The headline of this post is from a press release I recently received about PBS and The Library of Congress’s The Great American Read. The goal of this program — which has people vote on the country’s 100 favorite novels — is to encourage Americans to read more. As the organizers noted in the press release, people say they want to read more for pleasure, but they feel like they just don’t have time.
To solve that problem, the organizers offer lots of great tips (read in little bits; put ebooks on your phone). They also offer the reminder that it’s OK to read stuff you like. In other words, “it doesn’t have to be Tolstoy or Joyce.”
But, having read War and Peace and Ulysses in the last year, I could note…it could be Tolstoy or Joyce. Indeed, anyone who consumes enough media to learn about The Great American Read probably already has time to read both.
(Though I’d pause here to note that War and Peace is a LOT more readable than Ulysses, despite being 2x the length. I would not lump these two together under the category of non-user-friendly literature. Tolstoy is telling a multi-family saga over the decade or so surrounding Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. There is much plot — love! violence! intrigue! — conveyed in short, snappy chapters. Ulysses features a lot of Joyce playing around with the English language. Much is oblique by design; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a better bet for a more accessible Joyce experience.)
War and Peace is about 1500 pages. I read about 50 pages per hour, and it took me about 30 hours (that’s per my Kindle counter). Reading at 30 pages per hour would give you 50 hours.
Fifty hours is a big chunk of time, but it is not an infinite amount of time. Finding an hour a day to read — 7 hours a week — would mean finishing War and Peace in 7 weeks. Reading at my pace for a hour a day means finishing in about a month.
So where can we find that hour? As the press release noted, people feel they just don’t have the time. The Great American Read, like all campaigns and programs these days, has a Facebook page. One calculation made using Facebook’s data found that people who check Facebook daily apparently spend 41 minutes per day on the app (the average user clocks 27 minutes).
There is, of course, the 2.95 hours/day the average man spends watching television as a primary activity, or the 2.59 hours/day the average woman does (these figures courtesy the American Time Use Survey; sadly, this television is not always PBS).
But — fun fact! — people already spend some time reading. According to the American Time Use Survey (same link as above), the average woman reads for 0.33 hours (20 minutes) daily. The average man reads for 0.22 hours (13.2 minutes). Reading for 20 minutes a day would get you through a 30-hour book in 90 days. If War and Peace was a 50-hour project, that would be 150 days. That’s a lot of time — 5 months — but it’s not an infinite amount of time.
Finishing is about starting, and then plugging along, day after day.
This has pretty much been my realization about big books. I have been tracking my time for 3 years, and I realized after year one that I was reading a decent amount already. I just wasn’t focusing my time on much worth reading.
I decided to change that. This month, for instance, I’m tackling David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. It feels about the same length as War and Peace, and indeed, it turns out the word count isn’t far off. I have been aiming to read about an hour a day, which should get me through this 30-hour novel by the time September rolls around. So far so good. Indeed, I’m ahead of schedule. Because, another fun fact, when you’re reading something that’s enjoyable to read, you find more time to read. That certainly could be Tolstoy. Maybe not all of Joyce, but some of Joyce.
(I admit I was counting pages during the chapter of Ulysses that tracks the development of English from medieval to slang.)
What’s the longest book you’ve ever read?