Columns > Published on June 23rd, 2020

How Many Books Will You Read Before You Die?

Recent life events. We’ve all had a lot of shit that could fall under “recent life events,” eh? 2020 is the year of “recent life events.”

Recent life events got me thinking about death and what I’d like to do before I die.

Among other things that don’t warrant mentioning, owning a stand-up arcade machine, and figuring out how to make cats immortal (in a good way, not an evil, Twilight Zone way), I want to read all the shit I want to read.

The question, then: How Many Books Can I Read In My Lifetime? And to make it useful for you, How Many Book Can You Read In Yours?

Quick and Dirty

Maybe getting a number right now is better than getting a number that’s hyper-accurate. Maybe you want to start reading.

Here’s a quick and dirty equation. If you want something more accurate, follow me down the rabbit hole, tailor everything to your specifics, and get a better idea. See how different the two numbers are, and let me know.

Just know that this version is meant to be the average, and the average is probably going to deviate from your real number for any number of reasons.

Calculate Your Number:

Step 1: 80 minus [your current age] equals the number of reading years you have left (adjust 80 to your projected lifespan).

Step 2: Multiply by 365 to get the number of reading days you’ve got left.

Step 3: Multiply by [number of minutes you estimate you read per day] to get the reading minutes left in your life.

Step 4: Divide by 60 (to turn the minutes into hours).

Result: The number of reading hours you have left in your life, which we’ll call Y.

Step 5: Divide by average book time, in hours:

  • If you’re an average reader: 15 hours
  • If you’re fast or often read short books, comics, and poetry: 6
  • If you have no earthly idea: 10 hours
  • Result: X

Final: Y (reading hours you have left) divided by X (number of hours per book) = The Number of Books You’ve Got Left In You

As an example:

Step 1: 80 years - 36 years (current age) = 44 years left.

Step 2: Multiplied by 365 = 16,060 reading days left in my life.

Step 3: Multiplied by number of reading minutes per day, 60 in my case: 96,3600

Step 4: Divide by 60 to get the number in hours: 16,060 (note that this is the same number from step 2 for me, but if you read any number other than 60, this step is necessary).

Step 5: Divide by average book time. I put mine at 6 because I read a lot of comics: 2,676.

So, the quick and dirty math: 2,676 books left in my life.

How do I get there? How do I feel about it? Read on.

Part 1: How Fast Do I Read?

A per-page or per-word average would be better for estimating how long a particular book might take you, but that's not what we're looking at here.

You’re coming along for the in-depth, ride, eh? Alright, buckle up.

The first step is figuring reading speed as a per-book average. This would be more accurate on a per word basis, perhaps, but who is going to look up the word count of every book on their to-read list? If you’re over a dozen books on your to-read list, looking up word counts is a shitload of work. The amount of time you spend doing that is better spent reading. 

You might also be better off with a per-page average, but I still advocate for a good per-book average for the sake of speed. Besides, pages are not all equal, and reading some books is faster or slower depending on how dense they are.

Eyes on the prize, a per-book average suits me just fine, and the hours I’d spend figuring out a more exact speed are hours I could spend reading, which is the goal. A per-page or per-word average would be better for estimating how long a particular book might take you, but that's not what we're looking at here.

I put a per-book average at 15 hours. Here’s how I got there.

4 speed-calculation options:

Time yourself reading your next 10 books. This is the most accurate, most time-consuming method. Try and read a range of lengths in your next 10, and try to read naturally, not for speed. If you want to do this down the road, start tracking what you read, and write down a time estimate once you finish.

Check the audiobook length of 10 books of varying length. Your reading time will almost certainly be shorter. Reading in the head is quicker than someone reading aloud and performing. But, take the total audiobook time, reduce by 30-50%, and call it a day. Average audiobook reader speed is something like 150 words/minute, which is something like half as fast as a typical reader.

Check your actual stats: If you use a Kobo or some other readers, other than Kindle, you might find that your reader keeps stats on your reading time for various titles.

Take a test online: I took one that told me I read 369 words/minute. Now the hard thing here, you have to figure out a conversion of words to books. Also, when you’re reading for a speed test, it’s like walking when you’re directed to “walk casually” in video. It’s hard to do it naturally. I’m guessing my average reading speed is closer to 300 words/minute.

I decided to combine two of these four methods in order to come out with the average per-book time.

First, I did a speed test online that gave me a per-word speed. Then I gathered 10 random-ish books that I found page numbers for. Then, I figured it with a 300 word-per-minute speed and a 250 word-per-minute-speed. The 250 came out to 12 hours per book, the 300 puts me at 10.45. So, average the two, we get 11 hours per book.

