How many books can I read?

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One of my colleagues suggested a book to me. Had it been earlier, I would have bought it by now. But now I’m a bit skeptical. I want to judge a priori whether it’s worth reading. And the worthiness is to be weighed by the time to be spent reading it. For I’ve read some simple calculations in the online magazine Mental Floss, based on a six-year-old Pew Research survey, which estimated the number of books remaining to be read by someone of a certain age. In the American context, of course.

Pew Research has been surveying various aspects of reading habits across ages, gender, ethnicity, education, etc. since 2011. An average adult American, for example, reads 12 books a year (not bad!), a voracious reader reads 50 books (oh, isn’t that too much?), and a super reader reads 80 books per year (really?). All are average numbers, of course. Keeping the American life expectancy in mind, a 60-year-old has 23 more years to live on average, and thus 23×12 = 276 books remaining to be read in his/her lifetime. Even a super reader would read only 1,840 more books. These figures, however, vary with gender. Yes, an average woman reads more aggressively than an average man. For example, a 40-year-old average American woman has 546 books to read in her remaining average ‘quota’ of life, while this is 504 for an average American man.

While doing such elementary arithmetic to deduce these easy yet striking figures they, however, didn’t consider the simple yet inevitable fact that one’s reading habits can’t remain the same with increasing age. One’s eyes would revolt. One’s health wouldn’t cooperate either. But who are these readers? Half of Americans read four books or less in a year. Those with a college degree do pick up more books at 17 a year (quite encouraging!), with half reading seven or fewer.


In the American context, of course, the 2016 Pew Research survey illustrated that Hispanic adults, older adults, those living in households earning less than $30,000, and those who have a high school diploma or didn’t graduate from high school were among the most likely to report in that survey they had never been to a public library. Well, can’t similar conclusions be safely made for most other societies as well?

There are other interesting facts though. As per NOP World CultureScore Index, Americans spend five hours and 42 minutes a week reading (Let’s not compare with the fact that an average American watches 2 hours and 48 minutes of television daily.) Interestingly, the reading habit of Indians is among the highest in the world – a whopping 10 hours 42 minutes a week (really?)!

Well, doesn’t that include reading newspapers, and magazines, and reading various purposive and random information from the internet? And one may always doubt these survey results. But importantly, what is really meant by ‘reading’ a book?

There’s no standard style of reading, though. Is reading a book like installing new software into the brain? Should it be an express installation or a custom installation then? Well, somebody takes just a snapshot of the book while reading, while some read it so meticulously that they can recall every fine detail with rigour. Then, by a ‘book,’ we certainly indicate one of average length.

An average book can be considered as one having about 90,000 words and the average adult reading speed is 200 words per minute. But, in reality, book sizes vary remarkably. Both Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Through the Looking-Glass may be fascinating fantasies to dip into, but the former has 257,045 words while the latter has just one-tenth – about 25,500 words. And what if one reads a book for the second time, fourth time, or fifteenth time?

Will they be counted separately? And what about reading a part of a book? In part? Well, in 2014, American mathematician Jordan Ellenberg devised a mock mathematical measure called the Hawking Index that measures how far people will, on average, read through a book before giving it up. Understandably, the index was named after English physicist Stephen Hawking whose 1988 book A Brief History of Time has been dubbed ‘the most unread book of all time’.

Not really though, 6.6 per cent of Brief History has been read by general readers, on average, but don’t forget it’s a book on theoretical cosmology, whatever lucid form it was written in. Thomas Piketty might get an Economics Nobel prize any day, but his Capital in the Twenty-First Century has a meagre Hawking Index of 2.4 per cent.

Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices has a Hawking Index of 1.9 per cent, indicating that it’s not a hard choice for readers to give up reading a book they don’t like even if it’s written by a politician who got more votes than Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election. Yes, we shouldn’t stick to a book that we don’t feel like continuing. It may destroy all the ‘fun’ of reading. Time is short, we shouldn’t waste the precious limited reading time of our lives! The paradigm of reading style has also changed remarkably during the last two decades or so.

A growing share of readers are reading e-books on tablets and smartphones, but print books certainly remain much more popular than books in digital formats. There are a lot of pertinent questions too. How much of reading in today’s world is for fun, and how much is compulsion? And could the pandemic force any significant changes in the reading patterns in this new normal world?

Overall, although reading habits may vary a bit across societies, gender, ethnicity, and educational and economic layers, maybe a few hundred books – at most – are left to be read by anybody. This seems so obvious. But how shocking it is that we can only go through such a small number of books whereas a good library has a collection of millions of them?

And millions of new titles are published every year throughout the world! Shouldn’t we become more choosy to select a title worthy of our precious reading time then? How to choose the right book? We may not want to miss a new title of our favourite authors. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in July 2007, readers queued outside London bookshops for hours to know whether the boy wizard would survive or would his nemesis Voldemort.

Nine years later, in 2016, and in another July, hundreds queued outside London bookshops to see the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Discovering one’s own reading tastes is the best way to search from the catalogue. When one is unsure, is it a safe bet to choose from ‘best books ever’ lists or maybe works of Nobel Prize winners?

There is little doubt that there will be a burst in demand for La Place (A Man’s Place), Les Années ( The Years), or other books by Annie Ernaux now in different bookstores and online platforms. Reading a book, thus, is from the brief quota of ‘remaining books to be read’! Can this sense of feeling reduce the ‘fun’ of reading considerably?

Or, on the contrary, would it enhance the ‘fun’ when we get to understand that reading a book is such a precious experience that we wouldn’t get too much time in our remaining lifetime?