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.



Jacob Christensen 02.24.23 at 9:33 am

I noticed some years ago that my leisure reading had been dropping off, so I set a target of 24 books (anything not directly related to my work – so fiction, poetry, non-fiction, thin books, thick books) per year – equalling roughly 2 titles per month. That sort of worked, without stressing me. If I look at last year’s list, some would perhaps count at work-realited (I mean – “Citizen Involvement in Employment Policy” IS your average bedtime reading, right.), some were read very quickly, Fintan O’Toole’s “We Don’t Know Ourselves” on the other hand took me ages – or at least months to finish. Circumstances was one reason, the depth of description and analysis of the Irish society another (I would definitively recommend the book to anyone interested in Ireland or social change). The same went for the Tokarcziuk.

I’m not really too keen on quantifying our daily lives, and for a number of reasons I deleted my Goodreads account last year (doesn’t work very well with Scandinavian litterature), but the trick with 24/year sort of worked for me – mainly because I missed reading for my own sake.

Obviously posting my 2022 list (inspired by Art Garfunkel’s site) may be a bit contradictory, but:


Quiop 02.24.23 at 10:32 am

cf. dril (2015): “oh, youvve read a few academic papers on the matter? cute. i have read over 100000 posts.”


Trader Joe 02.24.23 at 5:06 pm

I’ve always regarded +/-50 books a year as about the right number (call it one per week). But I put big brackets around that. That run-rate equates to around 12-15 hours of dedicated personal reading time a week and is completely separate for any work related reading I may also undertake.

As you note in the OP, the sort of work you pursue and the length of each work matters. If one sets out to read a single tome in the Game of Thrones series that would comprise about 3 or 4 ordinary length literary fiction novels and accordingly would impact your book count but not your page count.

The proportion of fiction and non-fiction matters too. The year it came out I read the wonderful – Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson. It not only weighed in around 600 pages, the density of the discussion, the detailed footnotes and the frequent tie-ins to what was happening historically in Europe, Italy, the church etc. made it an extremely rich read but not a quick one. I mentally counted that as about 4 books that year and found it read better being picked-up and put down to allow time for contemplation and assimilation.

That was a far more quality read than 4 Dan Brown novels (Da Vinci code, see what I did there) that I could probably have taken down in a week or two.


Zora 02.24.23 at 7:11 pm

Close to a book a day. SFF – mysteries – historical fiction – literary fiction – 19th century novels. Novels are free (Gutenberg, Google), a fair bit of the SFF is ARCs (advance reader copies). I edit for a book reviewer.


Slanted Answer 02.24.23 at 8:13 pm

The OP sounds spot on to me. I consider myself a fairly avid reader and read around 60 books per year. That includes a fair amount of genre fiction, some graphic novels (these go quickly), as well as some heavier literature and philosophy. If I stuck to reading the heavier works, my numbers would be much lower.

“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.” That fits my impression as well. There’s also “pop nonfiction,” which in many cases seem like stretched-out magazine articles, or, judging by the font and page dimensions of some of the books, perhaps are just magazine articles.

Having said that, I do occasionally come upon “super readers” who seem to also read more serious works. I’m not sure how they do it, but I get the impression that they don’t read the texts with the level of care you correctly recommend. They seem to come away from the books with an understanding you could get from reading a short encyclopedia summary of them.


Doug K 02.24.23 at 8:17 pm

began to read more on Kindle a few years ago, somehow got linked to Goodreads, and found my Kindle reading for the year is about 140-160 books. Add in some old-fashioned paper books, Gutenberg books which Kindle doesn’t count, and library books in some app called Hoopla, gets it somewhere over 200 most years at a guess. I don’t watch TV or other video, which probably helps.

This is mostly pointedly escapist reading of much the same mix as Zora, SFF, history and historical fiction, mysteries, some litfic when endurable – older literature is usually possible, contemporary novels plunge me into environmental depression. This is no fault of the novels, I just can’t cope with daily life at the best of times, reading about it is a bridge too far. The older litfic is still enjoyable though, as Iris Murdoch wrote, it induces “the sort of dreamy unlucrative reflection which is what I enjoy more than anything in the world.”


Duke the lost engine 02.24.23 at 10:33 pm

My feeling is that reading, at least book reading, should be in decline, given the proliferation of other, often superior, ways of engaging with information. The book-a-week people are missing out on a lot of good stuff.


Alan White 02.25.23 at 12:50 am

Chris, you and others here simply put me to shame. I (did) consider myself a fairly avid reader, but apart from professional reading (philosophy papers mostly), which I do a lot, my consumption of novels and a few non-fiction books amounts to about 10 a year. So please accept my bows in your direction!


bad Jim 02.25.23 at 6:08 am

I used to knock off a book of genre fiction a day, probably reading too fast. Once I was halfway through a Ross MacDonald mystery and realized I’d read it before, but I still couldn’t remember how it ended. My dad could go through three mysteries in a day; it takes a lot of schlock to feed such a habit.

