Sometimes when I finish one book and am trying to decide which one to start next, I am overwhelmed by the number of books that exist. Despite the well-worn tale of how difficult it is to get published, the United States alone puts out about 300,000 new books a year (I’m estimating based on what I read on Wikipedia for 2012 and on Worldometer for 2010).
That’s a lot of books. And I doubt that’s counting self-published material. It’s enough to make your head spin.
I read a lot of books. According to Goodreads, I read almost 50 books in 2013. If I keep that pace up for the rest of my life (let’s say I’ll live to the current New York state average of ~83 for a woman, leaving me with 55 years from my current age), I’ll be able to read about 2,750 more books before I die.*
That’s not very many, really, when you think about how many books are published each year.
I don’t want to start rushing through to try and cram as many books as possible into my lifetime. (Anyone who’s seen my Goodreads activity knows that I like to be an aware reader, which means sometimes I read more slowly.) So it’s a good thing that my goal has never been to read all the books. But how can I decide what books deserve my attention? I admit that I sometimes make random choices not based on much consideration. When I make a bad choice with this method, I tend to flee back to the comfort of a reliable genre or author.
But I don’t want to read only science fiction or horror. And sometimes I like to choose something that’s more fluffy than intellectual—everyone’s brain needs a break. I’ve decided a good approach is to read broadly and take chances. This is part of why I participate in two book clubs, on top of usually reading one book a month of my own choice. In one of those clubs, I have the benefit of being one of the moderators (it’s an online club), so I help choose the books. Still, we take suggestions from the members and try to diversify our selections. The other book club doesn’t meet often but we either vote on which book to read or one chosen member makes a selection. Both of these processes mean that I read a lot of books I might not have decided upon on my own.
I don’t always enjoy the books, but it’s rare that I feel like one is an actual waste of time. There’s usually something interesting going on even in books I dislike. But still, when I get into one of these moods where I’m thinking about the sheer number of books in existence at this moment (not to mention how many will exist tomorrow or at the end of the year or decade), I do wonder if spending the time on some of these lackluster books** means there are great books out there I’ll never get around to reading.
Of course there’s no way of knowing if you’ll enjoy a book until you reach the end. (As a quick aside: this is why I rarely abandon books before finishing them—in fact I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that—because sometimes things come together or resolve in unexpected ways. So I try not to judge a book too harshly too quickly.) And once you’ve finished a book, you can’t get that time back. Which is one of the reasons I try to find something, even some little thing, to enjoy or learn from every book. That way, I can prevent myself from considering the time spent reading it as wasted. If it’s so bad I can’t find anything, I’ve at least learned what not to do when writing my own stories.
Which brings me to the second car on this train of thought.
Not only do I enjoy reading and want to read what I can in my lifetime, but also I want to contribute to that number of books published each year. I’ve already started, with a few short stories in great anthologies. I’m hoping someday to have my own novels or short story collections published as well.
When I think about that desire, sometimes it seems especially ridiculous given how many books are published each year. With so many books, and so little time to read them all, what makes me think anyone would choose to something I’ve written out of that vast pile? (And the pile only gets more monstrous when you consider all the books that are available that have been published years or decades or centuries ago.)
But the truth is, at least one person somewhere chooses to read those new books that nobody or only a few others have chosen. Someone sees its listing on Amazon or another website, or notices the book in some independent bookshop or a library, and they choose that book over all the others they have yet to read. Who can say why they pick that book in that moment? Sometimes I can’t explain what draws me to a particular book.
So this is typically where this train of thought slows down and settles back on the rails for me. Instead of the number of books out there being daunting for me as a reader, I find it thrilling. I’ll always have a next book to read. Maybe I can’t read them all, but I have more stories to pick from than I could imagine.
As a writer, the number of new books is encouraging. I know finding an agent and getting a publisher is hard, but 300,000 books a year manage to reach an audience in the United States. Someday one of those could be something of mine. Someday my book could be the one chosen at random by someone over all the others.
In the end, there’s nothing more exciting than connecting with someone else, both as a reader and a writer. I’m lucky enough to experience that from both sides.
Happy reading and writing, everyone.
*I know there was some math involved here. I apologize.
**In my opinion, of course. Plenty of people thoroughly enjoy some of the books I haven’t.