March 27, 2017

Eat, drink, and read, for tomorrow we die


Michelangelo, “The Last Judgment.” Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Who wants to live forever?” —Freddie Mercury

“What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute”s mirth to wail a week?
Or sells eternity to get a toy?” —William ShakespeareThe Rape of Lucrece

Emily Temple over at LitHub posed an interesting question this week: How many books will you read before you die? Using data from the Social Security Life Expectancy Calendar and the Pew Research Center, she came to the basic conclusion that anyone over twenty-five has a max of about 5,000 books left in their life. I highly recommend you go find your exact score (is it crass to call it a score?) by reading her article, but I want to take this question a bit further and find out how much of my daily life needs to be spent reading to reach a goal even close to 5,000.

Thanks to the crowdsourcing power at Goodreads, I can say that most people will read a three-hundred-page book in three to nine hours. For simplicty’s sake, I’ll assume it takes me six hours, right in the middle. So, in theory, I could read four books a day if I did nothing but read. But I have to do other things, like put seasonal book catalogs together, send galleys to booksellers, and sleep. So how much time can I realistically devote to reading if I strip all of the nonessential stuff away?

Fortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has crunched the numbers as to what the average American day looks like:

(Ages 25-54)

Sleeping: 7.8 hours
Working: 8.8 hours
Leisure and sports: 2.6 hours
Household activities: 1.1 hours
Eating and drinking: 1.0 hours
Caring for others: 1.2 hours
Other: 1.5 hours

For the purpose of this thought experiment, I’ll just go with the averages for the two big basics. That means every night I’ll get 7.8 hours and every day I’ll work 8.8 hours. These estimates obviously smooth over many irregularities, but they sound basically plausible on balance.

In my discretionary time, right off the top, I can dedicate the “other” slot to reading. Let’s chunk in the “eating and drinking” time as well, since I fancy myself a multitasker. Now I have 2.6 hours. Leisure and sport can’t be entirely chopped off unless I want an untimely death from heart disease. My doctor says that I need at least twenty minutes of cardiovascular exercise every day. Factor in time travelling to the gym, showering, and the steam room (treating yourself!), I can probably squeeze in another 1.6 hours a day.

Since I’ve taken this job at Melville House, my mother has started reading this blog, so caring for others needs to stay at 1.2 hours. See, mom, I’ll call you tonight with all of the abundant time I have reserved to care for you. (Seriously, love you mom. Time well spent.)

I’m not positive what would be included in household activities, but I still cook my own food and scrub my own toilet. Yeah, I think 1.1 hours of household general time makes sense.

That leaves us 4.2 hours a day of reading.

Using the same Social Security Life Expectancy Calendar that Emily Temple used, I have approximately 18,250 days left in my life. At 4.2 hours of reading per day at a six-hour average read, I in theory could read another 12,775 books.

…That seems impossible. Here are some breakdowns of how many books you’ll likely finish in the next fifty years based on how many hours a day you read that are bit more realistic.

.5 hr/day = 1,520 books

1 hr/day = 3,041 books

1.5 hrs/day = 4,562 books

2 hrs/day = 6,083 books

2.5 hrs/day = 7,604 books

Now go get drinking! Er, I mean reading.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.