When I tell people what I do, the first thing they respond with is always, “Have you read (fill in the blank with a title)?” Often I say no, and they try again, and again… and again. It’s hard to tell someone who is so excited about books (because yay for being so excited about books!) that there is a possibility that out of all the books I’ve read, and all the books they’ve read, we may have only read a few of the same titles (and those were possibly the ones many of us in the United States were made to read in middle school and high school English classes). That’s not to say that there aren’t several people with whom I connect and share similar reading lists–whether we like the same books that we’ve both read is an entirely different story–because there are plenty of them.
It’s the people who feel put out when I have not read, or have not heard of, the list of titles they are spouting out at me, who when they start looking at me skeptically make me want to
shout at calmly explain that there are many, many books in the world. In fact, according to Google books, as of a year ago there were roughly 130 million published books in the world (or more specifically 129,864,880). And that’s after whittling it down and determining what gets counted and what doesn’t. Also… that was a year ago, there are more now.
So, while it’s a perfectly good question and great conversation starter with the literary set, next time you start questioning someone’s reading abilities/tastes/knowledge, keep in mind that just because someone has not read your recent favorites, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t reading. It means that they might have a different tiny percentage of the titles on their shelves than you do.
Believe it or not, most of us read a much smaller number of books in our lifetimes than we might think. Taking into account the period of our lives that we read (age-wise; when we start to read to when we’re too old to be able to do so anymore because of eyesight or hearing) on top of the fact that many of us re-read some of the same titles more than once, it’s no surprise that we don’t get through more books. And that’s just heavy readers: most people do not get through the 100 books a year (2 books per week) that a “heavy reader” gets through (and is roughly what Churchill is thought to have done, reading 5,000 books in his lifetime).
So, unless you’re Milton, who apparently read all of the books that were published (remember the amount of books that were published when he was alive is significantly lower than what is published today) you’re not going to be able to boast of having read everything. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, two well-known bookworms, even had their favorites that they read over and over (and some which they memorized).
So the question, then, isn’t how many have you read, but what have they meant to you? And perhaps the better question isn’t, “Have you read (fill in the blank with a title),” with an incredulous look if someone hasn’t but rather, “I’ve been reading (fill in the blank), it’s wonderful because (fill in the blank)–think about adding it to the small percentage of total possible books that you will ever be able to read in your somewhat limited time here on Earth.”
Then wink and smile and walk away before they ask you what percentage of the 130 million you’ve made it through.