How many books have you read, a friend asked, in your life?
Not an easy question to answer, having neglected to keep a list. In the absence of documentary evidence, I resort to a process of estimation. This will require some clarification of each of the terms of the question.
First there is the matter of my life. Ignoring philosophical questions about the persistence of personal identity through time and religious questions about reincarnation, I will adopt the common sense idea that my life runs from my birth up to the present day. But the pace of my consumption of books has been highly inconsistent over my lifetime. There have been years when I read many books several a week for example when I was a doctoral student in my mid-twenties, and in recent years. At other times, preoccupied by work, or parenthood, or whatever, I read less, meaning perhaps only one book a month. Trying to estimate an average number of books per week, over many years, is not easy when the actual rate varied widely.
This brings me to a second problem, namely what does it mean to read a book? When I was a child and my parents or teachers read a story to me, does that count? Or should I stipulate that I must have done the reading myself, rather than listening to someone else's voice, thereby also excluding audio books and performances of novellas by actors at the theatre? What about when I read to my daughter? There were years when I read to her several times a week, sometimes two or three short books each night, often the same book several times a month. I read them, so perhaps they should count, even though I read them primarily for her.
It is also not clear what counts as a book. Is it a unique physical object, bound with covers? Does length matter, or subject? Can I count journal articles, of which I have read many? The weekly edition of the TLS might not count as a book, but what about Granta, published four times a year, each edition comprised of at least two hundred pages of short-stories, extracts from novels and some non-fiction writing: I read this cover-to-cover for a decade? And what about short-story collections and anthologies? What about the essays in art catalogues? What about collections of poetry? And how do I know what counts as one? If I read one novel that is printed in two separate volumes, have I read one book or two. If I read two novellas, printed together in one volume, have I read two books or one? Does the New Testament count as one or twenty-seven? What about Proust, is that one or seven? And what if I only read part of the book? Must I read every page, or more than half, for me to count the book as read?
Once I have decided what counts as reading and what counts as a book, I can determine an approach to multiple readings. As I have already noted, I read some books to my daughter many times over, because she enjoyed the repeated hearing a story, which she knew by heart. I am minded to counts these books but only once. By contrast, for my own pleasure I have re-read quite a few books and it seems only reasonable to count each separate reading, particularly when the books are long and demanding, such as War and Peace or The Magic Mountain. As for Proust, I think I will count my two readings of In Search of Lost Time as fourteen books.
I take my guidance here from Heraclitus, that we never step twice into the same stream of words. It is not because this stream of words changes I might read the exact same physical book that I read before bur rather that over time I have changed, and the person reading now is no longer identical with the person who read before. I am acutely aware of this, having just re-read James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Yong Man. I first read this book around ten years ago, while traveling in Namibia, and remember enjoying it at the time. I had two strong memories of specific scenes. The first occurs early in the novel, when as a child, Stephen Daedalus hears the distant sound of fellow schoolboys playing cricket: the sounds said: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain slowly falling in the brimming bowl. Only a writer of genius could capture the distinctive sounds of a distant game of cricket in such poetic terms. The second example when Stephen, now a young man, walks barefoot on the strand in Dublin Bay and sees a young girl ahead of him, standing and staring out to sea came, I was sure, right at the end of the novel. This week I discovered, to my surprise, that after this beautifully described scene, which confirms Stephen in his vocation to become an artist, there are still one hundred pages of the novel to read. I have read again but I have also read anew.
Enough equivocation, my best guess is, around five thousand books.
Which leads me straight to another question, equally problematic but for different reasons, that I now ask myself: how many books are there that you still want to read? I have a list of what I plan to read over the next few weeks, not just novels but non-fiction too, and it has around twenty-five items on it. These, however, are all books that I already own, waiting for me to pick them up from the shelves and turn to the first page. What happens when I next walk into a bookstore, or scroll through some publishers' websites, or read a few more copies of the TLS and the NYRB or receive some recommendations from friends. I know for sure, that before I finish reading the next twenty-five books, I will have bought, or made a note to buy, or will have, at the very least, seriously considered buying or making a note to buy, another fifty books. The more I read, the more I want to read; the more I buy the more I want to add to my collection; the further my tally grows over five thousand, the more impatient I become that it reaches seven thousand.
Quantity is not the important measure here. In fact, it is not important at all, other than that the truly important measure quality is impossible to discover without it. How can we know good writing unless we also read poor and average writing? How can we expect to find moments of brilliance that delight us, unless we are prepared to endure hundreds of pages of modestly competent work, which set the standard against which brilliance can be judged? Sometimes I persevere with books that do not greatly interest or inspire me, simply because they provide me some context in which other books can be situated. The more I read, the more I treasure the best that I have read.
One book that I have read only in part, is the collection of poems gathered under the title Metamorphoses, by the Roman poet Ovid (not to be confused with the more contemporary Covid, although both are strongly associated with the process of mutation). Ovid tells of humans and demi-gods, transformed into trees or stars, or memorialised as flowers or animals. His lengthy book is in part a collection of tales warning about human vulnerability in the face or the unreasonable anger or jealousy of the gods, and in part a collection of mythical explanations for certain aspects of the natural world. When we read Ovid, he suggests to us that we are also learning how to read nature.
I was reminded of his work last week, when I looked at a series of Titian's paintings currently on show in London, which capture crucial moments in the stories of Andromeda, Europa, Danaλ, Actaeon, Callisto, and Adonis. Titian's focus is on the decisive moment, when the fate of the man, woman or nymph is determined, rather than the consequential transformation, which generally occurs at the end of the story. Since his viewers would already have known the stories, he was able to concentrate on illuminating the meaning of the tale, rather than portraying its narrative content. But the presumption underlying both the paintings and the poems is that the natural world tells a story.
I am sceptical of such beliefs. The study of nature teaches us many interesting things about ourselves considered as objects, but nothing about ourselves considered as subjects. Self-knowledge comes through engagement with our own and other selves: thinking, reflection, and conversation. Some of our best insights might come to us when we are confronted by natural phenomena of beauty or sublimity: a moonlit sky, the view from the top of a mountain, a raging thunderstorm, or a peaceful sunrise over the ocean. I remember the enjoyment of my first reading of Joyce's Portrait, because I recall staring out at the endless red sand dunes of the Namib desert, and thinking about Stephen Daedalus walking through the Dublin rain.
When we read, we do not always notice everything that the author intended, and sometimes we notice things that the author did not intend. Meaning is not wholly within the control of either the author or the reader, but it is there to be discovered when they meet: the wrestling of minds over character, narration, argument, and evidence; the meeting of two subjects, separated in space and time, but brought together by ink on paper. Books embody intentionality, they are the medium through which we hear the voices of other subjects. To read is to engage in dialogue.
The natural world is not a book, it is a mirror in which we see only reflections of ourselves. When we speak to nature we are talking in monologue. If, sometime, we hear another voice, that other voice is Echo.