The other day I opened my Goodreads account and was a bit shocked by a number sitting there on my profile, 212 books read. How could that be possible? I’m 43 years old and have only read 212 books. That’s a disgrace. An abomination. I was going to be a writer. How could I possibly be a writer having only read 212 books?
On average, I read about a dozen books a year. Not a large amount and certainly not my potential. I’m picturing Jordan showing his rings when I say I could read double, triple, quadruple that. Last year I had a goal of reading 30. I was on track into August, but fell off due to pandemic fatigue. Too much information being pressed upon me. If you’re looking for statistics, the average number of books an American reads a year comes to 12, a dozen. I’ve been stunningly average. On the other side of that average, several friends of mine haven’t read a book in years. I know of at least one individual who claims to have never read a book. The median is four books, according to that study. Four is better than none.
In a very modern, industrial fashion, Goodreads asks readers to set a goal for their annual book consumption. The inverse Reader’s Anonymous group asks it’s users to stake out a finish line, but there’s no personal pan pizza or other reward waiting at the end, only the boastful notification that your friends will see on the platform, Jason reached his 2021 reading goal. Of course, that goal better be larger than the average or all will be diminished and forgotten. Set yourself up for failure. Get beyond the “to read list” teetering next to the recliner and start thinking in shelves, rolling carts, and other meaningful book storage.
Some users of the platform have goals so high that their totals seem like Babel in the dark sky. How could one person possibly read 250 books in one year. We are not reading by candlelight in 1890. We have Netflix and binge, the golden age of television, mobile gaming, social media drama, coffee to brew, and NY Times crosswords to complete. There’s simply not enough hours in the day to read that much, almost a novel a day. That’s a backbreaking lift. A John Henry steelwork tale. But then you look at their “read list” and realize they’re not using live ammo, but firing blanks. They must be librarians reading all the teen novels in a row, from A to Z, so as to give quality recommendations to the youngins crowding their reference desk. First name Dewey, last name Decimal.
I read other mediums, like blog posts, news articles, tutorials, guides, comment sections on social media (eek). So why would a book, a non-fiction one be better than say a YouTube series or even an author on social media ranting about the topic. The depth a book can go, plumbing the bottom of any field’s depths, for one. Data might hold the answers, but the book delving into the interpretation of the data will always be more useful than the raw numbers. A central point of language and sharing, books open doors that might not have existed prior to their reading. Imagine being a novelist and never having read contemporary fiction. You might start your first page with phrases like, “It was a dark and stormy night,” or “Call me, Ishmael.” Now imagine being a chemist having never read about the noble gasses. Or a programmer having never read about data types or algorithms.
When I was young, books were the escape from hot summer nights spent listless in the humidity. My flashlight illuminating the pages of C.S. Lewis or the adventures of a hobbit, last name Baggins. This isn’t some sort of attack on modern media or how things used to be better in the past, only that my perspective of books shaped themselves out of the lack of options in the past. I was a product of the 80’s and 90’s, where books held ground, standing up against all other forms of entertainment.
But are books the right answer today?
I was reading a Twitter thread the other day where someone mentioned that books do not get vetted for truth in the same way a journalist might attack a story’s premise. Of course, they’re talking about non-fiction books, but it made me pause for a moment and question these books I read and how I put so much weight into their words simply because they’re smeared onto a page with some high powered printer. So it’s OK to question what comes out of book. It’s not gospel (even gospel isn’t gospel!).
There’s also this argument by Andy Matuschak that books don’t work. They’re the wrong medium, especially for a technically savvy society. They’re old tech that needs to be abandoned for something better. He argues the time we spend reading might be better spent with some other medium or another way to interact with the knowledge set of a non-fiction book. We have apps that can teach us things in a much more psychologically proficient way. We can step away from the inked page in favor of a rigorous scientific approach to learning and likely retain much more than we would have only consuming the written word.
I feel I should say something about technology books. I’m a programmer, by will alone. I sought out the knowledge outside of a degree and work as a developer in a full-time role. I did so by reading some books, but mostly I read the documentation and watched videos. I connected with understanding by seeing others perform via video. The books I read helped solidify what I had seen in those videos and also experienced on my own, but technology has limits in the written form. Theory and best practices can stay true for a very long time on paper, but technology books often wilt over time. The version outpaced the book and the methodology in the book becomes antiquated. My experience has been to keep hold of the tomes that strengthen understanding behind patterns and practice, but let go of the ones that talk of encounters with the programming language version.
Fiction though. That’s different. Last year I read a Blake Crouch book called Dark Matter. It’s a page turner. I started the book mid-week, a twenty minute session to get the premise and into it a bit, then devoured it on a Sunday. I spent six to seven hours reading. It was fascinating and I felt like I was being transported into a world where the story’s multiverse really existed. It wasn’t laborious or exhausting. In fact, I think the time spent imagining this world, letting the words turn into images, strengthened my psychological well-being afterwards. It’s relaxing to use a Sunday to hallucinate with the words.
Fiction can be therapeutic.
It can also bring empathy to the forefront. We step into the world of a character who we might not otherwise identify and we see the similarities. We can empathize with their destiny, even if it’s awful. We might be a black slave like Henry Shackleford in The Good Lord Bird or a Russian former person like Alexander Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow. These characters are very far removed from my own experiences as a white man living in middle America. Nevertheless fiction gives me an opportunity to open myself to their experiences.
Sure there are instances (and I’m not discounting them) where authors have delved into a narrative not inline with their heritage. One such instance comes to mind from the author of the novel American Dirt. She wrote about Mexico but hails from Puerto Rico. If the author has an honest look into the past, the reader can come away with solid experiences that can shape their perspective.
What more can we ask of reading? We’re looking to shape our reality in some way from any book we read, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, we want the pages to uplift us in a way we didn’t encounter before reading it. We want the knowledge to apply to our work, life, or perspective. We become better for having read it. Either in our pursuits or in our mental health.
I’ll leave this musing article with this thought. There’s the saying that boils down to quality over quantity. It is possible we could find ten awesome books for pleasure and profession and likely be set for life, if we never veered from our own small piece of the world. But the more knowledge, perspectives, and writings we experience, the more we give ourselves a chance to grow. We can read dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of words written by strangers on forums, Twitter, or Reddit, but how does the quantity of those words shape our life? Some may be meaningful and valuable as a result, but most will drift away, like a tide receding into the darkness of night.