I mostly gave it up once I had a broadband Internet connection, except for a few months after the former guy was elected, when I decided to catch up on a new generation of SF authors. It felt worthwhile, but proved ultimately unsatisfying.

Just post-college I devoted a week to Ulysses, and definitely went too fast at times. After retiring, I spent about a week reading Don Juan, and that seemed about right.


David in Tokyo 02.25.23 at 11:29 am

My target, goal, dream is one short novel a week (250 pages or so). In my second language. This year, I’ll probably do about half that. Mostly recent stuff, but some pre-war lit. stuff as well.

I find that the Kindle is a godsend: while the Japanese government tells people only to use 2,000 kanji, everyone has their favorite non-standard kanji, and that restriction was only a recent (post-war) idea. On the Kindle, (most of the time), just touching a word brings up the Japanese dictionary definition. And it remembers what you looked up, so you can review the words that bit you.

But to make life hard, Yukio Mishima’s wife and kids have been running his legacy and oeveure as a business, and none of his work is available in Kindle format, and he’s the hardest writer of the writers I want to read. Ouch. (He was a right-wing wack job, but an amazing writer. And usually the sharpnest knife in the drawer whomever else was around. Also one of the most prolific writers ever. So one can’t do Japanese lit. without listening carefully to what he had to say. No matter how wacky.)

I’ve found that most of the time (that is, except for Mishima) essays are easier going than fiction: in essays, folks are not grinding axes so much as explaining them. Mishima was always grinding axes, multiple levels deep.

But the essay, political commentary, newspaper, and what-have-you reading doesn’t count towards the novel a week goal…

In terms of better things to spend one’s time on, it’s true that there are guitars to be played and things to be juggled*, Go to be played. To say nothing of walking around the neighborhoods with a camera** since I’m living in an exotic foreign city. But language is beautiful when written by someone who respects it.



Robert Weston 02.25.23 at 1:50 pm

Quick, random thoughts:

I’m an extremely slow – and easily distracted – book reader, so that I aim for about 20-25 books a year, roughly like Jacob Christensen. That number has remained fairly stable over the years. Smartphones, social media and other similar distractions have not so much decreased my book reading as made it harder to persevere through really dense books – or, put differently, made it easier to discard books I just can’t get into. If I’m not feeling it 100-150 or so pages in, I’ll just move on to something else. My lists range from Grisham to Gramsci and pretty much anything in between.
This said, very few things compare with the pleasure of going to a used bookstore, spending a couple of hours browsing through and coming out with two or three titles you had never heard of. Things like that also help maintain that special connection with print books. I have a hard time imagining I could ever transition to a Kindle, for instance, especially as I spend too much time in front of screens already.
Last year, I surprised myself by going through a 200-page thriller, cover to cover, in one evening, probably for the first time in decades: A look at the lives of the French version of Enid Blyton’s Five after they reach adulthood: Careers, failed marriages, alcoholism, delinquency, other calamities. Their lives unravel further after they gather for Christmas and strange things begin happening: People dying mysteriously, visions of what seem like the characters’ English alter egos in their dreams, voices in their heads. Just a fun, very original story with lots of dark comedy, as well as supernatural and, broadly speaking, time travel elements. Again, though, what I loved most, and found reassuring, was picking it up one afternoon and not letting it down.
An IR scholar I know aims for 100 books a year, but also makes a point of blocking everything else out (smartphones, laptops) during his four or five hours’ daily reading block. I feel he’s an exception, though. Maybe others are capable of such focus, but I rather lean toward Slanted Answer’s take.
Like many others here, much of my reading these days consists of non-academic 6,000-word thought pieces in outlets like The Atlantic, think tank reports, or 15-part Twitter threads pretty much any topic. Incidentally, Twitter has developed into an astonishingly good source of intelligent, well-argued conversation, considering the limits of the format as well as the challenges the platform is facing these days.
I wonder where others here come down on audiobooks. I started trying them out fairly recently – a couple of literary classics, The Prince, Commissario Brunetti – and have found them a very enjoyable experience.


Wesley Sandel 02.25.23 at 4:46 pm

I read both fiction and non-fiction. Just read, I don’t care what you read. If you read enough, eventually you’ll be exposed to truth and fact. Read.

I’m of the opinion that we could raise literacy standards in American by the simple expedient of just dedicating half the time in elementary and high schools to just reading. Reading almost anything.


