“It doesn’t have to be Tolstoy or Joyce”

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?

33 thoughts on ““It doesn’t have to be Tolstoy or Joyce”

  1. I loooove books as you know, but will add that there is some pretty high quality TV these days that is not on PBS. A great show approached with focus and a mindset of savoring can be as rewarding as a book! (Instagram however … I have not found that to be the case. Of course, everyone’s mileage may vary!).

    1. @SHU – of course! There’s lots of great TV, and lots of great books. It does seem a bit skewed to me that the average person would read for a few minutes a day and watch TV for several hours. Of course, as an author, I am interested in increasing the market for books… 🙂

  2. I read a lot of popular fiction but I’ve been wanting to read more classics. I recently started listening to my first audio book and I chose Anna Karenina. My app says it is 35 hours of listening. I was wondering if I wanted to invest 35 hours of my time listening to this. But the chapters are short. I can listen to a 5 minute chapter on my short commute to work and another one on the way home. Over the weekend, I listened for an hour while I did housework. I can listen while I ride my elliptical machine. Most weeknights I spend at least an hour watching the Food Network or HGTV. If I spend an hour a night listening instead, I could have this done in a month. And if I like it, I could try to tackle War and Peace (or my husband’s favorite classic, The Brothers Karamozov.)

    1. @Linda M – Anna Karenina is a great book. I read it while I was commuting to/from my first post college job. That was about an hour a day, plus weekend time (as a 22-year-old young person, I didn’t have much else going on). It went pretty swiftly! I think of that time as my last golden age of reading before now. I hope you are loving it.

  3. This year I finally read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth inspired by Modern Mrs Darcy’s reading challenge. 1488 pages softcover. Reading brings me more joy than most other hobbies. Also enjoying Off the Clock right now.

    1. @Janice – that is on my list, as a lot of people have mentioned it. And so glad you are enjoying Off the Clock!

    2. I came here to mention this one too! It’s one of my absolute favorites though I find that it can be pretty divisive.

  4. I entirely agree that we can “switch” our view of how much time we have for hobbies and leisure once we realize that we spend 1 hour on Facebook and another mindlessly watching tv. It is a choice (once you do have leisure time, which is not true of everybody, for example single parents with small children). I checked my “Goodreads” site and the number of books I have read every year as increased steadily from ONE in 2005 (when our son was born) to 10 when he was 5, then 10 a year, and now to around 20-25 books a year. I can attribute this rise to the fact that I have more mental energy than when we was an infant, but the main difference is actually that I now make a conscious efforts to read ( I also set a challenge for how many books I can read in a year, and I like that kind of thing). The longest book I read is, also according to Goodreads, “A Storm of swords” by George R.R. Martin, with 1178 pages, although that same year , I also read “A game of thrones” at 848 pages, “A clash of kings” at 763 pages, the Hunger games trilogy and an Henning Mankell trilogy of around 1000 pages, among others. That year. So I agree, if its good, it does not matter if its long 🙂

    1. @Nadia – yep, long isn’t a problem if it’s good! And yes, some people have a lot less free time than others, but a key part of the reading habit is noticing when those old stories are no longer true. One of the most voracious readers I studied for I Know How She Does It (in terms of hours/week) told me she had read a lot less when her son was little and he had some specific medical needs she needed to deal with. But when she kept her time log, he was a pre-teen and time had opened up a lot. And she made sure to use it for reading.

  5. I think the longest book I’ve ever read is Vanity Fair — I haven’t done any sort of stats check, but boy, did it ever feel long! I’d like to reread it at some point, but it’s not a priority 🙂 Totally agree that people can read much more than they think they do, and to the parents who bemoan not having time to read, just tell yourself reading for pleasure (for your own pleasure) in front of your kids is modeling great behavior and will help contribute to your own children’s enjoyment of reading (true facts. I don’t have a citation in front of me, but you can trust me — I’m a librarian 🙂 )

    1. @Meghan – I totally believe that it’s helpful for kids to see their parents reading. They come to see reading as what one does in leisure time, and understand the process of figuring out what they’d like to read, and procuring those books. It’s a habit like any other.

