are most meaningful to them. I’m the guinea pig. Please join me in the lab. You have nothing to lose but your boredom.

What is the Thousand Books Project?

Not my library, but it makes my point. Photo by Phil Falardeau

Not my library, but it makes my point. Photo by Phil Falardeau

Life is short. Books are many. What is an honest reader to do?

I know I am not alone in facing this dilemma. Each of us who loves books and reading them realizes at some point that we will never read all of the books that stare back at us beguilingly from our shelves. If I were honest with myself, I would admit that I’ve known that for some time, but that I have chosen to ignore that unpleasant fact.

For reasons that I will touch upon elsewhere, I have now had to face the reality that my time on earth is limited, and that I will, in all probability, never read the books on my shelves right now. Facing a problem is one thing. Solving it something else entirely.

But solve it I must, as must we all. We can either continue to live in denial, reading whatever suits our momentary fancy, or we can choose to read books that are not only worthy but, more important, meaningful to us. In order to do the latter, though, one must take a disciplined approach to reading, and that begins with a list.

The Thousand Books Project is the chronicle of my effort to survey the entire corpus of books published in the English language, identify the 1,000 of those books that are most meaningful to me, to read them, to explain why I wanted to read them, and, finally to describe what they taught me.

This project is about more than a list: it is a process, a search for meaning and beauty through the written word, and this blog is its chronicle.

That brings me to why you are here. More about that in my next post.

Dedication

“And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children.”
Deuteronomy/Devarim 6:7

To my late mother, Valeria Jane Overman Blacklidge Barlow Wolf, who spent most of the last sixty years of her life improving herself through books, and in so doing made autodidacts of her children.

I am a bibliophile today because of what she taught me in life, and I begin this project in salute to the lesson she taught me in her passing: the clock is ticking, so make every remaining minute – and every page – count.