CM 02.26.23 at 5:49 am

If I remember correctly, in “Reading the Romance” the author talked to people who read two or three romance novels every day.


alfredlordbleep 02.26.23 at 3:50 pm

How many times did Nabokov advise?
Recall Henry James on close reading?
And poetry!
Even comedy—it’s been pointed out
that Oscar Wilde had a way with the
fine edges of words.


craig fritch 02.26.23 at 8:06 pm

I have always been a serious reader. I have elitish prejudice, and do a mix of fiction & non fiction. Am alwys appalled at the prevalance of airport fiction in libraries and on Kobo site.
That said, with the coming of online news I scan the NYT WPost & Guardian daily. That cuts down on book time.
I am a retired early elementary school techer, and I agree with the post by Sandel. Abig part of teaching reading is free choice reading. Tho a noisy classroom isnt a very good place to think. Maybe just start later, sent them home earlier?


Greg Koos 02.27.23 at 12:22 am

Yes, In some books the sentence must be tasted and rolled around in the mind. And that takes patience. Some writers, I’m thinking of Robert Penn Warren require different speeds. The opening of the restored All the Kings Men runs 70 miles an hour, yet the gothic Civil War memoir section is weirdly languid. The writer who is in control sets the pace. I call the genre works Corn Curls for the mind. Junk food is fine and fun, but in limited quantities.


Harry 02.27.23 at 2:31 pm

I read somewhere between 100-150/year. One or two a week when I’m working, and 1-2 a day when I’m not (eg over Christmas, going on family trips etc). Almost entirely crime fiction of one sort or another (plus a few cricket books/year and plus I don’t know how many books/year for work, but that’s work). I learned to read late, and read all of Enid Blyton fast once I did learn, less in my teens, then started reading relentlessly in college (I read The Brothers Karamazov in one sitting, which I’ll never do again, and the entire works of Raymond Chandler in three weeks. Just to be clear, I attended exactly 1 1/2 parties when I was in college (and left the 1 after about an hour because I was bored) so I had a lot of time to read).

How fast really depends. Angela Marsons, Kate Ellis, or James Craig I read really fast. James Oswald or Reginald Hill I savour. PD James, Kate Atkinson — I go slow. Probably the speed I read is related to the volume at which the author produces (Ellis and Marsons are prolific, Oswald is less so). When, rarely, I read literary fiction I read at a much slower pace.

bad Jim’s post makes me wonder whether these things go through families. My mum’s dad and my dad’s mum were prolific crime fiction readers, as is my mum, as am I, as is one of my children (she reads more academic stuff for work than I do because she works more, and so has less time for fiction, and is entirely dependent on me for recommendations: her policy is to read the best 20-30% of what I read and trusts me to pass on exactly the best 20-30%, which is a very efficient procedure, but god knows what she’ll do when I die).


Sebastian H 02.27.23 at 7:59 pm

From 7-18 I read a book a day. Mostly novels of all qualities. In college about a 3-4 a week, novels and non fiction. Now I’m down to about 6 a month. Which still seems like a lot to my friends, but seems like a sad thing to me.


MPAVictoria 02.28.23 at 2:27 pm

I really enjoyed reading through this post and the comments and learning a bit more about how other people experience reading and books. A few comments from my experience:
– I do almost all of my book reading on my phone. I find the Apple Bookstore and the Kindle dangerously convenient. As soon as you finish a book in a series you can just immediately purchase the next one and start it right then. Plus I always have my phone with me.
– I read 26 books in 2022 (mostly from long running series that I am working my way through and all fiction except one) plus a whole bunch of free audiobooks on Youtube which I like to listen to in bed when falling asleep.
– History podcasts have basically replaced my non-fiction reading over the past 15 years or so. Series like Revolutions and the Age of Napoleon are, for me, a really great way to scratch that itch from my History undergrad.
– The big exception to this pattern is when I go on holiday to a beach location (which I haven’t done in a few years thanks to health issues and COVID). If you give me a sunny beach, a few drinks and a bit of peace I can churn through 1-2 genre fiction titles a day very happily.


oldster 02.28.23 at 6:28 pm

Dr. Johnson, from Boswell’s Life:
“Sir, in my early years I read very hard. It is a sad reflection, but a true one, that I knew almost as much at eighteen as I do now. My judgement, to be sure, was not so good; but I had all the facts. I remember very well, when I was at Oxford, an old gentleman said to me, “Young man, ply your book diligently now, and acquire a stock of knowledge; for when years come upon you, you will find that poring upon books will be but an irksome task.” ”

I’m afraid that this describes my own case. And the existence of the web, with its many invitations to reading a paragraph here and a comment there, makes the poring upon books even more irksome than it will have been for the old gentleman in the story.


hix 02.28.23 at 11:26 pm

Might get to 140 books a year or above but im unemployed and that involves lots of very short easy to read books. Not that higher status literature always requires reading slower. My reading speed does not really drop when reading in Italian or English either. For me that is just a question of taste. Neither wrong nor right.


