There comes a point in every reader’s life where they realize that they won’t be able to read every book they might want to read. Last spring and summer, before his retirement, one of our librarians talked frequently about culling their to-read list to just the “best books.” Why waste time on anything but the best? this librarian asked. Other than feeling a bit sad for this librarian, that they didn’t feel they had time for guilty print pleasures, I didn’t think much of this sentiment until I read Beulah Maud Devaney’s piece for The Guardian, “Three Thousand Reasons to Choose Your Reading Carefully.”
|Skeptical reader is skeptical.|
In this article, Devaney dutifully calculates her reading rate, factors in her family’s average longevity, and arrives at the figure of 3,000 books as an estimate of the number of books she’ll be able to read in her lifetime. (I’m not the only person interested in this article. r/literature has been discussing it, too.) Of all the books ever written and all the books that will be written before Devaney reads her last book, 3,000 is a woefully small number. Most readers I know can’t even choose a favorite five books, let along choose the only 3,000 books they’ll ever read.
This kind of thinking will send a reader ’round the bend.
The question of what makes a book worthwhile to be one of the 3,000 is highly subjective—though scholars might argue otherwise. The last chapter of Terry Eagleton’s How to Read Literature, “Value,” contains the author’s argument of the futility of trying to classify some books as the “best.” Eagleton sets up and knocks down all of these criteria: originality, language, technical skill, asking big questions. The truth is that books go in and out of fashion. Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen answers about what a reader should read in their lifetime.
Trying to choose the 3,000 “best” books will not only drive a reader out of their minds. It will also, slowly but inexorably, suck the joy out of reading. Joyce, Proust, Melville, Woolf, and Faulkner are perennial entries on lists of best books. They are not on my lists. I know enough about myself as a reading to know that I would have to force my way through them. I don’t know if I’d last a chapter before I was longing to read something else, anything else, even my shampoo bottle, than another chapter of Joyce or Proust. Some readers may adore these writers; I know they’re not for me.
I suspect that I’ll spend my last reading days reading (or re-reading) books that are pure fun.