August 24, 2012

The only list that matters


Only about a dozen to go ...

Let’s start with the facts: you read books. According to NEA surveys, about half of americans do not. But you are reading these very words on the website of a publisher, so either you are lost and confused or you are a reader, even if an infrequent one.

Fact the second: you are going to die. I’m sorry. I am. It’s a bummer. You may have objections. You may have a refrigerator waiting for you somewhere. You might be furiously at work on systems for growing neural networks in accelerated software environments. You may simply be waiting for the singularity, hoping that when the grey goo comes to tear you apart, it bothers to remember where all the pieces fit. Sounds great. Good luck with it. Let me reiterate: worm food.

Let’s take these two facts and meld them together with that darkest of dark arts: arithmetick.

The average adult life expectancy in America according to the United Nations is 75.4 years for men and 80.5 for women.

Suppose you are forty years old right now, today, and that you read, on average, ten books a year. If all Americans are taken into account this is surely above the national average, but once we strip out the 45.7% of the adult population who do not read books of any kind that’s not too far fetched. This leads us to two conclusions. First, happy birthday, why didn’t you tell me, I would have gotten you something! Second, you will read something like 380 more books in your life. For some perspective, that would allow you to read all of the Baby-sitter’s Club books and most of the Hardy Boys books, but only those published before 1987. Or you could ditch the Hardy Boys and read all of Dickens, Roth, Bowen, Tolstoy (including the endless religious tracts), Greene and all three Brontës, and still have room for Anatole France. That’s not too bad, really.

Say you read a book a week. That’s far above average for Americans, but an interesting benchmark. And you’re infuriatingly young: flower of youth cannon-fodder age—say twenty. You will, in the remainder of your life, assuming you wear a bike helmet, read about three thousand books. That’s a big number, but not more than you could fit in a really well-furnished apartment. Though I guess maybe not the kind of apartment you can afford as a twenty year old.

What if you are an outlier? What if you are some sort of miracle of eye twitch rates and hot rod synapses? What if you are critic and reporter Sarah Weinman? Weinman is on record as having read 462 books in 2008. That’s right. I’m not feeling indelicate enough to ask Sarah her age today, so let’s say she’s going to live another fifty years, because she’s great and deserves at least that. If we were to assume she maintained that frankly astounding rate, Weinman would read another 23,100 books before she reaches the big plot twist in the sky.

A body cannot live each day like it was their last. Our best moments gain their worth, in part, because they are surrounded by dross. But seeing numbers like this, doing the math, makes a person wonder: should that book about feeding your dog the paleo diet be one of those vanishing few?  Is it worth the anxiety to plot out the hundred and one books you must read lest when you get to hell Mencken makes fun of you? If I might suggest one remedy: slimmer books.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.