Now and then I lament that there will never be enough time to read all of the books I want to read. I could spend lifetimes reading books that have already been written, without even scratching the surface. And that wouldn’t count all of the new books that are constantly being released.
I touched on this most recently back in 2017, when I wrote a pair of posts on the mathematics of reading (part 1, part 2). Around the same time, I wrote a lengthy entry in my diary that delved into my own personal mathematics of reading, trying to figure out how I could cram more reading into my day. Since 2013, I’ve taken advantage of audiobooks to be able to read while doing other things: commuting, walking, exercising, doing chores around the house, waiting in lines, etc. This diary entry explored increasing the speed at which I listened to audiobooks steadily over time. Indeed, in 2018, I managed to read 130 books, and another 110 in 2019, both a dramatic increase over previous years.
These days, I find myself listening to audiobooks at 1.7x and occasionally, 2.0x for certain narrators (like Grover Gardner, for instance) and that helps. I’ve made such a steady increase in the speed that I listen to the books since 2013 that 1.7x sounds perfectly normal to me.
I thought that these 2017 ruminations on the finite amount of reading I could do in a lifetime were among the earliest I’d had, brought on my reaching middle-age, perhaps. But I was wrong. Among the treasures I discovered recently in some of my older writing was an early lament in the “so many books, so little time” vain. On March 20, 1995 (over a year before I began keeping a diary, when I was just approaching 23 years old), I wrote the following to a group of friends.
March 20, 1995, Installment 17
While we are on the subject of numbers, I mentioned last time how I had recently began to feel that I would never be able to read everything I want to read in my lifetime. I thought about this more last night, and the thought became so terrifying as to shake me from my sleep. Allow me to explain.
I realized sometime earlier this month that there are far too many books in the world than I would ever be able to read in my lifetime. Far, too many. When I was younger, I used to be kept up all hours of the night in fear, thinking about death. I eventually ourgrew that fear and it has never bothered me since. However, the feeling of terror I had last night was far worse than any feeling of terror I had toward death. I realized that I wouldn’t even come close to reading all the books there are to be read. I tried to calm my thoughts by telling myself that I would only read books I felt compelled to read, which would certainly narrow the field quite a bit. But this realization soon turned to horror as well. In the ten years that I have been reading science fiction, I have only barely scraped the tip of the iceberg. And that’s just science fiction. I realized, with horror, that all of the books which I skimmed over in high school (when I was stupid and lazy) I also wanted to read, not to mention books I heard about, as well as all the new books coming off the presses by the thousands each year.
At the beginning of the year, I made it part of my resolution to read 100 books this year. When I saw that wasn’t going to happen, I was quick to revise my goal to fifty, which I can do, but will be tough. In order to help organize myself, I began three lists. I began these lists a week ago. One list is a description of what I read each day (so I don’t duplicate unless I choose to). Another list is a list of what I want to read next; this is my main list, and I go through the list in a first-in-first-out manner. The third list is a “wish list” of book and stories I want to get.
Part of my realization (and terror) last night came from those lists. You see, it took me a week to complete I. ASIMOV. It seems like a long time, but I was only reading about 100 minutes a day, and since I was reading an average of 70 pages an hour or so (quite a bit!) eight days isn’t so bad. The problem was the phenomenon that occurred in that period of one week. My list of books and stories I want to read, the one which had only one book at the beginning of the week, now had EIGHT books on it. (Five book, and three short stories, to be truthful). Suddenly, my list had grown by eight weeks. (Working full time, and writing [regularly again, finally] three nights a week, I estimate I can still read 1 book a week). At that rate, my list would grow eight times faster than my reading, so that after one year of reading, I would complete about 50 books (not bad, and far above the average), but my list will havew grown to 400 books and/or stories! By the time I am seventy, my list of books still to read will be longer than all the books I have ever read all together.
I will forever be in a deficit.
This may not seem like a big deal to most people, but to me it is. I wish that I could read all the books there are in existance, yet I know that I will not be able to. In some ways this is a tragedy. I’m trying, though. I am currently reading THE GODS THEMSELVES (Isaac Asimov), and next week I’ll be reading four short stories, and the following three weeks will consist of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, DANTE’S INFERNO, and THE ILIAD. So I’m trying.
But I’ll always be behind, and I doubt that my efforts to catch up will ever be successful. Still, it’s a good excuse to read profusely, something which I love to do (as I’m sure you guys know.)
I found these ruminations of mine very interesting. I wrote them down 27 years ago and today, found a few enlightening things in them:
- In the piece I mentioned “in the ten years I’ve been reading science fiction.” That seems to cement when I first started reading science fiction to when I was 12 and about to turn 13 years old. That seems right to be, looking back on it. I would have been in 7th grade and I think that is right around the time I discovered a Piers Anthony book called Race Against Time in the Granada Hill branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. It was not the first science fiction I’d read, but it might have been the one to lead me to other Piers Anthony books, something I obsessed over for a time.
- I had a goal back then to read 100 books/year. I didn’t actually meet this goal, or come close to meeting it until 2018, some 23 years after first writing it down.
- I mentioned keeping some lists of books, including books that I’d read. I don’t remember these lists, but they were likely precursors to the list of books I’ve read since 1996, which I started keeping about 9 months after writing this piece to my friends, and which I have maintained ever since.
- I lamented that the list of books I wanted to read grew faster than the books I actually read, probably my first inkling of what today I call the butterfly effect of reading.
It was fun to revisit that piece of writing when I was still a brash 22-year old. Today, I am still occasionally frustrated that I can’t read as much as I’d like to. But with age, I’ve come to be grateful for the books I have read. And I’d like to think that that 22 year old version of me would take some satisfaction knowing that in the years since, I’ve managed to read about 1,200 books.
I suspect, however, that he’d scoff at that. “Only 1,200?”
Written on April 12, 2022.
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