Years ago, when I left my cushy feature-writing job for the wilds of freelancing, one of the many benefits was the ability to see a movie by myself at 12:30 on a weekday afternoon (without lying to my boss, that is), a practice I loved, love, and will always love.
After a year or so, in an effort to quantify and thus better appreciate this bennie, I began keeping a list of the movies I saw in theaters. No reviews, no ratings, just a simple list of titles and dates. Sure, my reasoning went, I had to hustle up every scrap of work I could find; pay full freight for my family’s health insurance; and face a future without the prospect of promotions or raises. But by God I could drive over to the Ultraplex and see Curse of the Jade Scorpion on Free Popcorn Tuesday! (I saw that one Sept. 3, 2001, and have no memory of it whatsoever, which is true of three-quarters of the movies I’ve seen.)
I enjoyed my movie list so much that beginning in 2002, I began similarly tracking the books I read. As with the flicks, there are no reviews or summaries; I simply list the title, author, and date I finished.
So I can reliably note that over the past seven years I’ve read 177 books, 29.25 per year. (That number is bumped artificially by 2003, the glorious year I discovered Richard Stark’s Parker series. For three weeks or so I read a Parker a day, giving me a tally of 42 books for the year. But hey, an average is an average.)
Since I began writing novels in 2006, my book tallies have dropped for a simple reason: I don’t like reading fiction while I’m writing it. So during the 6- to 8-month first-draft process, I work through histories and biographies that take me forever (among my myriad deficiencies is the fact that I’m a slow reader). In the past three years I’ve read 65 books. Because I hope to keep writing novels forever, let’s agree on 23 books per year as my reading diet.
Now things get depressing.
At 23 books a year, if I live to be 90 (and can read right up to that final day when my loving family gathers at my bed and begs for permission to pull the damn plug already), I have only 989 books left to read in my lifetime.
This is terrifying. In 2005, there were 172,000 books published in the U.S. alone, and well over 400,000 in the larger English-speaking countries. Rough math says there’ll be well over 16 million English-language books published between now and my ninetieth birthday.
And I get to read a thousand of them, if I’m lucky.
I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on mortality, but I find this difficult to face. Reading has always seemed infinite, limitless. No more: all of a sudden it’s a race against the clock.
This will change my reading habits. Remember the “Seinfeld” episode in which Elaine Benes, facing a dwindling supply of contraceptive sponges, begins to judge the spongeworthiness of prospective lovers? I may follow suit, weighing a title’s merits to determine whether it belongs on my thousand-book countdown.
Sigh. Well, back to David McCullough’s John Adams, which I just started. The idea was that the bio will carry me through the first draft of my work in progress, but jeez, I could read six or eight thrillers in the same amount of time …