John Matthew Fox, who keeps a website for writers (Bookfox), sent out a newsletter recently about two fellow authors meeting at a writing conference and chatting about all the bestsellers of the previous year—and then some. One of them had read 140 books that year; the other, 115.
Of course I then started to calculate in my head, as I was walking through the city, how much time I’d need to set aside for reading in order to read 140 books a year at my pace. Well, it turns out that at my reading speed of 60 pages an hour (this is an average; of course it differs with various fiction and non-fiction) and, say, 320 pages per book, I’d need two hours per day, every day (on average).
It doesn’t sound like an excessive amount of time, and yet as Thoreau said, the price of everything is the amount of life you exchange for it. Under my current circumstances, if I read two hours a day, I’d never go for pleasure walks and I’d very rarely cook. Not an exchange I want to make!
Also, reading tends to tire me more than it relaxes me, and on some late evenings after half an hour I’m happy to put down my book and watch TV for a little while.
But then there are people who commute a lot or jog with audio books streaming in their earphones—people who could do this bet of two hours of reading per day. But should they do it? Now, if they work in publishing or are academics or even graduate students, they may need to do it. But does every aspiring writer need to do that? I’m not sure.
Of course reading hones your skill as a writer. But my take on this is that we have to be very selective with what we read. Yes, we can always find 140 good books in a year, and 140 books that can help us with our craft, but they can throw out of balance the amount of lived life we exchange for that time.
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My view is that we often forget that we also need time to reflect in a daydreaming manner. To me, that time should equal or exceed the time spent reading. Now, if I spend half an hour reading books and, say, three hours reading various stuff online for my other projects, I need at least three and a half hours to write something freewheelingly, or the same amount of unstructured time spent in the company of friends and loved ones or walking at leisure. Of course, this need for time to reflect depends on personality type, whether we are more introverted or extraverted, or more analytical, and so forth.
We also need a healthy amount of sleep in order to process all the experiences we’re reading about. We can’t just cram them all in our heads and expect to be buoyed by them, because as I discovered once I aged and my life changed and reading—at the end of the day—became tiring for me, everything that demands our attention takes a toll on us. If we are healthy and our brain is uninhibited by more than its own healthy protective processes, then it can feel like we can devour upwards of 100 books a year. But we may be sliding unwittingly toward burnout, something that many graduate students, for instance, know all too well.
Ever since I started writing for various outlets, I’ve discovered that the kind of writing I do actually helps me process many thoughts and leaves me a little lighter on my feet, despite the amount of emotional and mental energy spent on writing. But if I don’t have time to spend three or four hours writing for these various projects, and instead do administrative tasks or more research or graphic design or technical tasks, the more reading I do, the more burdened I am.
So no, no yearly reading goals for me, as much as I like to read. And certainly not 100+ books a year. More like 40, I guess—which may sound terrible; it does to me—but then, as I mentioned, I also read many articles online as well.
I do realize, though, that people are immensely diverse. So take my thoughts with a grain of salt. There are people, for instance, who can’t do much in the way of physical exercise. To them, especially if their minds are much less encumbered than their bodies, reading may be an invaluable balm.
So, how many books do you read in any given year, and how do you fit it into your schedule and with your projects?
To a happier, healthier life,
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