Observing life: Reading by numbers

So many books to read, so little time ... Rob Garratt counts up every book he's ever read, and is far from happy with the result.

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How many books will you read in your life?

It’s a silly question, of course – individual differences of age, nationality, education, tastes, etc, are far too broad to arrive at any meaningful conclusion.

But as summer draws to a close and my stay-at-home evenings and weekends disappear – taking my precious reading time with them – it’s a question I’ve found myself pondering. I’d venture that if any generalisation can be made, it is that the answer is, almost certainly, fewer than you think.

Now, a slightly odd confession: I’ve been keeping count. At the beginning of 2011, on the eve of my 26th birthday, I started keeping a log of every book I read. It’s been interesting to periodically scan the list, spotting the trends and passing passions that developed in my reading habits.

But it’s also disappointing how little time this reading list takes to read – I’m torn between terror and disgust at my snail-like literary progress.

Judging by quantity alone may be foolish. I didn’t factor in length or breadth – included are 800-page history tomes (well, a few) and 80-page novellas that can be polished off in a single sitting. There’s high art and guilty pleasures. There are a lot of memories. But all in, not counting rereads, textbooks or poetry, there are 88 titles. In 57 months. That’s 18.5 books a year, or one every 20 days.

At the same time as starting my list, I also spent an hour or two brainstorming all the books I could remember reading up before then. I reached a total of 152.

That makes 240 overall. Let’s assume I forgot a few – and we can round the sum of my lifetime’s reading to 260 books, in 30.7 years on this planet.

That’s an annual rate of only eight-and-a-half books a year – but hang on, I wasn’t reading in the cot. I’ll arbitrarily decide, therefore, that my adult reading career commenced in the academic year in which I turned 16 – 15 years ago this month. That gives a slightly more respectable figure of about 17 books a year.

Looking at my recorded figure – 18.5 a year – I can conclude I’ve kept a pretty steady reading pace. I certainly can’t claim to be reading significantly more than I was.

Now, the life expectancy of a British man born in 1985 is 71.8 years. So, give or take a few months, I’ve got 40 years to go – or, put another way, 680 more books.

That’s a fairly big number – but a depressing figure in the context of the enormous wealth of information in print. Amazon’s UK website currently lists more than 41 million English-language books for sale. Or, let’s look at it another way – simply reading all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays would use up more than five per cent of my lifetime’s remaining reading quota.

What does that number of books mean in physical terms? A Google search tells me the average bookshelf holds 200 books. So before I peg it, I can hope to work my way through four-and-a-half bookshelves, not counting books that were borrowed, given away, left in public places, or the unforeseen moment when I find my head buried in the horror show of a Kindle.

In other words, everything I ever read, I will be able to easily store in the small study I hope one day to keep.

A depressing prospect all around. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading to get back to.