Before My Reading List

books on wooden shelves inside library
Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev on

For more than 26 years now, I have kept a list of all of the books that I have read. There is only one criteria for a book to make it onto this list: I have to have finished the entire thing. Many are the books that I made it two-thirds, or three-quarters of the way through that didn’t make it on the list because I didn’t finish them.

Still, after more than 26 years, there are, as of this writing, 1,163 books that made it onto my list.

But what about the books I read and finished before 1996? It sometimes seems as if I only started to read beginning in 1996 because I have the evidence of my list to remind me of exactly what I read. But I was just a year and a half out of college when I started my list. I read a lot of books in college, of course. And I was a reader growing up. What about all of those books?

I’ve made mental lists of the books I read before my reading list, but I have never tried to write them down. Each time I start, I find myself distracted by something else. I went to write the list this morning, for instance, and instead, I find myself writing this essay.

Looking for a shortcut, I decided that I could estimate how many books I read before my reading list existed. I could use some of the data from my list to make this estimate even more accurate. For instance, my goal, when I started keeping my list, was to try to read one book per week, or 52 books per year. I didn’t actually hit that goal until something like 20 years into keeping my list. The first several years I hovered around the 35-45 books per year mark.

Keeping in mind that this was an aggressive goal for me in 1996, I think it is fair to say that I read fewer than this number each year prior to 1996. In college, there were books I had to read for classes, and there were books I read for leisure, but without a specific goal to aim for, I felt no rush, except for those books that had to be read for classes. I’d guess that for the four years of college, I averaged 20 books per year. That makes 80 books between 1990-1994.

I think 20 books per year is also a fair estimate for my 3 years of high school, so from 1987-1989 we can add another 60 books.

From 1984 to 1986, I was an assiduous library goer, and I checked out lots of books–many of which I didn’t always finish. I am just trying to estimate the number of books I could have actually finished. During my late middle-school and junior high school years, I estimate 15 books per years. Over the course of those 3 years, that’s another 45 books.

Before 6th grade, things get more difficult. Between 3rd and 5th grade, I’d estimate I made it through 10 books per year on average. So from 1981-1983, let’s call it 30 books that I finished.

I was eight years old in 1980. I learned to read pretty early, and was checking out books on astronomy from the public library when I was 6 or 7 years old. Then, too, there were plenty of children’s books that I read, including just about the entire ouevre of Dr. Seuss books. So from 1977-1980, I think 10 books a year is a fair number. That makes for 40 more books.

Before 1977, I’m not really sure I was reading books myself, more than having them read to me, so this is a good stopping point. Tallying things up, we’ve got:

YearsEstimated books finished
Estimates books I finished reading before 1996.

For a grand total of 270 books finished before my reading list existed. Adding that to the 1,163 books I have read since my list began, I have read, in the half century I’ve been around, about 1,433 books.

Here is another way of looking at this, by decades of my life:

DecadeBooks finished
Books I finished reading by decade. *Contains estimates.

At some point, I will take the time to try to list out all of the books I can remember from before my reading list. But for now, I’m satisfied with my estimate. Reading nearly 1,500 books in the first 50 years of my life is a pretty decent achievement.

Written on May 24, 2022.

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One comment

  1. Dear Jamie , you beat me at all levels . I am 79 now and an avid bookworm having purchased myself , my first book at the age of 6 years at a railway station bookstall , while on a train journey.. My personal collection of books till now exceeds a little over 2000 , all non fiction .Subjects are as varied as different species of plants in our world.

    You maintained a list , I did not . Now after seeing your meticulous record , I wonder why this brilliant idea never came to me..

    You completely read over 1400 books in 50 years whereas my count would not exceed 500 in 73 years , as far as I can remember to my best.

    I really have to learn a lot from you , Jamie.


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