The Number of Books You Read Is Largely Irrelevant

I’ve heard of people who say they read a book a day. I even know someone who says that they do.

They may survey a book a day, they may peruse a book a day, they may skim a book a day, they may review a summary of a book a day… but actually read one? Sorry, not unless we’re talking a comic book. I know. I’m a reader. And have been my entire life.

As I wrote in A Mind for God:

“I love to read. As a young boy I can remember devouring Ellery Queen mysteries on long vacation drives, taking a hot bath and reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, curling up in the bay window of a local library as rain cascaded down the glass with a harrowing tale of Blackbeard the Pirate. I still have the copy of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, worn from countless readings, given to me on my 12th birthday by my grandmother. For me, the perfect day is one with a sky full of dark and heavy clouds, promising a furious rainstorm or inches of snow, with a fire in the fireplace and a book by my side waiting to be explored.”

But in fact, the number of books you read is largely irrelevant. As Emma Sarappo recently wrote in “The Books Briefing” newsletter in the Atlantic, she read around 40 books during 2023. This did not include the number of books she started and cast away out of disinterest, ones half-skimmed for work, or advance copies of which she read only 20 pages or so. Yet this is far more than the average of 12.6 per year Gallup determined the average person read in 2022.

Yet Sarappo advocates for dropping the “books read” metric altogether—and I wholeheartedly agree. It’s not the number of books you read, but rather the quality and importance of the books you read and how well you read them.

To be clear, this does not mean you must limit yourself to massive tomes, such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Marcel Proust’s multi-volume Remembrance of Things Past. As Kenneth C. Davis has recently argued, there are a number of great short novels that can be easily read in a week or less, from George Orwell’s Animal Farm to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

And while the number of pages you read is better, on the whole, than the number of books you read, I still come back again and again to the wisdom of Mortimer Adler in his classic How to Read a Book.

His premise is simple: not every book deserves to be read the same way. Some need only a cursory inspection, others a systematic skimming, others a careful page-by-page devouring with highlighter handy. Knowing how to read a book – meaning to what degree to read it and which skills to utilize – is critical. In this fashion, I might “read” 150-200 books a year, but in terms of careful reading, far, far fewer. But that is appropriate. Not every book requires, much less deserves, that kind of attention.

So read widely and read well. Savor fiction and non-fiction, classics and contemporary works, fantasy and self-help. Read not only history, but also historical fiction, and throw in some mystery and horror. I have just devoured Katherine Rundell’s fantasy Impossible Creatures, fascinatingly raced through Unstoppable (the biography of holocaust survivor Siggi Wilzig), am halfway through David Grann’s The Wager (he also authored the book behind the movie Killers of the Flower Moon), and just began Tim Alberta’s The Kingdom, The Power and the Glory, which has already proven hard to put down. It would be difficult to imagine four more different books to be reading at the same time. 

But then again, it’s not about the number I’m reading at the same time nor the number I complete by the end of the year. Again, it’s about which books I read and how I read them. Or as Arthur Schopenhauer once suggested, “If a man wants to read good books, he must make a point of avoiding bad ones; for life is short, and time and energy limited.”

So discard the goal of reading a certain number of books this year. Instead, determine to be selective in your reading and to give each selection the attention it warrants. 

And that may mean reading far less, but much better, than you did last year.

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This article originally appeared on ChurchAndCulture.org and is reposted here by permission.

James Emery White
James Emery Whitehttps://www.churchandculture.org/

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, ‘Hybrid Church:Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age,’ is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free su