Every so often, I come across a repeated sentiment expressed by different people at different times. “It’s far more impressive,” they might say, “to read 3-5 excellent books well in a year, than to boast of reading 100-plus books.” While many people today are making Twitter threads tracking their reading through the year, or pursuing lofty Goodreads Reading Challenges in the double or triple digits, these folks see such speedy reading as indicative either of misplaced priorities or even of a failure to read well. If only a small handful of truly good books can be read well in a single year, are the people with long book lists simply poor readers, squanderers of their time?
Here, I would like to defend voracious reading against its detractors. There is nothing wrong with reading a book or more per week.
I find myself in an interesting position in these conversations because, more often than not, I share some key assumptions with those who dismiss heavy reading loads as unimpressive. Quite often, these people are defenders of the “Great Books” or the “Western Canon,” advocates of a set of classic and timeless texts as touchstones for educating free citizens. So far, I am with them: along with the likes of Mortimer Adler and more recent defenders like Roosevelt Montás, I can heartily recommend a Great Books reading list to any and all who wish to expand their horizons, challenge themselves, and wrestle with perennial questions. But as someone who has, for most of his life, left libraries with stacks of a dozen or more books, only to return for more of the same, I cannot and will not co-sign an indictment of voracious reading.
Responding to these critics requires some awareness of both why we read, and what we read. I phrase the “why” and the “what” in this order intentionally, because “why we read” will naturally inform “what we read.” If I am reading with the purpose of learning a particular skill, my reading list will follow from the purpose. If I am reading with the purpose of shoring up ignorance of a particular knowledge area, my reading list will likewise follow. If I am reading for the sheer pleasure of immersing myself in a story, expanding my horizons, and encountering new tales, the reading will follow.
So, why do I read? That depends. Any given day, I might be reading for a particular research project that requires me to gain familiarity with thinkers, authors, and historical events of which I am ignorant. I might be reading an assigned text for a discussion seminar, or a paper to review for an academic journal. I might be reading to prepare for a course I am teaching in the fall. But on many occasions, I am reading simply for the pleasure of the thing.