  6. I’ve been a bookworm my whole life, and as a teenager, I would spent time reading the classics—“War and Peace,” “Crime and Punishment,” and so on. As a college student my favorite author was Henry James. However, and here’s my question, at age 72, I don’t think that I can twist my brain around Henry James any more. Ditto for Charles Dickens, ditto for Anna Karenina (though I’ve always believed that every woman should read it AND Madame Bovary once a decade—I did it for three or four decades). Whether it’s the mush of aging, or the pampering of the latest mystery, or vision-related, I’m not sure. Is there anyone out there that’s had the same experience?

    1. @Jane – ooh, interesting discovery. I do think that vision plays a big role in how comfortable reading feels, and it’s hard to enjoy doing something for an hour a day if it feels uncomfortable.

      But, that aside, I think you’ve earned the right to read whatever you want 🙂

  7. I had to check my Goodreads stats. The longest book I’ve read is Les Misérables at 1,463 pages. I’ve tried tackling both War and Peace and Ulysses at different times and haven’t gotten past the first few chapters. I’ve had a few books like that in my life, for which it wasn’t until the third or fourth try that I got all the way through and they ended up becoming favorites. They are on my list to get back to at some point!

    1. Now that I look a little more closely, 2011 was a really good year for my reading. I read 43 books that year, which besides Les Miserables included Gone With the Wind, The Count of Monte Cristo (two more 1000+ page books), the entire Song of Ice and Fire series (i.e., Game of Thrones), Ben-Hur, Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think!

    2. @Gisela- I had tried W&P before too (when I opened the book, a plane ticket from 2002 in Thailand fell out!) I got 200 pages in and felt it was too much book. But this time I had warmed up, as it were, with Kristin Lavransdatter and 1Q84 (plus Team of Rivals, Annals of the Former World…) and so I was prepared for long. Plus I wound up reading it on the Kindle instead of my paperback, so I was able to fit in bits and pieces here and there when taking out a 1500-page book would have looked…strange.

  8. Reading Joyce was terrible. I powered through “Portrait of an artist” but couldn’t finish Ulysses. And that’s with being in the army and having time where I could laterally do nothing other than read, sleep or stare at the wall. Tosltoy is a better choice for sure, but I’m not sure you can read his books in short spurs. It’s pretty easy to get lost with all the names and characters.

    I often hear the talk about TV vs book reading, and I definitely think you should do what YOU like with YOUR spare time. But for the side of books, I would like to point out that most people don’t snack while reading. Whereas watching television often comes with a side of late night indulgences. It’s one of the reasons I cut down my TV time.

    1. @Sophie – that is saying something about Joyce, when staring at the wall seems preferable! I don’t really snack while reading, but I will sometimes have a glass of wine while reading so I’m not sure how the calories come out…

  9. You’ve inspired me to read longer books.–if a mother of four who runs regularly and works as a writer and public speaker can do it, so can I! I’ve always loved to read, and mostly have more than one book on the go at once. To finish a long book, I usually set per day or per week page goals (10 pages a day, or 50 pages a week or similar) so if I struggle with the book I won’t feel like all my reading time is no fun. I finished Great Expectations this way. It’s not that long, but I found it boring. I don’t always finish a book I don’t like, but I was committed to finishing GE! For The Great American Read, I tackled Stephen King’s The Stand: more than 1,000 pages, but extremely readable if intense.

    1. @Kathy- I might tackle one of Stephen King’s books sometime. I have a hard time reading more than one book at a time – which is a problem as I’m 80% of the way through Infinite Jest and want to finish, but I have a professional obligation to write and review a book this week!

  10. I have always thought that “I don’t have enough time to read!” Was a lame excuse. Even 10 minutes a day will enable someone to finish a book over time and still remember what they read the day before. People also have hang ups about not reading “serious literature “. Who cares!? Read what you like. I have read and still read everything from the classics to Harlequin Romances. So get reading!!

