The science fiction read-limit

I am fighting an unwinnable battle. I will never be able to come close to reading all of the good science fiction out there, no way, no how.

My last two Wayward Time Traveler columns (here and here) on time-travel stories were followed by a list of comments recommending so many good-sounding books and stories that I want to read all of them. And my most recent appearance on the SF Signal podcast had six other people listing off great books and stories (and TV shows and movies) that I haven’t read and that I want to read. And there’s just no way that I can come close to reading it all. I like to think of myself as pretty well-read in science fiction (some might think I’ve read too much of the old and not enough of the new, but I do pretty good on each). And yet every time I come across these lists and recommendation, I feel completely inadequate. Heck, I still haven’t read all of the Hugo and Nebula-award winning novels.

The scary part of all of this is that I can see my science fiction read-limit closing in on me. What is the science fiction read-limit? It is the total amount of science fiction that I could reasonably imaging reading in my lifetime. And it is frightening just how small it is.

Many years ago, I wrote briefly on how sad it was that I might only ever read about 2,500 books in my life time. Of that number, science fiction is but a subset. I once read somewhere that Thomas Jefferson read something like 10,000 books in his lifetime. Since 1996, I’ve completed 453 books, not counting what I am actively reading now. How on Earth did Jefferson read 10,000, that’s what I want to know.

Consider what I read each week:

  • Half an issue of Astounding.
  • 3-4 manuscripts for writers group
  • A story or two from the SF magazines (Analog, Asimov’s, etc.)
  • Whatever I can squeeze in of Scientific American and New Scientist
  • Whatever book I happen to be reading (at present, A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin)

It’s a pretty eclectic selection, a good mix of short fiction, long fiction, nonfiction, as well as some stuff that pertains directly to my writing. And it’s not nearly enough to be as well-rounded in science fiction as I would like to be. I mean, how much could I possibly read given all the other reading I do, to say nothing of writing, of the day job, of spending time with family? It’s a sad state of affairs, but one I just have to live with, I suppose.

I’d be curious to know where your read-limits are? What is your saturation point? How do you deal with knowing you can’t read everything? And how does this influence what you choose to read next?


  1. Deciding what to read next is something I struggle with, too. I may never get to some of the books I currently own, because I buy new ones.

    Deciding what book to read next is something I’ve tried different techniques for–“book stacks”, random number generators, etc.

    Now I go with a rule. “Is this book a book I will regret not reading?” And I enforce the 100 page rule. I have to!

    1. Paul, I think I’ll go about 50 pages these days and if it doesn’t catch me, I give up. 100 pages is too much of an investment for something I’m not going to be able to finish.

  2. I’ve got 1400+ read on Goodreads, and with stuff not on there I think I am pretty close to @,000 lifetime book reads. Plus lots of short stories, piles of articles in college and grad school, etc.

    My TBR pile alone reminds me of my limits. I have about 40 titles in the primary pile, and about that again in the secondary pile. As you said, there’s too much good stuff to read!

    I don’t like the idea of not being able to read it all; the notion echoes my mortality.

    1. John, 2,000 is a pretty good number. I don’t know what my number would be if I included books before 1996, but I’d guess I’d be up to around 1,000 or so.

  3. No criticism intended, but I think your pace is slow. I’ve got to be well over 3,500 read so far (other than the read pile that’s what is in my collection and I’ve kept and read every single one.)

    JR High and HS was a ‘great time of reading’ for me; I averaged close to one book a day for over 6 years. In college the pace slowed a small bit (picking up mightily for the 6 novels I read in one evening for a test in American Lit – aced it btw).

    I’m now going much slower; if I concentrate I can polish something off in three or four days when motivated. When re-reading, not so fast.

    But A: I wouldn’t sweat it. There’s always that tug between volume and quality and if you’re concerned, I’d go for quality.

    B: one has ideals knowing that they can never be achieved. The fun is in the journey, not the arrival. I’d still be trying to “read everything”, even knowing I probably won’t.

    C: if Kurzeweil’s predictions are accurate – no problem. Come 2045 of thereabouts you’ll upload yourself to the cloud and will simply annex “all of the science fiction ever written”, with total recall.

    I’m not so sure that ‘C’ is something to look forward to….

    1. Steve, my pace is slow. I can count on both hands the number of books I’ve read in a single day. When I started keeping track of things back in 1996, I aimed for a book a week, but I’ve never quite made that mark. (Of course, some of the books I read are two or three times as long as others.) And now, with a family, a day job, the writing and blogging, etc., reading time is limited. I tell people that I’m probably an average speed reader (although I read short stuff faster than long stuff), but that I am reading in every idle moment that I have. (The Kindle/iPhone/iPad make this much easier to do. I don’t have to lug the book around or remember to take it to the doctor’s office/baseball game/restaurant).

      I wonder if Kurzeweil’s predictions of the cloud included Apple’s announcement yesterday. Will we all be uploaded into the iCloud? 🙂

  4. I’m a slow reader myself. I can’t skim or speed read. My book count is way less than most people on this blog. To ‘keep up’ on my Sci-Fi reading, I only read one book from an author, no matter how much I loved the book and salivate at the chance to read another in the series. I move on. It’s a sampling method, but one that exposes me to the most styles/sub-genres as possible in the least amount of time. As a writer, this helps. I’m less likely to co-opt style as I’m writing, which at times can be a problem.

    1. Matthew, that’s the first I’ve heard of that particular approach. I think it takes more discipline than I can muster. Do you then pick just non-series books? (Standalones?)

  5. Jamie, I’ve actually never tired formalized it, although I just threw something up on my blog in an attempt to. But no, I’ll gladly read the first book of a series depending. But I must admit bias. There’s the gray areas of course, Dune and Neuromancer are sort of a mix of stand-alone and series beginners. I guess a lot of it depends on whether or not cliff-hangers are involved or if each novel’s storyline is self-contained.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.