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You always hear people complaining about there being just not enough time to read all the books out there. Just too much on the shelves to get to in this lifetime. Not the worst thing to have to complain about, of course, but still, frustrating—even if you’re not Burgess Meredith after the apocalypse.

So here’s the question: Has that always been the case? Was there a time at which one could have actually read every single book that had been written? (For the sake of this exercise, we’re limiting it to English-language titles.) Fortunately, there’s always a numbers guy out there working just about any conceivable problem, so now we may have an answer:

According to the site what if?:

If we estimate that during their active periods, writers are producing somewhere between 0.1 and 1 word per minute, then one dedicated reader might be able to keep up with a population of about 500 or 1,000 active writers … the date at which there were too many English books to read in a lifetime—happened sometime before the population of active English writers reached a few hundred. At that point, catching up became impossible.

The magazine Seed estimates that the total number of authors reached this point around the year 1500 and has continued rising rapidly ever since. The number of active English writers crossed this threshold shortly thereafter, around the time of Shakespeare, and the total number of books in English probably passed the lifetime reading limit sometime in the late 1500s.

So there you have it. It’s been a few centuries since reading everything out there was even possible. So if you can’t finish the complete works of Joyce Carol Oates in this lifetime (and, honestly, who could—as she publishes at the rate most people read), well, just hope for reincarnation.

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