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. 

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