The Mathematics of Reading

Recently, a friend linked to a post claiming you can easily read 200 books a year. I’ve seen variants of this post before. It goes something like this: the average American spends so many hours a year on social media, and so many hours watching television. The average American reads about so many words per minute, and the average nonfiction book is 50,000 words. The mathematics of reading says it would take roughly 400 hours a year to read 200 books. Give up some of your Facebook time, give up Netflix, and you’ve got plenty of time to read 200 books a year.

As a fairly prolific reader, I am skeptical of the practicality of these claims.

I have kept a list of all of the books I have finished reading in the last 21 years. As it stands today, my list contains 664 books. That’s an average of 31 books/year. Based on the math above, you’d need to read about 10 million words/year in order to finish 200 books. I consider myself a fairly prolific reader, and yet in 21 years of reading, in my best year (2001, if you are wondering), I barely exceeded 6 million words.

If you take the math and the claims at face value, then yes, I should be able to read 200 books a year. But there are problems.

First, perhaps the nonfiction books read by the author of the post cited above averaged 50,000 words, but that is not my experience. The nonfiction books I read often exceed 100,000 words, and many are double or triple that in length.

Second, despite how easy it sounds, I don’t see it being practical to cut out social media and television for those who find them to be useful, entertaining mediums.

Third, even we did cut out these distractions, there are practical limits. I know because I don’t watch much TV and I try to limit my social media presence, and I try to cram in as much reading as I can in my day, and I still only manage to read 50 or so books in my best years.

If I break down a typical work day, it looks something like this:

  • 5:30 am Wake up
  • 6:00 am Commute to office (listening to an audiobook)
  • 6:15 am Start working
  • 10:00 am Walk for 30 minutes (listening to an audiobook)
  • 10:30 am Back to work
  • 12:00 pm Walk during lunch (30-60 min, listening to an audiobook)
  • 3:30 pm Commute home (listening to an audiobook)
  • 3:45 pm More work
  • 6:00 pm Dinner with the family
  • 6:30 pm Family time (homework, reading, hanging out, etc.)
  • 8:00 pm Get kids into bed.
  • 8:15 pm Write
  • 8:45 pm Get into bed, maybe watch TV for a little while
  • 9:30 pm Lights out, read on Kindle, or listen to audiobook
  • 10:00 pm Asleep

If I was being optimistic, I might get 2-1/2 hours of reading in each and every day. Over the course of a year, that amounts to 900 hours of reading. And yet I still only manage to max out at 50 books (and more likely, I’m apt to read 30 or so.) Why am I not reading 200 books a year?

There are a couple of reasons:

  1. Books vary in length. I tend to read longer books.
  2. Given how busy I am, I am more or less forced to listen to audiobooks if I want to get any reading done at all. According to WolframAlpha, a 100,000 word book can be read silently in about 6 hours. But when narrated aloud, it takes about 11 hours. So it takes me nearly twice as long to listen to an audiobook as it does to read the same book on paper. Except it doesn’t. Because in many instances, if I had to read the book on paper, I’d never have the time for it. Thanks to audiobooks, I can listen to books while I walk, while I commute to work, while I am waiting in the carpool lanes to pick up my kids from school, and while I am doing chores around the house.
  3. Life happens. My sample day above is fairly typical now. But in the spring, baseball starts, and there is Little League practice. There is Cub Scouts. There are school events. There are countless little deviations from a typical day that cut out the time available to read. I love to read, but I also want to see my kids grow up. I want them to love to read, too.
  4. I don’t just read books. I try to keep myself informed about current events through newspapers and magazines. On any given day of the month, I’ll try to squeeze in time to read the New York Times. I subscribe to WIRED, Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, Scientific American, Macworld, PC World, Linux Journal, and Down East Magazine. These help keep me informed about what’s going on in the world today. The time it takes to read these takes away from the time to read books.

Why do we focus so much on how many books we read? It seems to me we use this value as a substitute for how smart we are, or feel. This makes no sense at all if the 200 books we read each year are all cozy mysteries, or bodice-rippers. I think, however, that by focusing on nonfiction, the author of the article in question was saying that reading lots of books keeps us learning new things. I agree with this, and I try hard to read a wide variety of nonfiction, history, biography, science, sports history, whatever piques my interest.

Still, why 200 books a year?

I suspect that some of this comes from articles like this one from Inc. Magazine, which talk about leaders who swear by the amount of reading that they do, and how it helps them be better leaders. In it, the author writes that:

  • Mark Cuban reads more than 3 hours every day.
  • Arthur Blank reads 2 hours a day.
  • Billionaire entrepreneur David Rubenstein reads six books a week.
  • Dan Gilbert, self-made billionaire and owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, reads one to two hours a day.

The article says that many of these leaders are very busy, but find reading so important and valuable that they fit several hours of it into their otherwise busy schedules.

What I’d like to know, and what the article doesn’t say, is whether or not these leaders read 3 hours a day, or 6 books a week, before they were billionaires. Not all of us can afford the time required. Three hours of reading a day, no matter how much I’d love to do it, is pushing the edge of practicality for me given everything else I have to do.

I read somewhere that Thomas Jefferson is supposed to have consumed something like 20,000 books in his lifetime. It seemed incredible to me. So I did the math. If I managed to read 50 books a year—about my practical best—from now until I retire at, say, age 65, I’d add about 1,000 books to my list. So on the day I retire, my list of books would contain 1,665 entries.

Assume, in retirement, that I was able to double my reading, and that I live for another 20 years. That’s 100 book/year, for 20 years, or 2,000 more titles on my list, bringing my grand total to 3,665 books. By many standards, that is an awful lot of reading, but compared to Thomas Jefferson, who helped found the country, wrote the Declaration of Independence, created the University of Virginia, was governor of Virginia, Secretary of State, Vice President, and a 2-term President—four fairly busy jobs—it barely scratches the surface.

I love reading, but the mathematics of reading can, at times, be seriously depressing.

ETA: See “The Mathematics of Reading, Part 2.”


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