A little learning is a dang’rous thing ;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

- Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

“...Adults don’t respect me enough to really talk to me. And frankly, even if they did, they wouldn’t sound as smart as Richard Feynman, so I might as well read something Richard Feynman wrote instead.”
- Eliezer Yudkowsky, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

 

I love to read. To me, there is hardly anything more pleasurable than sitting on a couch and letting a skilled author weave a universe inside of my brain. In fact, if I am not sleeping, it is more likely than not that I am reading a book. On days in which I do not have the opportunity to pick up a book -- of which there are thankfully few -- I feel physical discomfort, like a heroin addict pining for his next hit.

For book lovers, there has never been a better time to be alive. Anyone with an Internet connection has essentially on-demand access to the vast majority of works that have ever been published. The Library of Babel[1] has arrived, and it fits in our collective pocket. But this embarrassment of literary riches comes at a cost: analysis paralysis. Given that we now have access to a far greater number of books than any one of us can read in a lifetime, how are we to decide what is worth our time to read?[2]

Indeed, the question of what books are worth reading is more important than one might think, given that people read far fewer books over the course of their lives than they might initially imagine. A certain masochistic subset of readers (of which I count myself a member) has even gone through the trouble of using actuarial data to estimate how many books one can reasonably expect to read over one’s lifespan.[3] Spoiler alert: the answer is depressingly small.[4] Essentially, an average reader, say, someone who reads a dozen books a year, will only read a few hundred books in his or her life. An above average reader might make it into the low thousands. And only the most voracious readers, that is, those who read more than a hundred books a year (or several books a week!), stand any chance of getting into the vaunted realm of quintuple digits.[5]

Accordingly, given the fact that even a lifetime’s worth of avid reading might encompass only an infinitesimal speck of  the full human literary corpus, what is a budding bibliophile to do? I decided that (rather than find a new hobby) I would double down and try to read a new book every single day.[6]  Shoot for the moon to land among the stars and all that. Having thus decided on my mission, I sought a list of worthwhile books that it would even be possible to read in a single day. Given the number of people on this planet, I was somewhat surprised to find that no one had ventured to compile such a list. There was certainly no shortage of ‘greatest’ lists; it seemed as if most major publications had, at one point or another, compiled a ‘100 greatest books’ list, whether through an earnest effort to determine history’s greatest works or a cynical effort to generate ad revenue from click-happy listophiles (guilty as charged). However, I was unable to find any list that touched upon the lengths of any of the books being discussed.[7]

I concluded that if I wanted a list of books of high quality that could be read in a single day, I would have to compile such a list myself.  So I scoured the Internet for lists of books, both fiction and nonfiction,  that were considered ‘classic’ or ‘indispensable.’ Using this wisdom-of-crowds approach, I was able to stitch together a master list of several thousand meritorious books. I then fed this list into a ruby script that I wrote that would gather data (slowly, so as not to get rate limited!) using a few book-related APIs.[8] In this way, I was able to build a database of the information I needed to generate my list. I then devised a simple formula (basically, the average user rating of a book divided by the number of pages), that would rank the books in order that I should read them, and, most importantly, would tell me which books it was possible to read in a single day.

I am now on day 29 of my book-a-day project and I am enjoying every minute. There are many areas for potential improvement of my list. For example, I would like to incorporate readability data, perhaps using something like the Coleman-Liau Index[9], so that I can use readability as a future sorting criterion. I would also like to gather more information about years of publication, so that I can determine which works are free from copyright restrictions. Finally, and most importantly, I intend to make my list publicly available, probably in the form of a gigantic static HTML table, or a shared Google spreadsheet, so that others like me might benefit from it.

-----------

[1] See https://hyperdiscordia.church/library_of_babel.html for the Borges story; see also https://libraryofbabel.info for an attempt to bring the story to fruition.

[2] Gone are the days in which it was possible for a single individual to credibly claim to have obtained all available human knowledge. See, e.g., https://connieberry.com/2014/05/21/the-last-man-who-knew-everything/

[3] See https://media.bookbub.com/blog/2017/03/22/news-study-how-many-books-we-read-in-a-lifetime

[4] As I understand things -- barring unforeseen medical breakthroughs or the singularity -- I’m going to die eventually, and probably a lot sooner than I would like.

[5] See https://medium.com/the-polymath-project/alan-kay-on-how-many-books-you-can-read-in-a-lifetime-e0f08682b13d which quotes liberally from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11805586 ; see also https://medium.com/@alan.viewpoints/just-a-few-corrections-here-76bc29e3bcdb

[6] Several years ago, when I was a law student, I would study by making audio recordings all of my classes, which I would then listen to repeatedly.  I found that I could increase the playback speed of the recordings without my comprehension of the material suffering. Gradually, I built up the speed at which I was able to comfortably listen to these recordings to around 3X. Around the same time, I experimented with different ways of consuming e-books. I discovered an iPhone app called Voice Dream Reader, which is marketed primarily to people with disabilities.  Although I have never been diagnosed with any reading-related disability, I found Voice Dream Reader extremely useful; having a synthesized voice read the text at the same time as I was reading it with my eyes increased my comprehension and reading speed. Using e-reading software had the added benefit of built-in dictionary, highlighting, and note-taking functionality. Having now used Voice Dream Reader for several years as my primary reading app, I can comfortably read fiction at around 400 WPM and non-fiction at around 550 WPM. This is all a long way of saying that when I talk about books that it is possible to read in a single day, I am using my own reading speed as a guide. YMMV.

[7] I wonder if perhaps the canon of books considered ‘classic’ is skewed toward longer works.

[8] Specifically, I used the Google Books API for information concerning page count, and the Goodreads API for information concerning individual readers’ ratings of books.

[9] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coleman%E2%80%93Liau_index

 

Comment