Reading Fifty Books a Year – a necessary civic duty

I have always wanted to read at least fifty books a year – approximately one a week, like a chain smoker, only this habit was healthier.

During my youth, sports, studies, work, girls, dreams all got in the way of reading those fifty books a year. When I tried to squeeze books in among those “higher priorities”, I only managed a handful. When marriage and family came along, I abandoned the idea completely, sticking instead to the newspapers, TV and the odd business book that my boss tossed at me, saying, “You will read this book. It’s good for your career.” Oh yes, and I read Dr. Seuss to my children.

At the age of fifty, when family had grown and gone, and jobs had come and gone, and dreams no longer came, I realized that I was a literary illiterate; only I was honest enough to admit it among my peers. I’d walk into a giant bookstore or a library, look at all the accumulated knowledge sitting in there, and feel intimidated and diminished. I felt that I had wasted my life.

And so I finally started reading my fifty books a year, a few years ago. I have read a couple of hundred so far and I feel that I have moved a millimetre. At least I can name•drop, “Joyce? Dante? Kafka? – oh, yeah, I’ve read them. And Woolf, and Conrad and Chekov too!” I realize that I have only skimmed the surface – the more I read, the less certain I am.

But here is the $64K dilemma, and I’m not in it alone. There is a whole generation out there like me—the yuppie generation—and we still run the world, I think, even though a few Gen X’s are dislodging us quietly. Thus, should I conclude that the world is being run by a bunch of literary illiterates? Is that why we continue to have wars and stock market collapses and famine and “us against them” and crime and “have’s vs. have•nots”? We have no sense of history of man’s foibles over the centuries as told in these books, so that we could develop the common sense to avoid them. For Pete’s sake – that guy Machiavelli confessed to all of what we have committed today in the name of progress, but how many of us have read and been shaken by The Prince or The Art of War? Instead, we repeat history and say, “Oops, sorry! Didn’t know that would cause a problem.”

So my fervent prayer is that everyone of us yuppies, puppies, Gen X’s and Y’s solemnly promise to read at least fifty books a year – good books, not trashy pulp fiction where only the bad guys win, and the good guys are also thinly veiled bad guys. Hopefully, in about 50 years—if the planet lasts that long—the treasure trove of accumulated knowledge in those libraries will seep back into us again (after all, they flowed out of our predecessors when they were written) and we will have a more enlightened, less dogmatic, more caring, more sharing society, with a sense of stability drawn from history.

In the meantime, I am off to read book number 43 for this year. Given that it’s August, I am on track to reach my goal for the fourth year running. How about you?

2 thoughts on “Reading Fifty Books a Year – a necessary civic duty”

  1. One of the benefits of joining Goodreads is that I’ve been able to easily keep track of metrics like this. I don’t want to boast, since it’s quality, not quantity that matters. From May 2008 (when I joined Goodreads) to December 2008, I read 64 books. This year, I’ve read 99 books so far; I just started my 100th book today. That’s about an average of 3 books a week, which is pretty consistent with my reading speed–I’ll tear through a great book in a day, and a bad book or a busy week might slow me down so I only get one done that week.

    I didn’t really have a goal for the year…. I just try to read as many books as possible, because there are so many books out there, and I’ll never be able to read them all. Since joining Goodreads, my to-read list has blossomed, contributing to a simultaneous feeling of anticipation and dread: I’ll never forget which books I want to read, but I’m all too aware of how many books I’ve yet to read. Although I understand that many people can’t manage even fifty books a year, whether it’s because they just can’t digest books that quickly or they don’t have the time, it’s important that people do read some books each year. That’s why, as critical as I am of the quality of something like Twilight or some of the books that make their way to the bestseller list … at least these books are getting people, especially of my generation and younger, to read. As far as goals go, however, I’d agree that fifty is quite reasonable for those who have the time and impetus.

    Now, I’m young, only about to embark on the third decade of my life and not yet immersed in the world of full-time work or raising a family. Always an avid reader, I’ve entered a golden age in my reading in the past few years. A combination of good schooling, emotional maturity, and now Goodreads–where I have to read critically so I can write good reviews–has helped make me a better reader, which in turn makes me a happier reader. I might have to slow down in future years as further responsibilities accumulate, although I hope I continue to enjoy what I read, no matter how much I read in the year. Until then, I’m going to make the most of the time that I have and read as much as I can.

  2. Good for you, Ben – remember not to get sidetracked when all those other duties in life come calling! You are one of the privileged indeed. I heard that the average number of books read per capita is something like 1 per year – and mainly non-fiction, since 9/11. So you, and we other avid readers, are blessed by comparison.

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