David in Tokyo 03.01.23 at 11:37 am

A fellow oldster quoted Dr. Johnson.: “Sir, in my early years I read very hard. It is a sad reflection, but a true one, that I knew almost as much at eighteen as I do now. ”

Ha! To a painfully large extent, I resemble that remark as well. In first to 3rd grades, I read all the Dr. Dolittle books (plus e. nesbit, Boothe Tarkington and the like), in 4th through 6th grades, I read all the sci-fi at the Boston Public Library, and in 7th through 12th I read (pretty much) the whole “hippy canon” of the time (late 60s). And read nothing else since (outside of the various academic things I did) until I started reading Japanese murder mysteries (about the time I turned 30), but even that I didn’t keep up with as much as I should have. Fast forward to retirement, and I find that the writing in Japanese murder mysteries leaves much to be desired, but that there are popular fiction writers who do have something to say about the human experience (or at least create believable relateable characters) and write nicely as well. Even writers who are largely over-reliant on cookie-cutter characters cough up an occasional gem (e.g. Mariko Koike’s “Love” (“Koi” in Japanese, won the 1996 Naoki Pirze) was nicely structured; her (now late) husband also won said prize a few years later, so I read something of his: it started out well, but quickly fell to cookie-cutter level slish. Sigh.). And the Japanese “serious literature” universe is amazing, although harder/slower going.

Speaking of being old and in the way, another reason I like the Kindle is that the screen is real nice. At first look, it’s dull, lacking in contrast, lifeless, but that’s a feature since it doesn’t strain your eyes. And as you get older, the ability to make the letters larger (on the non-tiny screen (obligatory snarky comment about cell phones, an abomination I have, so far, managed to avoid owning)) is appreciated.


roger gathmann 03.01.23 at 1:28 pm

To my mind, internet has fundamentally changed my reading, mostly for the better. Of course, I unscrupulously go to sites with free downloads of books – massive libraries – as well as the sources of a university library. The consequence is that reading a book is often reading a whole tribe of other things. For iustance, I was reading Rasula’s history of Dada, Destruction was my Beatrice, the other day. In the chapter on Kurt Schwitters, he mentions a story by Schwitters that he compares to Kafka’s In the Penal Colony – the Onion. I read German, so I checked out a book containing a collection of Schwitters articles and poems. Then, since that didn’t have the story, I went to Internet Archive. This divergence from the Rasula, in the pre-internet days, would surely have taken a day, Plus looking up other articles – in my search for the Schwitters, I ran into Hugo Ball’s correspondence and downloaded that, too, to check out the letters from the 1916 period. On the one hand, this divergence from Rasula’s book means that it takes me longer to read it. And I might be diverted for a longer time than is fair for Rasula. On the other hand, this kind of reading has become a sort of habit – I’ve become a hypertext reader. I don’t doubt that hundreds of thousands of readers now approach books this way. There is a loss of depth – especially when reading longer novels, I have felt this. That concentration is the sort of downhill weight that keeps me reading a text. But I’ve quite successfully read big books – Magic Mountain, Wolf Hall – in ebook format.


Trader Joe 03.01.23 at 7:51 pm

@23 roger
I would second many of these comments about allowing some texts to lead you down unexpected pathways to other parallel texts, articles or other illuminating side-bars. As noted much depends on what you’re reading, but just as reading one work produces a certain joy of the journey – expanding this to multiple works multiplies that feeling of intellectual adventure.

I don’t exclusively use an e-reader but I primarily do which obviously facilitates this sort of searching.

Separately – with an e-reader I’ve found I am willing to be much more mercenary with something that doesn’t suit my fancy or isn’t what I expected. I can hardly think of a physical book I didn’t read through to the end, but with an e-book if I find myself some distance in and I’m sorta wishing it was over I have few qualms about either skimming to the end or in some cases just returning it and reaching for whatever I have queued up next.

Depending how I’ve come to acquire them I always have 5-10 books on my virtual bedside table (my actual reading side table still has books on it too, but a bit more room for a mug or a plate than it used to).


hix 03.01.23 at 9:30 pm

Regarding literature that would typically require emotional engagement with sad things, i usually do not read it, or might skip a lot of pages not getting emotionally engaged. The last “complicated” book i have been reading was man without qualities. It was enjoyable because the word choice was different from what i am used too, funny at times and i would say of some value understanding society at the time of writing. Had i known the number of suicide attempts and sociopath mass murders involved in the plot in advance, i would not have read it.

So somewhat happy with reading man without qualities, i went on to the Buddenbrooks. Which turned out to be written like my usual mass science fiction consumption in style, with a storyline boring and unrealistic as hell, full of dull stereotypes and obvious mental health issues not treated overtly as such all in a trama that it seems was supposed to be realistic. Ended up not finishing it 3/4 through and never felt slowing down on reading speed would be necessary or worth it.

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