On a chilly, rainy Friday morning back in October, I walked up to my bookshelf to find a book to read. I spent some time sorting through the spines until I began asking myself:
How many of these books have I actually read?
I’ve never been asked this question, and if I have I can’t remember what answer(s) I gave at the time. Being an English major, though, I wondered what the total would come out to be. Most of the titles on my shelf, after all, are books that I consciously bought – for recreational reading, for required reading, and (happily, very often) for both reasons. And when my mind drifted again, I began to think about distribution: How many books written by British authors have I read? American authors? South African? What about plays and long poems? Or 18th-century literature?
I decided to find out.
I started a spreadsheet (something I hadn’t done in a long time) and, working backward, I listed every book I could think of that I’d read from cover to cover, starting from freshman year of high school – the first year where I took reading seriously – to the present-day.
Once the list was finished, I tallied up the total…and came up with 148 books. Huh.
Then I started breaking down the list using different categories: the number of books I read and finished each year (with some rough approximation for earlier years); their countries of origin (or the country with which a given text is most commonly associated); centuries of publication (from the 16th century to the present); and genres. These results were really intriguing, so I’ve posted them here using colorful Excel charts.
1. Books read by country of origin: “Century of origin” refers to the author of the text, though even this was a little tricky (see the notes after the graphs).
2. Books read by century of publication: Century during which the text was first published.
3. Books read by genre: See following notes for explanations of genre.
4. Books read per year: Not sure why I couldn’t put them in ascending chronological order, but here you go…
Before you read too much (I couldn’t resist…) into these results, here are a couple of notes to put things in perspective:
- I’ve never completed a book written in any language other than English, so as you might expect books that fall under non-Anglophone countries (such as Sudan or Greece) were read as English translations.
- On genre: I use terms like “novel,” “play,” and “autobiography” in their most conventional sense. “Book-length essays” are texts that I consider to be either an extended and defensible argument in book form – for example, Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) – or a collection of interrelated essays centered on a certain theme (e.g. W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Similarly, “verse” refers to epic poetry (Beowulf, Paradise Lost) or “substantial” poems which occur in stand-alone print editions (e.g. Eliot’s “The Waste Land“). “Short stories” refers here to Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), and philosophy refers to The Art of War.
- Sorting by country of origin proved to be a tricky issue, as some authors – such as Salman Rushdie or Kazuo Ishiguro – could fall into more than one nation depending on how one approaches his/her background. In these cases, I erred on the side of country of initial publication, which meant that Rushdie’s and Ishiguro’s novels are counted as UK books as opposed to Indian or Japanese texts. (Of course, none of Ishiguro’s published work was originally written in Japanese.)
So what conclusions could possibly be drawn from all of this? Some ideas:
- Having been educated in English literature in the United States, I guess it’s not surprising that the vast majority of books I’ve read (74% of the total) were written and published in the UK and the US. It’s interesting to see that both countries get an even share though (54 each at this point). All of that being said, I’d like to expand my geographical horizons a lot more: overlooking Russian and French literature is pretty criminal in and of itself for someone who loves to read literature.
- Two-thousand eleven (2011) was apparently a very productive year for reading – though I guess that’s mostly because I overloaded on English courses for both semesters…
- The chronological sort is probably what intrigued me the most. I’d like to think that I’m open to reading texts from any given era – it’s what’s expected of any English major, really – but to see 20th-century texts comprise such a strong majority (62%) is nevertheless a bit unnerving. I suppose in my head I imagined a more even spread, at least when only considering the books I (had to) read as an undergraduate. And I’m surprised I haven’t read more “21st-century literature” either!
- I have always loved reading novels more than ‘non-fiction’ texts or verse, which should be evident enough from the results. It’s not as though I abstain from reading non-fiction; I suppose the experience of reading a novel (or more recently, verse) is more enjoyable, and in my mind it allows for some flexibility in thought. But I know I should read more widely by genre.
- I didn’t do a sort for sub-genres – e.g. Victorian literature, post-colonial literature, postwar literature, etc – but from the list of titles I can see where the biggest gaps lie in my ‘reading landscape.’ Certainly I have almost zero experience in reading Victorian lit: apart from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol I haven’t finished any of his novels, and I’m still lazily working through Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. And of course, there are plenty of texts on those “Greatest 100 Novels of All Time” lists that I haven’t tackled yet. Not that I live by these lists, per se, but you get the idea.
Regardless of these results, I think it’s clear that the world of literature is as immense as the physical one we inhabit, and for all I’ve explored there’s still a long way to go. But it’s been an enjoyable journey, and I’d like to keep it going for as long as I’m able.
Enjoy the New Year, and I’ll see you again on the other side.