I was wandering around a bookshop—one of the big ones here in London—when this overwhelming bout of anxiety struck me. I came there for a specific title which I needed the same day. I wasn’t in a rush, so after I found the book, I decided to browse for a bit. My eyes were drawn to familiar names on the shelves—Joyce, Kafka, Kerouac—some of which I’ve read, others that I always wanted to read. The front-facing covers of new releases caught my attention too. For each unknown author and book, I was trying to figure out whether I’d like it or not. I picked up a few to read the back-cover copy and weigh them in my hand before moving on.
From general fiction, I made my way to the sci-fi and fantasy area, stopping at the table with highlights. I recognised several of these hefty tomes. In fact, I recognised most of them. I’ve been coming to bookshops to look at books like these for years, decades, and yet I haven’t read most of them.
Surrounded by thousands of books and billions of words, it weighed on me that I never will. Not because I don’t want to, but because it’s impossible. There are way too many books.
In 2016, Mental Floss estimated that 134,021,533 books have been published since the invention of the printing press. A casual 134 million.
According to various polls, the average adult reads 12 books a year. As a writer, you might read a lot more—maybe 50 or even 100 (respect if you do). Let’s say you’re 20 and live in the UK where the life expectancy is about 80 years. With 60 reading years to go, you will read a pitiful 3,000 / 6,000 books or 0.0002238% / 0.0004476% of the total respectfully. And that’s not counting the millions published every year over the course of your life.
You may be reading your ass off your entire life and still barely even scratch the surface. Worse yet, if you’re an average adult, you only have 720 books to go. That’s terrifying. You should read more, lol!
Not sure why, but after a while, I stopped looking at individual books and started focusing on authors. How many titles an average author had? And how much shelf space did the shop grant them? More often than not, entire rows were taken up by a single person. Book after book after book — a lifetime of gruelling work that these literary behemoths must have spent perfecting their craft.
At first, this made me even more depressed. How can I stand up to that? How can anyone write dozens of books and hundreds of short stories? Where does it all come from?
The bookshop was closing in five minutes. I paid for the book downstairs and headed into the night. The streets were wet, strewn with reflections, but it wasn’t raining anymore. I walked east through Bloomsbury, thinking about it all.
Now, it would’ve been quite fitting if along the way I saw a cat narrowly escape certain death under the wheels of a hurtling black cab and had a sudden revelation. Or if I ran into the apparition of Charles Dickens hanging out behind the bins at Tavistock Square and asked him for the secrets. Alas, nothing like that happened. I walked to St Paul’s and caught a train home.
The secret is that there’s no secret. One day not too long ago, these authors were just like you and me, working nine to five, struggling to finish things, getting rejected, doubting their ability. The only way to fill a shelf with books is to get up every morning and work hard at it.
What I Am Reading
I finished three books this week. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles was a fantastic read—eloquently written and with a rather unconventional premise. In the beginning, a Russian aristocrat is sentenced to a lifetime of house arrest in a luxury hotel in the centre of Moscow. The rest of the book chronicles his life in that hotel.
Hyperfocus by Chris Bailey is about managing your attention and how to be more intentional with it. The author put together a lot of the current research in the area. It was an informative read.
Lastly, I finished the 900-page tome that is Rogues by George R. R. Martin. It’s a collection of novellas from various authors across different genres, the common theme being that at least one character in each story has a cunning plan. You will enjoy the stories more if you’re already a fan of the featured writers as many stories include characters from existing books/series. I only recognised a few, but it was still an enjoyable read.
This week, I’ll be reading Normal People by Sally Rooney.
I also read these short stories:
- Children on the Road and Unmasking the Confidence Trickster by Franz Kafka
- The Sudden Walk, Resolutions, Excursion to the Mountains, The Plight of the Bachelor, The Businessman and Looking out Distractedly by Franz Kafka
- The Way Home, The Men Running Past, The Passenger, Dresses, The Rejection, For the Consideration of Amateur Jockeys, The Window on to the Street, Desire to be a Red Indian, The Trees, Being Unhappy by Franz Kafka
- Now Showing by Connie Willis
- The Judgement by Franz Kafka
- The Lighting Tree by Patrick Rothfuss
- The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother by George R. R. Martin
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