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Wait – did I read TOO many books last year?

Jan 12, 2020 Success, Sunday Nation

I read 80 books in 2019. That was surprising. My standard target is 50, which I always hit quite easily. But 80? That’s a lot of books, by any measure. Was it worth it? Could that number now be in the realm of TOO many books?

But first: reading any number of books is no achievement in itself. Not at all. This is not virtue-signalling, because just reading books signals nothing. The benefit of your reading should be outward: it should accrue to the people in your life.

The number is not the point; the result of the reading is what matters. Reading a good number of books every year means shutting yourself away on your own for long chunks of time. It takes time away from other things you might be doing. It needs to be worth it.

For a relatively small proportion of humans, reading is sheer pleasure, not a chore. We do it because we love it. We relish the solitude in which we can be transported to a different world where a story is spun for our delectation. We revel in stories and in the written word. We’re not working when we’re reading – we’re actually resting. 

But there is another reason to read books, whether they be fiction or non-fiction. Books can make us better people. So no matter how many books you read, did they make you better in some way – wiser, more insightful, more tolerant, more appreciative? Did the books sharpen your saw, or did you stay the same?

The question then is how many books we should read.

I repeat my usual exhortation: even if you take no pleasure in long-form reading; even if you find it demanding drudgery: please try to read just one book per month, 12 in the year. Do this simply as exercise for your brain. Reading and writing are essential life skills, and casting your eye over a long string of written words will improve your grammar, vocabulary, syntax and general appreciation of writing – even if it does nothing else.

In addition, if you choose your books carefully, you can expand your knowledge, deepen your expertise, broaden your appreciation. Those are things that benefit us all – so go for it, try to clock a book a month.

For the bibliophiles, you can do better than 12 books a year. Go for two or three books per month. And for those who really want to go for broke, aim for a book a week – 50 books for the year.

How many books become too many, though? 

I don’t quite know why I read 80 books in 2019. My fiction reading saw a jump because I came across many more enticing stories. On the non-fiction side, I was entering new territory in my work and a good few books were added and read quickly because I needed to understand a couple of things as deeply as possible.

Will I read 80 books again in 2020, or calm it down a little and head downwards to my regular equilibrium of 50? Who knows? I read a lot of books, for the joy of it, for the learning, for the expansion of mind. Let’s see what happens. It’s not a medicine I take; it’s a pleasure and a challenge. I’m already deep into the first few books; let’s see where this goes.

To each his own; let every reader follow her own pattern and preference. Some people go for just a few books every year, and really read them deeply, taking time, ruminating, making notes. Others speed-read and go for range and variety. Some do both. I belong in the last camp. When a book is excellent, I slow down and take my time, and often come back for a second reading after a few months. If it is of superficial value, I get through it in a couple of sittings.

One problem with reading a large number of books is that you inevitably pick up some clunkers. The trick is to learn from the experience and become more choosy. It is important to pick carefully. If you do, you will get the sheer pleasure of reading words expertly put together; of becoming lost in realities crafted by master storytellers; of becoming more appreciative of life and more tolerant of others.

The reason I push book-reading so enthusiastically is not to compare numbers, but to promote a habit that I think has the power to make us all better human beings.

So go for it. 2020 is underway. Pick a target. Page one of book one should have been turned by now.

(Sunday Nation, 12 January 2020)

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