I love good data, and sometimes, that data is as simple as a single number that defines a possibility. There are 18 summers you get to spend with your children as a parent before they’re a full-fledged adult. There are 52 weekends in a year.
And if you’re lucky enough to be a reader for 50 years, at a rate of 50 books per year, you’ll only be able to read 2,500 books.
Laura Vanderkam, author of a wealth of books about time and resource management, shared this on Twitter last week in a conversation with Jeremy Anderberg (a former Book Rioter) and Adam Morgan. Anderberg shared the Tweet again, adding that even reading 100 books a year, that only brings the total number of possible books read in a lifetime to 5,000.
“New reading rubric: Does this book deserve to be among that number? Drivel or award-worthy, do I love what I’m reading?,” Anderberg posits.
For all we bemoan about never being able to finish our towering to-be-read piles, falling short of our seasonal or annual reading goals, or worse, being unable to simply quit books we don’t like, perhaps this data point offers a new way of considering the value of one’s time against the quantity of possibility.
I used to believe my worth was in how many books I could read and how many new books — regardless of genre, style, author — I could fly through in order to talk about them. Why, I’d ask myself, am I doing this?
The answer was fear: fear I would miss out on the latest hot books, fear I’d be late to screaming about a book everyone else was, fear I would never be able to finish everything I want to, fear that I would never stack up enough against other people who identify as readers.
It wasn’t until I began serving on award committees and the books piled up at unfathomable rates, to be consumed between full-time work, commutes, family time, and other “I’m a human in the modern world” obligations, that my mentality about not finishing books changed. No longer did I find myself beholden to finish everything, because I simply could not. I took a page from the book of Nancy Pearl and decided if a book doesn’t hook me by page 50, I’m letting it go.
Sometimes, now, I only give it 25 or about three chapters.
There are times I still feel guilty about it, fear and anxiety tickling the back of my head as I consider what I might be missing out on. I “should” read that bestseller in a genre that isn’t my jam so I at least can be fluent enough about it. I “should” read that award-winning book by an author who I’ve never quite cared for because, well, a hard-working committee gave it an important honor, so it must be worthwhile.
But now, I’m even reconsidering the books on my to-read that I actively want to read.
I average around 120 books per year, comprised of print fiction and nonfiction, as well as audio. I read a handful of comics a year as well, which certainly ups my numbers a bit. I’m in my mid-30s, almost late-30s, and if I get the opportunity to live to age 80 with all my capacities to continue reading, that leaves me 40ish more years. That is 4,800 books.
My Goodreads to-read, which functions less as an official TBR and more of a means of keeping track of things that catch my interest, is hovering around 600, or about 12% of my potential remaining books. Add to that titles scrawled on paper and in digital notekeepers, books saved at various bookshops online, and the inevitable awards committees I could potentially juror, I’m probably looking at another 600 titles, now bringing me to fully 25% of the potential remaining books in my life.
Armed with these numbers, I’m now seeing the power of questioning whether or not something is worth my limited reading time remaining.
Do I want to allocate my book budget for the splashy thriller everyone’s sharing, even though I don’t like thrillers much? Or is my budget better spent on revisiting that dark horror novel I know is up my alley?
Do I pick up a new-to-me series by an author I know nothing about or do I revisit a favorite childhood series? In an ideal world with ideal time and a limitless budget, I’d do both. In this world, though, if I’m seeking comfort, I’m going with the latter, not the former.
It’s a ruthless system, stripped of sentimentality. That’s where Vanderkamp in her own work on productivity and time management succeeds — Off The Clock offers ten tools for making the most of the time you have, including don’t fill time and let it go. She emphasizes getting off the excuse of busy and instead being fully in your moment as it is, letting go of what doesn’t serve you as a means of not simply filling time.
I don’t want to fill my time to fill my time. I don’t want to add books to my TBR because, well, I feel like I should have a big TBR. I’m not a better or worse person for choosing to skip where others choose to invest. Rather, I’m making use of a simple principle, paired with the reality of my life’s book reading budget.
I don’t want to feel tied to obligatory reading or the fear of missing out on a book that, quite frankly, isn’t my jam. I’m no less a person for letting these things go so I may better linger on the books that will make the most of my 4,800.
Does this book deserve to be on my TBR, to be part of my lifetime budget is a supremely liberating question. I’m pumped to weed that list and pull from it books that don’t have what it takes to earn their place there. My motivation to deaccession titles from my shelves — ones which are flowing with books I felt obligated to buy for any number of reasons or thought that I would get to “someday” — is high, as I know that someday may not come.
If it does, that’s what the library is for.
We can become too tied down to objects and obligations, and it can certainly impact our emotional and mental well-being. But by looking at numbers, at the raw reality of what our lives have left, maybe we can soften the blow of what it means to never really finish your TBR.
Is it really worth your 2,500? 4,800? 5,000?
Maybe we can let the TBR go altogether. This, to me, feels like literary liberation and a chance to let in only what matters most.