In America’s culture of “more is probably better”, it’s no surprise that people tend to flaunt their consumed titles like badges of honor that offer implied evidence of competence, just like prestigious awards, titles or hours worked. In this context, if you really do want to know how you stack up, Pew Research says that Americans read an average of 12 books per year. The median is four books per year. But is there really a number of books you “should” or need to read to succeed?
For my part, I do believe that, no matter what you might do for a living, reading has the power to introduce you to all kinds of information and ways of thinking. And in that sense, the concept that lifelong learning through literature, articles or other documents improves with quantity makes sense. After all, you can’t learn something if you never expose yourself to it.
But the fallacy in this way of thinking is that it assumes that a person actually will apply what they have learned through the books. This is not necessarily true. Some people read and understand an enormous amount, yet they don’t act or make new decisions based on what they’ve acquired. In these situations, they arguably aren’t much better off than if they hadn’t read the texts at all, because the reading doesn’t yield change or growth. I much rather would read just a handful of carefully selected books that prove to be largely influential in what I do than spend weeks or months with what doesn’t inspire or direct me.
Additionally, it’s simply not true that everyone has the same amount of time or resources that allow them to read. Many people work multiple jobs to make ends meet, for instance, and don’t have as many free hours. Even if they do have a little time, those minutes might go to connecting with family instead, or they might be so tired that it’s hard to really mentally process what’s on the page. Other individuals might have time but lack the quick, reliable access to as many physical or digital books, such as if they are in a rural or underprivileged community. So it’s unfair to compare reading levels when some people are in circumstances that naturally make reading more of a challenge.
Lastly, we’ve probably all been in the situation where a book isn’t quite as engaging as we’d hoped, or where it doesn’t give us the answers we’d anticipated. Continuing with these texts arguably is a bad idea, because it takes time from books that would engage and inform as you need them to. Strategically choosing to stop and move on to something better can be quite rational. Yet, there is a problem in that we don’t acknowledge time spent reading books we eventually drop, which skews the perception of how much we’re reading in total.
There’s a similar problem in book lengths. Although it’s true that most genres have a “typical” word count, the range for content is enormous. For example, most publishers consider novel length to be between 50,000 and 110,000 words, but the English Penguin Classics translation of Les Miserables, which is one of my favorite texts, weighs in with a whopping 364,000. So that book is like reading three, yet you only get one title to brag about on your “finished” list.
So when push comes to shove, the basic rule of thumb is just to read as much as you can given your situation at rate that allows you to make use of what you learn. There’s little value in tracking how much you read by title and comparing yourself.