Monday, August 15, 2005

Too many books, not enough minutes

Mexican poet Gabriel Zaid wrote one of those little books that are described as "stimulating or "a delightful little book" called So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance. As the title and cover indicates, it is about the problem that there is simply too darn many books and what can be done about it. Godol Hador posted recently about a depressing trip to Barnes & Noble.

Zaid convincingly estimates that since the invention of moveable type printing in the mid-15th century, something like 52 million titles have been published. The number is obviously huge, but how huge? Zaid goes on to put things into perspective. Were one to make reading their full time vocation, with reading an average of four books a week, fifty years into the project you'd have read about 10,000 books. That is, one out of every 50,000 books.

Let's try to pare down 52,000,000 to a manageable number. After all, most of them are junk anyway. Drop two million for fun, and let's assume that 90% of the remaining 50 million are complete and total trash. Of the 5 million remaining, let's assume that 90% are essentially repetitious; in the genre of great novels, for example, if you've read Huckleberry Finn then you don't really need to read Tom Sawyer. If you've read one Dostoevsky that's enough--enough Dostoevsky and enough great Russian literature.So that leaves us with 500,000 books that are not complete trash and that are not essentially restatements of other books. Let's assume that by eliminating those books that aren't available in, say, only English or Hebrew* and books that aren't really meant to be read (e.g., dictionaries) that we're left with 100,000 books that aren't total trash, that aren't info you can get in other books, that aren't technical and that aren't only available in English or Hebrew.

If in 50 years of reading full time you can read 10,000 max, if you become a masmid and read 16 hours a day then you can read 20,000. If you're granted long life, then in a hundred years you can read--just one time--40,000 or so of the 100,000 books that are worth reading. By satisfying almost impossible conditions you can read 40% of the worthwhile reading that is available to you, and read them only one time each. Of course that's just crazy talk. A much more realistic estimate is that a voracious reader will read two or three thousand books in their lifetime, and let's not pretend that a great deal of it won't be things that would have been better not to have read.

¡Ay, caramba!

Zaid's book is actually a celebration of books. He freely acknowledges that he isn't ever going to read all of the 10,000 books in his library and says that no one with great libraries is under a different illusion.

*Oh, and speaking of sefarim does anyone have any idea of a reliable estimate for how many Judaic works have been written? Realizing the borders on this are really hard to define, if I had to guess it wouldn't surprise me if a cool million separate Jewish titles have been written.

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