How much should we read?

by Chris Bertram on February 24, 2023

I had a little exchange on twitter and Mastodon yesterday on reading habits. The initial cause of the exchange was the claim that book reading is in decline, and I asked for some evidence of this, which my interlocutor duly provided in the form of a link to a survey of British readers by Booktrust from 2013. The survey documents the reported reading habits of British people, showing them to be correlated with things like age and socio-economics status, with some worrying drop-off in book reading among the young. I’m sure that the advent of TV and even the radio also brought some declines, and it is always hard to know how seriously to take such worries: young people may be reader shorter pieces of writing on the internet, they aren’t just watching TikTok videos.

However my attention was caught by another statistic: a claim that 6 per cent of respondents, “bookworms”, get through around 12 books per month (or 144 per year). Now I read a lot – as I perceive it – and I complete between 50 and 60 books most years. When I read Les Misérables, albeit in French, that took up nearly a quarter of my annual reading. Ulysses, which needed a lot of looking up, reading on the side etc, took me about a fortnight, and I think I went too fast in places. My guess is that most of these super-readers are not reading such works, or the Critique of Pure Reason, but but rather short thrillers and the like. I can get through a PG Wodehouse in a day (and what a joy that is!), so that would be a way to boost the numbers if boosting the numbers alone were something worth caring about, which it isn’t.

There’s also a question about the density and complexity of the text: how fast should you read? Many literary texts demand close attention at the level of the sentence and below, whereas some genre fiction does not. Literary texts also require digestion and contemplation, which in turn demands time away from them while your brain does the processing. Sometimes they call for re-reading in the light of later passages that draw attention to the significance of an earlier element. So, no, having flinched at my inadequacy compared to the 6 per cent of super-readers, my considered view is that my own consumption is about right, if not a little too high.