How Many Books Could I Read in a Lifetime?

Like so many book lovers, I have a huge pile of books that I need to read, and in this digital age, I also have a long list of books I’d like to read listed online. Just looking at my Goodreads account the other day, I saw my “to read” list has a staggering 113 books. I thought the piles of books cluttering up my room were intimidating, until I saw that number. That list, though I update it when I can, is by no means complete. I’m sure I have books waiting to be read somewhere that I forgot about or just didn’t care to add to the list. How long would it take me to actually get through this TBR pile (that’s To Be Read for all you book noobs, try and keep up,) taking into account that I’m definitely going to be adding more books to it even as I diminish it? Would that even be physically possible?

With these questions spinning through my head, I decided to turn to a source English majors would normally never think of trying; math. That’s right, I wanted to calculate how many books I could possibly read in my life time, and compare that to how many I’ll want to read. Could I ever satiate my reading appetite? The cold eye of a calculator might give me the answer, if I could handle it.

First came the morbid part, estimating my remaining lifespan. Just how many years do I have left to cram full of books? Well, a quick internet search told me that women living in Illinois, my home state, have an average life expectancy of 81.57 years. I rounded that up to 82 for my calculations, because whole numbers are easier to handle and I’m much too terrified of my own finite mortality to round that number down or leave it as is.

Of those years, I’ve already lived 23 of them, meaning I can statistically expect another 59 years or so out of my life. At this point, I was trying hard to not get overwhelmed by existential gloom, so let’s talk about my reading rate. Please.

Generally, I’ve been able to read a book a week ever since I was old enough to read stuff denser than picture books. Sometimes that number is longer, and sometimes it’s shorter, given different book lengths and how interested I am in reading this or that book at any given time. I felt like a book per week was a decent average rate to use for this real-life word problem. Even if my eyesight or health starts to fail in my later years, audio books mean I could still keep up that rate, maybe even increase it with all the time I might spend being old and infirm. How many weeks, then, do I have to read? Okay, we’ll have to make one more brief stop in the whole “contemplating my fleeting life on this earth” realm, so let’s make this quick.

With 52 weeks in a year, 59 years translates to 3,068 weeks. That’s 3,068 more books I could probably fit in my lifespan. Well, that’s certainly more than the 113 books I have listed on my to-read page on Goodreads. That number seems puny now, an easy goal. I could technically finish those books in just over two years, if I had to. Here’s the tricky part though. I’m not just reading those books. I’m reading any and every new book that catches my fancy. The books that make up the bulk of my TBR list are books that fail to interest me as much as whatever new text I’m grabbing at. What I really need to figure out is the rate at which I discover new books I want to read.

The problem with this figure is how allusive, how fluid it is. How often I find new books to read depends largely on how often I can get to a bookstore, (which, sadly, is sometimes not very often,) or how often I bother to look at new books online. Not to mention, when does a book go from merely interesting to definitely on my TBR list? I can’t say for sure. While it’s probably not a perfect tool, I think Goodreads will have to come to my aid again. I don’t necessarily put a book on my Goodreads every time I feel like I want to read it, but I do update it regularly enough with books I want to read that I’ll accept it as an accurate enough measuring tool in absence of anything else. Any fans of precise data might want to turn away now, because I’m about to get extremely speculative and vague with your beloved numbers.

Goodreads does allow me to see when I add books I want to read to my list, and the number definitely varies. After the large chunk of books I added when I first joined, making up for lost time by finding and listing all the books I wanted to read, basically transposing my TBR pile online, things started to slow as I added new books as I discovered them. Sometimes I’d add only one book, and sometimes I’d add as over a dozen, usually after I lead a book blog or review that listed multiple books I should try. Averaging out the number of books I added over the months and years I’d been on Goodreads.

Oh boy this is where the math gets murky, because some of those books I added in 2017 I actually read in a previous year, not added them online until I saw them one day in 2017 and added them then. I tried to use my memory to count only books I was sure I’d added to my TBR pile in 2017 and finished in 2017, if at all. I’m sure my memory was far from perfect, but let’s assume I got it close to right for my sanity.

All total I added 63 books to my Goodreads book lists, read and unread alike, in 2017. The year isn’t even over yet, and that’s already more than I could hope to read in a year, given my average reading rate. Apparently I’ve read roughly twenty something books this year. Given how many weeks have passed, that’s below my own set average, but as I said, I sometimes forget to add new books right away, so I figure I’m closer to my average than Goodreads says. Either way, unless I can count on some day becoming a voracious reader while not increasing the number of books I add to my TBR pile, I’ll have an extra dozen or so books each year that I add to my list but will not be able to read in that same year, which will have a snowball effect I won’t be able to catch up to, no matter how big a number 3,068 is.

Really, I always figured that I’d never read all the books I ever wanted to before I died. Taking some statistics from my immediate reading habits and TBR pile made that even more obvious. While using Goodreads to check my reading statistics, I of course found more books I’d read in the past and books I wanted to read, so even now the already vague, nebulous stats I listed here are outdated. I guess I didn’t need math after all, not to learn how much my eyes are bigger than my book stomach, so to speak. I wanted to impress myself, and you fair readers I suppose, with an in depth and thoughtful analysis of my reading abilities, but in the end only added to my insanely big TBR pile and realized how futile trying to read that whole list would be. Thanks a lot, math! Well, time to get back to reading. I’ve got some serious progress to make.

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