I love bookshelves. I love the physical act of having the books up there on the shelves to be looked at, admired, remembered.
When I was younger, I really enjoyed the library, and I still do. But I learned over time that for me to own a book — intellectually — I needed to own the damn book. I needed to have it close by for reference. I needed to be able to write in it and take it down off the shelf and put it back on the shelf and take it down off the shelf and put it back on the — you get it.
So I went about building my Anti-library, and today, even after giving away hundreds of books, my shelves are stocked. I’ve probably read 1/4 of them. But I keep adding.
Reading Big Books
Looking at my shelves recently, I saw a book I’d wanted to read for the longest time, and in fact had started over the summer, stopping after about 150 pages to move on to more “immediate” reads. (All great books, most of which I enjoyed, but not classics.)
It was The Power Broker, by Robert Caro.
It’s a classic on power politics in New York in the early to middle 20th century, seen through the eyes of the brilliant and wicked Robert Moses. The glory and curse of the book, though, is that it’s a doorstopper. It runs at about 1,110 pages — dense ones. I think Caro said it came to about 700,000 words. (Which was down from his original finished draft of over a million.)
It’s awesomely well written, not a slog in any sense of the word, but even great books take time just due to sheer volume. The problem is, when you think about reading a book like that, even taking it off the shelf seems to generate anxiety. Let’s do the math: I’m a pretty good reader, I think I read in the neighborhood of 300 words per minute. It might be plus or minus 50 words, but my guess is that’s a close estimate for a text written in modern English prose.
At 300 words per minute, a 700,000-word text is going to take me 2,333 minutes, or about 39 hours to read. And there’s the issue: the brain doesn’t seem to like to get started on 39-hour projects it isn’t being paid to complete. So, most commonly, we pick something shorter and easier. Still counts, right?
Then I thought about all of the other great works I wanted to get to in my lifetime. Caro has four (eventually five) books about LBJ that are masterpieces on 20th-century American politics. I want to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I want to read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace. I want to read Boswell’s Johnson. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. More of Ron Chernow’s biographies. (Titan is one of my favorites of all time and I hear great things about Alexander Hamilton.) All doorstoppers.
That got me thinking. How the heck does anyone get these books read? How do I become a person that’s read all these books rather than talked about them?
We do a lot of reading for Farnam Street, but it’s hard to take a week off from our standard fare to sit and read War and Peace. It’s the same for any busy person with a profession that takes up their days.
The solution I devised for myself is a simple one I wanted to share. It’s 25 pages a day. That’s it. Just commit to that, and then do it. What will 25 pages a day get you?
Let’s say that two days out of each month, you probably won’t have time to read. Plus Christmas. That gives you 340 days a year of solid reading time. 25 pages a day for 340 days is 8,500 pages. 8,500. What I have also found is that, when I commit to a minimum of 25 pages, I almost always read more. So let’s call the 8,500 pages 10,000. (I only need to extend that 25 pages into 30 to get there.)
With 10,000 pages a year, at a general pace of 25/day, what can we get done?
Well, The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy’s two masterpieces come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbons is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That’s 10,472 pages.
That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, I’ve knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!
That leaves 2017 to read Shirer’s Rise and Fall (1,280), Carl Sandburg’s Six Volumes on Lincoln (2,000?), Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations unabridged (1,200), and Boswell’s Johnson (1,300) with plenty of pages left to read something else.
This is how the great works gets read. Day by day. 25 pages at a time. No excuses.
Before anyone takes this too literally, the point isn’t the number. (Although 25 pages is my literal rule.) It could be 20 pages, or 10 pages, or thirty minutes, or an hour, or 2,000 words. Regardless of what unit of reading you choose, the math will still work out: In six months, or a year, or five years, or ten years, you’ll have digested a large swath of human wisdom. Did you ever want to read Moby Dick? Or Ulysses? Or some of Jane Austen’s books? Or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest? Done! Start today. 25 pages. Then do it tomorrow. Read in the morning, read at lunch, read before bed, read at the dentist’s office…it doesn’t matter. Just get your pages in, day in and day out. And then you’ll be a person who reads the books everyone else simply talks about.
What you choose to read is up to you. I love history. I love biography. I love science. Tolstoy aside, I don’t read many novels. But the task no longer seems daunting, does it? All it takes is commitment and a little assiduity. So let’s go get smart.