The Sunday Salon: I can’t read it all, but I sure can analyze it

Happy Easter!  I hope you are having a lovely weekend regardless of whether you celebrate the holiday.

Have you ever thought about just how many books are out there, clamoring for your attention, and waiting to be read?  Do you realize that no matter how hard you try, you will never be able to read it all?  How do you deal with that?  This week National Public Radio informed me that “The vast majority of the world’s books, music, films, television and art, you will never see,” and suggested two coping strategies:  culling, and surrender:

Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time. … Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read.

I’m somewhere on the journey between culling and surrender, I think.  Intellectually I realize I don’t have time to read everything.  But I still feel pangs about that, and ease those feelings by mental culling.  For example, a couple of years ago I stopped trying to read authors from all 192 countries in the world.  It was fun for a while, but then it wasn’t.  Reading one author from Azerbaijan can’t possibly give me a sense of the country’s complete literary oeuvre, and I just can’t read it all.

But I do enjoy thinking about it, coming up with schemes for tackling all the world’s literature, and then analyzing the heck out of it.  And between LibraryThing and my handy spreadsheet, boy can I analyze!  This week LibraryThing rolled out new physical description fields.  There are lots of useful things librarians and ordinary people can do with this data (more on that in a minute), but it also lends itself to some fun statistics.  For example …

My library’s weight represents only 0.059 elephants, but that same weight in gold is worth nearly $9 million.  I would need 4.58 Ikea Billy bookcases to display my books, or 22 U-Haul book boxes if I were moving house.  And if I were to create a giant book stack it would be nearly 70 feet tall — just taller than Cleopatra’s Needle, and a few feet shy of the Sphinx.  Here’s how my books “stack up” against a whole bunch of landmarks (my books appear in blue, with a double-decker bus on the far left, and Niagara Falls on the far right):

So that’s fun, but I’m also excited — if that’s the right word — about the pagination field (even as I wrote that sentence, I realized what a total geek I am).  My spreadsheet keeps track of the books I read each year, and the number of pages in each book.  Now for the first time I have a view of my complete library, and I’m fascinated to find the distribution is nearly the same as the chunkiness of my 2010 reading.

If only LibraryThing allowed me to export these new fields, I could have a lot of fun doing more analysis.  But perhaps NPR’s wisdom should apply here as well.

Surrender: you can’t analyze it all.


Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

16 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: I can’t read it all, but I sure can analyze it

    • Amanda, same here. I never really thought I could or would read everything, but even acknowledging that it’s still too easy & tempting to set other ridiculous and unachievable goals!

  1. Oh, how very fun. I used goodreads, and I’m not sure they have all those statistics, but I’ll have to check it out. I read the article you’re talking about on NPR as well. I’m a surrenderer, and as I told my friend (who was deeply depressed by knowing how very much he would never be able to read) I’m overjoyed at knowing I’ll never read anything. There will always be more interesting books out there! Thank goodness!

  2. A fun post! Glad you’re enjoying the new features on LibraryThing. They must have fun coming up with different ways to splice and dice our library data!

    Happy Easter!

  3. I have come to terms with not even being able to read all the books I WANT to read…and I’m even now able to close a book and not finish it, since I don’t want to waste time on books that are dull, or obnoxious, or whatever….

    I like your spreadsheet. My less-impressive way of keeping track is through my Works docs, which actually sort the items I enter, so they’re in alphabetical order. I can add a few facts after each book.

    But I then track books read, review books, books purchased, etc., on pages at one of my blogs. I put in links to my reviews.

    I’ll have to check out those features on Library Thing.


    • Laurel-Rain, it’s great to be able to close a book you’re not enjoying. I used to have difficulty with that, too, but then when I think about how much else is out there waiting to be read, it does become easier to set a bad book aside.

  4. When I was a young ‘un, I set out to read the best literature from all of the major European countries. I realised by about 19 that England alone would keep me busy for the rest of my life and that my project was fairly unrealistic. But by time that realisation sunk in, I had read many of the greats of Russian, French, German and English literature, setting myself on a lifelong journey of reading and exploring. My four year membership at LibraryThing has opened up the world even further, with forays into Japanese, Indian, Arab and Eastern European literatures.

    True, Laura, that we know that we don’t have an entire culture captured with one book but we do have a taste, a slight broadening of our experience and our minds. I like to think it’s cumulative and that although I live in small town Ontario land, I don’t have a small town outlook on things as a result.

    As for projects now, I the days I have left I want to read books that make my soul sing, my mind creak open wider, my funny bits shake with laughter…books which speak to our common humanity and the hope that there really are parts of it which are worthwhile.

    As for getting excited about pagination, I’ve always suspected that if geeks ran the world, we’d be too busy with stuff like this to fight wars or sabre rattle.

  5. I knew about those new stats on LT but hadn’t checked them out yet, so thanks for the nudge – they’re fun!

    My book stack would be taller than the Sphinx but shorter than the Statue of Liberty; would fill 7.7 Ikea BILLY bookcases; and would require 37.8 U-Haul packing boxes. That’s probably all overstated, since my LT library includes books I don’t physically possess any more, but it could be useful for planning if and when we (ugh) have to pack for another move!

    • Florinda, that’s quite a pile of books! I confess my LT library includes books I no longer own too … but there are also shelves & shelves that I’ve never cataloged, because I see them more as my husband’s books. I’m glad I’m not planning on moving anytime soon!

  6. Isn’t it so much fun to think about books? Obviously I enjoy reading, or I wouldn’t do so much of it, but I really love unread books. I like to hold them and look at them and think of all the potential they have inside.

    Check out my Sunday Salon post here.

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