How many books should we read each year? To a large degree, the answer depends on how quickly we read, our personal tastes, or how much effort we put into our reading, but I’d say it’s a good idea to aim for a book per week, which is to say, around 50 each year. That said; when it comes to reading, quality is more important than quantity.
The next question we might ask ourselves is whether we should finish every book we start. Traditionally, finishing a book has been seen as a duty, a task almost along Kantian lines, and in the case of literature courses, an academic obligation.
Furthermore, as experience often shows, persevering with a seemingly impenetrable book can have its rewards, as over time the author’s meaning and intentions begin to dawn on the reader. I will admit that I started and then dropped James Joyce’sUlysses three times before mustering the required determination and time to finish it. And I must now say that my efforts have borne considerable fruit in the form of reflections and references to the book, ideas and associations that crop up in everyday life, as well as interesting ideas and topics to discuss with friends and colleagues.
That said, some people have argued that the best thing to do with a book we’re not enjoying is to stop reading it: as British writer and critic Tim Parks noted: “Schopenhauer, who thought and wrote a great deal about reading, is on [Dr] Johnson’s side. Life is “too short for bad books” and “a few pages” should be quite enough, he claims, for “a provisional estimate of an author’s productions.” After which it is perfectly okay to bail out if you’re not convinced.” (1)
Parks continues, that as adults we should have developed an instinct by now as to when we can bail out from a bad book and that furthermore we should feel free from the obligation we might have felt when younger to finish what we have started. Perhaps, over time, as consumers of all cultural output, we have become more demanding and time-conscious, more prone to abandon a book, walk out on a film, or turn a piece of music off when we lose interest in it. Parks even goes so far as to say we should stop reading a book at the point when we have enjoyed it enough, adding that some masterpieces are unfinished anyway, and that it might even be more enjoyable to speculate as to possible alternative endings for some of the classic works of literature. From my own experience, I must say I believe that the endings of some of the most widely praised works in the literary canon are disappointing and could definitely be improved on.
Another reason we might feel ourselves free from the obligation to finish every book we start is that our objective of getting through 52 tomes over the course of a year becomes a distinctly more realistic goal.
A very different question to that of consciously and perhaps justifiably dropping a book is whether our loss of interest is because we’re simply unable to concentrate. We live in an age of interruptions, when much of our time is taken with carrying out multiple tasks at the same time: checking emails, text messages, dealing with background noise, and the activities of those around us.
There are of course those enviable souls able to read several books at the same time. In my opinion, this is a practice dependent on how deep one wishes to delve into a book, as well as the level of our multi-tasking skills, and which requires the capacity to be able to shift attention from one undertaking to another without losing focus.
But the simple truth is that reading is one of those things that cannot be done in conjunction with another activity: it requires exclusive dedication if we are to fully enjoy and appreciate it; which is why so many people say they enjoy reading when travelling by plane, which is one of the few places where we are disconnected from the world and can enjoy our isolation.
Digital technology now expands our reading experience through ebooks or audiobooks. I am a big fan of audiobooks, and listen to them while I travel or while I’m in the gym. And critics of audiobooks, who say the experience of listening cannot be compared to reading, should be reminded that in the many centuries prior to the invention of printing, and even for long afterwards, reading out aloud in groups was the norm.
Whether we read alone or are read to, as Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night points out, reading is “primarily a symptom. Of a healthy imagination, of our interest in this and other worlds, of our ability to be still and quiet, of our ability to dream during daylight.”
To conclude: we can make more of our reading by employing a few best practices, for example:
-It’s always a good idea to discuss with friends and family the books we are reading or have just read. Conversations about how books have impacted on us are not only entertaining, but increase our critical faculties and ability to put forward an argument.
-When starting a book, we should set ourselves a time limit, which can always be extended if we decide to take a more leisurely approach. Setting time frames also obliges us to think about whether to drop a book that we’re not enjoying.
-Try to read as many genres as possible. Fiction stimulates the imagination and can give us insight into the world and the behaviour of others; poetry stimulates our sense of the lyrical and augments our sensitivity, biographies and history help us relate to people from other periods, seeing commonalities over the centuries that help us understand the world around us today.
-Recommendations from friends and colleagues are always welcome, but it’s a good idea not to allow others to exercise too much influence over what we read, and that we choose books that reflect our own criteria and preferences. Regularly check the best-seller lists, as well as reading the book reviews in the leading international newspapers. But also make time to browse the bookshops or specialist websites. Equally, there is nothing wrong with judging a book by its cover: if somebody has taken the trouble to come up with an attractive, eye-catching design, it is probably because the book itself has some merit.
-Finally, it’s always a good idea to read the classics, but we should also pay attention to contemporary works that might help us better understand the world around us, particularly those by writers from other cultures that can help connect us with people from worlds different to our own. Opening ourselves up in this way can provide us with insight into diversity, perhaps making us more tolerant of alternative worldviews than our own. In so doing, we increase our cosmopolitan sensibilities and our ability to operate as global citizens.
(1) Tim Parks, Why Finish Books, The New York Review of Books, 13 March 2012
(2) Mark Haddon, The Right Words in The Right Order, from Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! (Random House: Vintage Books: London, 2011), p. 90