How Many Books Did You Read Last Year?

This is a question that gets asked a lot around this time of the year. It is one I struggle with. Of course, I could do a simple tally of all the books I started and finished in the calendar year, but what would be the point? If you learned that I read forty, and some other fellow read twenty, or even ten, what is it to you? What can we reasonably deduce from this information?

I think the problem here stems from how different my goal in reading is from most people’s. A lot of us read primarily because we want advice, hacks, marketable skills, or to learn the facts about a particular area of knowledge. We want something quite concrete out of it. We would like to answer questions like how do I code using javascript, what led to the Nigerian Civil War, what is cryptocurrency.

These are all important questions, which deserve to be studied. But I find that in narrowing ourselves to this approach to reading, we end up with a utilitarian relationship with the written word. Reading becomes a linear activity, and not a very pleasurable one at that. It becomes an exercise in stacking bricks, each new brick making the pile exactly one brick taller. It does not help that we have all consciously or unconsciously imbibed the 10,000 hour rule of practice—an idea that suggests a linear relationship between input and output in most affairs. The whole thing brings to mind the guiding ethos which drives people to try to learn speed reading. Even if you are successful, it is worthless because most of us lack speed comprehension. It is hard to deduce anything if one fellow can read at 200 wpm while the other manages only half of that. It is a pointless metric for most readers.

These practices are in the spirit of our market-driven, efficiency-obsessed smartphone generation. Our habits are gamefied. We need tokens to measure progress. We need scores to know that we are winning. We need to show profits every quarter.

But I think this is a much too narrow relationship with the written word. We need to augment, if not completely abandon, this industrial reading habit. Productivity of reading (which is what the number of books read question enquires about) should be de-emphasised. Books are not metres or kilograms to be measured. There are thousands of books not worth even a perusal, and twitter threads that can change your life.

We should instead try to see reading as fundamentally non-linear. The benefits of reading come unexpectedly, in spurts, and are certainly not always factual or directly tangible. Books do different things to us. Some books help us to make unusual connections or to see reality better. Others help us to become better, wiser human beings. Some books we read for the simple pleasure of it. And then there are books which transcend. How do I quantify Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air?

These different books are read differently, and at varying speeds. Marcus Aurelius can be slow, ponderous reading. Enid Blyton is a breeze, a rush of fantasy, escapism. A book on programming is probably better consumed in little doses. And we must sing Wesleyan hymns.

When we read in this way, we are not stacking bricks, we are kneading clay, baking bricks, stacking here, discarding there, maybe trying wood or cement in its place. The critical distinction is in our attitude to reading. It is about forging a transcendent relationship with authors who we may never meet, through their words and ideas. This can only happen when we discard the framing of books as textbooks.

Rather than approaching reading as an exercise in what amounts to hitting meaningless targets, I think it is much better to develop a reading habit which allows you to get through books and to have their words pass through you. Sometimes, that involves reading a lot of books fast or is a scattershot fashion, a paragraph here a chapter there. At other times, it is reading only a handful of books slowly and over a long time. And at still others, it is rereading old books, trying to decipher meanings or lessons that had eluded you before, or to once again experience the high (or low) which came from reading it the first time. Jorge Luis Borges said, ‘Besides, rereading, not reading is what counts.’

How many books did I read last year? I don’t know, I just read.