After he gave a talk the other day, I commended an advertising entrepreneur for paying people to read on the job. And then he asked me a surprising question.
How many books have you read?
I did some math, and gave the likely figure. Could be ten thousand.
Two to four books per week, times 52 weeks, times 55 years. And I'm adding to it that sum at 100 to 200 books per year. I figure 6,000 is a conservative figure, but its more probably over ten thousand.
How is this possible? Well, I cannot go to sleep without reading first. And every night I wake up and read for an hour or more. Add to that reading time in a favorite chair, on a plane or at the breakfast table, and the books add up.
Reading first became a habit when I discovered comic books. This scandalized my father, but an enlightened teacher kept repeating "as long as he reads." So I read the Classic comics and Superman and Flash.
Then I read The Wind in the Willows, and then, on a solitary Saturday, Goodbye Mr. Chips by James Hilton. This was real literature, with character and drama. Then it was the Alcotts, and The Hobbit, and Johnny Tremaine.
I soon discovered the joys of pulp fiction. I found a character called Doc Savage and read everything I could by Zane Grey and Ian Fleming.
Some of these addictions were to adventure. C.S. Forester's Hornblower series lead to books by Tom Clancy and W.E.B Griffin, and Patrick O'Brien's amazing Aubrey-Maturin series, one I have re-read with new pleasure many times.
At college I studied (what else?) literature, and so books I would not have otherwise known have been on my bedside ever since. I'm thinking of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War and The Odyssey of Homer. But also works by Turgenev, Gogol, Breton and Lord Byron.
Narrative history and biography are favorites. Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August lead to David McCullough and Edward Crankshaw and David Keegan. Sometimes I'll read a few biographies of a favorite historical person in a row--Teddy Roosevelt is one of those--and sometimes I'll read a few by an author. Favorite periods are World War II and the American Revolution.
Not much poetry on my shelves, other than Shakespeare and Wallace Stevens. And except for Shakespeare, not much drama.
I find Americans are easy to read and re-read. I like the funny familiarity of language in Heller's Catch-22 and Damon Runyon's tales. Pam Houston's short stories capture the way people talk, and so do the comic thrillers of Elmore Leonard and the just plain comic stories of Carl Hiassen. But then again, for comic words, nobody beats Britain's P. G. Wodehouse. I'd read Jeeves on my deathbed.
Then again, sometimes you want a big hill to climb. To me, that's Plato and Aristotle from the ancient world--and James Joyce's Ulysses from the modern one.
The older I get, the more children's literature appeals to me. I recently read Stuart Little, to feel sorry for someone setting out in life. Then I read Mo Willems's hilarious Knufflebunny, to see how someone sets out in life in Brooklyn. We read Frog and Toad and Goodnight Moon to the kids. Not a bad way for adults to get ready for the next day, and somehow reading to kids does set them out for success.
Business books are hard for me. Either they remind me of my business mistakes--at which point I throw them down, as if they, and not I, are guilty of stupidity--or they suggest I have to learn my customers' birthdays so I can make a sale. But some business books are gold. For example, Jim Grant is a brilliant historian and wonderful writer, and I recently picked up a the strategy thoughts of Chris Zook. These books help me understand the world in ways that John Updike just can't.
Reading has been a tremendous boon to me, but sometimes my family suffered. My kids never wanted me to drive them to hockey games because I would invariably get lost, distracted by my latest read. (On the other hand, I was not the only parent holding a book while waiting for the kids to emerge from the locker room.) And did the kids know that when they got Harry Potter for their birthday that I had carefully read it first?
Then again, when I traveled overseas I would always bring a local book home, hoping to excite the kids' imaginations. And, sure enough, one son cites the juvenile book, Auf Dem Flughafen, for his early interest in German. He is now an adult, completing an academic translation from that language to English.
How do I measure a life of reading? Well, if I put all the books I've read in a row it would create a shelf the length of three or more football fields. I guess I've gotten that much pleasure from them. They haven't made me richer in dollar terms, and I'm pretty effective but not as good as I should be. I've just added to the life of the mind.
For a long while, I knew where every one of my books stood on the our shelves. I remembered taking them down, and what was happening in my life when I put them back. But we've recently de-cluttered our house in preparation for downsizing. As a result, I am kind of lost in my own home. I don't know where my books are any more.
This week I'm reading A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and the thoughts of Marcus Aurelius. A Catch-22 re-read is also appealing.
Next week? Well, since Thucydides is on my bedside table, it will be Graham Allison's Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?
I have it on loan for a week.