How Many Books Can You Read in a Year?

Since 2010, I’ve recorded the title of every book I’ve read. I appreciate that sounds oddly obsessive but what’s life without some quirky behavior. For the semi-curious, here’s a chart that illustrates the numbers:

As the data shows, the best I’ve managed to do is 56 way back in 2012 and the worst was 22 in 2017. I suspect part of that can be explained by the little known fact that I went through a period of clinical depression, and that might mark a low point prior to my actually admitting there was a issue and doing something about it. But now I’m back up to 52 in 2020, which by my math works out at one per week.

The problem comes when I try to compare those figures with others available on the interwebs. Now I’m fully aware that the concepts of “peer-reviewed content” and “objective data” don’t apply to the virtual world so anything you read has to be taken not only with a grain of salt but a bushel of the stuff. So if the question is, “How many books does the average person read in a year?” then I shouldn’t be surprised to find that the numbers run from zero to 200. One of the more irritating numbers comes from the world of management “science”[1] that states the average CEO reads 60 books per year, which in turn is usually followed by some pabulum about how anyone who wants to be a CEO should do the same, and that this is why “good” CEOs are so smart and successful. Of course, none of these articles citing the “60 Books” tell you anything about those CEOs who read that many yet totally fail and go out of business. Nor do they offer any guidance as to why 60 is the magic number? In fact, they don’t even tell you which books to read – except the one written by whoever is promoting the “60 Book” theory.

More irritating is that nobody seems to have any links to peer-reviewed studies that support the 60 Book hypothesis, yet it pops up over and over with disturbing regularity. Go ahead, open up a search engine and type in “CEOs books per year” and see what I mean. You’ll find yourself in a morass of blog posts, magazine articles, Reddit discussions, and yet there’s no solid evidence to support the 60 Books other than the assumption that “someone” has done the research.

And to keep my irritation level high, after working hard to hit my 52 books in a year target and thinking I’d “done good,” a Facebook friends posts that she’s “already read 20 books in January” so is well on her way to her target of 100 in a year. 20 in a month? She apparently has a job but still gets 20? Folks, sitting next to my chair is a copy of the Norton Critical Edition of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur that’s about 1000 pages long and written in Middle English; dare I say that the chance of me reading that in a day or two is slimmer than the chance of Donald Trump saying, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.” And on deck is the one-volume version of Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, which clocks in at over 750 pages. Sure, I can balance this out with the relatively slim Linguistics and Literary History: Essays in Stylistics written in 1948 by Leo Spitzer, but with chapter titles such as “The Style of Diderot” and “Linguistic Perspectivism in Don Quixote,” I’m guessing it ain’t going to be a breezy read.

Of course, no-one reads such heavy duty stuff all the time, and last year’s readings included classic Sci-Fi from Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, and Bob Shaw, along with thrillers from Jonathan Kellerman and Lee Childs, and those are books you can read in a couple of days if you switch off the TV or stay up late. It’s pretty obvious that the notion of “how many books can you read” has more variables involved than just number of pages.

And that’s precisely why it’s so hard to accept that blanket statement of “60 Books” because there is no real data out there that looks at how you measure it. Heck, what does it even mean to “read” a book, because some of the “How to be a better manager” or “Be a CEO” books out there seem to think that skimming is reading – which it’s not. What I want is some good, decent, peer-reviewed research and I can’t find it.

So over to you, my friends. Does anyone have some good, solid references to support the “60 Books” claim, or can you let me into the secret of how to hit that magic number? Maybe my inability to do it is why I’m not a successful CEO!


[1] To paraphrase an old saw, “Those who can, do; those who can’t become management consultants.” And in the world of management consultancy, there are so many books that I’m actually surprised they have time to consult. Or perhaps the reason there are so many books is that’s all they are doing. As you might guess, I have little love for management consultants – but then again I’m something of a cantankerous, old, misanthrope and wish H.L. Mencken were still writing.

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