  11. When I was posted at the US Embassy in Moscow (I was in the US Foreign Service), I decided it was the perfect time to tackle War and Peace. But, with a demanding job, I knew that there might be some days I could read ten pages and some days I could get through more. Not wanting to lose the thread of the story (which is easy to do!), I bought the BBC 20+ hour DVD set (which starred a very young Anthony Hopkins), bought the Cliff notes, and jumped in. It might be “cheating,” but I found I got so much more out of the book when I consulted the Cliff Notes first for the chapter I was reading, then read the book, and finally watched the corresponding BBC segment. I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful novel and remember most of the book twenty years later. I remember reading the book on the train traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Four Russian men, sitting across the aisle from me at a table, saw what I was reading and, in halting English, they enthusiastically talked to me about Tolstoy. I also visited landmarks frequented by Tolstoy, including his home outside of Moscow. Good memories…..

    Now if I could just get through Middlemarch. I have attempted to read that book so many times and cannot, for the life of me, get interested in it.

    1. @Joan- I don’t think this is cheating at all! I think you get a lot more out of books like this by reading some of the commentary on it, or even the Wikipedia page, so you can keep track of characters. If you were reading it as part of a class, your professor would help with that, so why not do it on your own? I definitely kept referring to Wikipedia for W&P and KL when I was having trouble keeping minor plot lines and characters straight. Same with Middlemarch. That one took me a long time to get through. I was setting goals (e.g., read 20% this week) up until at least halfway through before I started wanting to read it.

  12. I didn’t know you could sort Goodreads by #of pages – learn something new every day!
    Apparently my longest is “War and Peace”….though the one that *felt* the longest has to be “Moby Dick”. Just horrible. Whale facts
    I love long books – when I’m enjoying them!

  13. I didn’t know you could sort Goodreads by #of pages – learn something new every day!
    Apparently my longest is “War and Peace”….though the one that *felt* the longest has to be “Moby Dick”. Just horrible. Whale facts ***shudder***
    I love long books – when I’m enjoying them!

    1. @ErinH – ok, I LOVED the whale facts in Moby Dick. I think of them as “set pieces” and they gave some color to the reading experience. But I do see how others might find them a strange distraction from the plot. (I try to keep in mind with 19th century writers that they were the day’s cable – they’re trying to provide entertainment to fill the hours, not competing with a million other things people could have been doing).

  14. I’m a college professor, specializing in Victorian literature, and sometime in graduate school I stopped reading many new novels since I felt all my reading time needed to be focusing on whatever Dickens or Thackeray I hadn’t read yet. A couple of years ago I started listening to audiobooks if I wanted to indulge in the latest bestseller, and it’s totally amazing how much you can listen to while walking the dog or doing dishes. Even with a two-year old and a full time job (and reading to prep for the class, which I do after the two-year old goes to bed), I’ve found so much more time to read for fun.

    I do sympathize on the long books being intimidating–I think I lost my students on Vanity Fair this past semester (though it’s been successful in the past).

  15. Perfect summary of reading Joyce. For reasons that have nothing to do with my own interests, I spent way too much time in grad school reading Ulysses. The unfortunate truth about it is that you don’t really start to get it until your third time through, and with all the great books out there, who the heck has time to read it more than once? It’s not even something you can drop into conversation without sounding like a complete snob—other than this comment, I haven’t mentioned it in years now. So, yeah, spend your time elsewhere.

  16. I’ve only been keeping track of my reading for the past few years. The longest so far this year is David Copperfield which I loved, especially after I hit the midpoint.

  17. Yep, it’s the magic of incremental effort! I’ve found the most effective way to read more is to put it on my daily to-do list: floss teeth, buy groceries, read book. It just becomes a non-negotiable part of my day. Some people might hate making it a “chore”, but I find it makes me more fiercely protective of the time I spend reading (“No, I’m not ‘just’ reading, this is something I HAVE to do!”). I just recently finished The Life And Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and that felt like a suuuuper long read. I also read Moby Dick a while back, which was about the same length I think. Both of them got read little by little, as you described. I’m planning on reading Don Quixote before the end of the year, which is going to be the longest one I’ve ever tackled, wish me luck! (Ulysses is also on my list too… eek!)

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