Second, I used the audiobook times for those same 10 books. This gave me 16 hours per book when I took a third off the time, 11.5 hours when I went 50%. Average those two, we get 14. 

If I put the audio method and the page method together, I get a lucky 13 hours per book.

Per-Book Average: 13 hours.

Part 2: The Comic Book Allowance

I read a lot of comics, and I’m of the opinion that comics count. I don’t separate them into a different to-read list, so I needed to shorten the length of time on my per-book average. Because the graphic novels and trade paperbacks I read are closer to an hour. So I went ahead and took my time down to 6 hours per book, just under half, because I probably read 2 comics for every full-length book.

If you read a lot of comics, or maybe poetry or novellas, you should definitely make a reduction. Or, if you read a lot of dense, academic texts, a lot of classics, you might bump it up a little.

New Per-Book Average: 6 hours.

Part 3: How Much Time Do I Spend Reading?

I’m a binge drinker. READER. Sorry. You type something enough times, heh, muscle memory, you know?

I’ll read very little one month, then binge the next.

I also read a lot more when I’m off work, traveling, whatever. So this is tough for me.

Maybe it's tough because I feel like I’m confessing something when I say I’d put my average at 45 minutes per day.

However, I’m going to play a little Idealistic Pete. Ideally, the older I get, the more leisure time I have, and the more I’ll read. It’s a little bit of a gamble, but hey, so is having a retirement account based in stocks! Haha! It’s not funny! It’s like walking into Atlantic City and putting your entire old age on black! Whee!

Let’s put it at 60 minutes a day ideally, when we add in some longer reading days as I (hopefully, god willing) move into retirement. An hour a day seems like a good mix between an average and a goal.

Part 4: How long do I have left?

The most fun part, let’s talk about when I’ll die.

There are a lot of different ways to look up your life expectancy. I usually vet the accuracy of online tests based on the number of sidebar ads that feature busty models with text like "You won't believe what she looks like now!"

This one is the best. Because it put me at 98.

One BMI calculator put me at 83.3. Although I think BMI science is pretty fuzzy, there’s a lot of correlative data, so it’s something.

The other numbers I got were 91, 81.6, 87, and 76.4.

Overall, I end up at about 85. Which seems fair. And I’m a pessimist, which means 80 seems like a good target. Anything beyond that is garbage time, as they say. Maybe I don't make it, maybe I make it and trade in the book learnin' for hard drugs. 

If you don’t want to run through the tests yourself, knock a few years off 80 if you’re diabetic, have an ongoing health issue, or plow down a sack of Doritos every few days. If you’re a lady, go 87.

The Math

80 years minus the 36 I've already squandered is 44. Times 365 days equals 16,060 days. 1 hour per day gives me 16,060 hours of reading time left. Divide by per book average of 6, drumroll, 2,676. Rounded down.

WRINKLE: Goodreads

And maybe seeing the parameters of your life set out in black and white makes it all seem a little pathetic and pointless.

There is another method that should be considered with the per-book time average.

I track what I read every year on Goodreads. The numbers there give me an average of about 100 books per year. If I took that to my likely lifespan, another 44 years, I get 4,400 books.

This is much higher than my pseudo-scientific estimates, which is proof of either my pessimism or low self-esteem.

The Goodreads number might be a little inflated because I’ll often read some children’s books or like a Choose Your Own Adventure or something, and that gets counted in the goal.

That said, putting both numbers together, the speed calculation and the average from the last several years, gives me another data point. So let’s get sloppy and find a number in the middle: 3,000.

What's 3,000 Books Mean?

I’ve got about 2,500 books on my to-read list. So on the plus, I'm looking pretty good there. But there’s not a lot of wiggle room for new shit. Barring basically every good author succumbing to plague in the last couple months, I MIGHT need to add some more titles.

But 3,000? That’s a good number of books. Possibilities are endless.

At the same time, it’s a little like that old question: Would you want to know the moment you're going to die? Do you really want to know how many books you’ll get through?

Maybe it helps you make good decisions. Maybe it helps you get into the mindset of, “If my next read was going to be my last, what would it be?” Maybe that’s a good thing.

And maybe seeing the parameters of your life set out in black and white makes it all seem a little pathetic and pointless.

Boy, that’d be a real downer to end a column on.

Buy The Math of Life and Death: 7 Mathematical Principles That Shape Our Lives by Kit Yates at Bookshop or Amazon

Buy Humble Pi: When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World by Matt Parker at Bookshop or Amazon

Buy The Grapes of Math: How Life Reflects Numbers and Numbers Reflect Life by Alex Bellos at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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