A few weeks ago I posted a formula on Facebook, calculating how many books you’ll read before you die. I’ve been getting some questions about it, so I thought I’d put it here so there’s a permanent link where people can find it. I heard this formula at the World Horror Convention in Brighton, England, from Scott Edelman, who got it from…I can never remember. He said it on a panel, and it’s haunted me ever since, and now it can haunt you.
I’ve simplified the formula a bit for maximum mathiness:
B = the number of books you read in a month
A = your current age
Y = your life expectancy
(Y-A)xBx12 = the number of books you’ll read before you die
So, for example, let’s say you’re me: I’m 35, I read about three books a month, and I’m from Utah (I currently live in Germany, but I just got here, so I’m going to use the Utah number). The American Human Development Project estimates the life expectancy of a Utahn at 80.1 years, which gives us:
(80.1-35)x3x12 = 1623.6 books
For worldwide life expectancy stats, based on country, use this table instead. I used the state-based one because I knew that Utah has a much higher life expectancy than the national average, which is 78.2 (and which drops all the way to 75.6 if you break it down by gender. Men always live noticeably shorter than women, on average). Using the worst possible estimate, 75.6, my number drops to 1461.6.
I was going to round 1623.6 down to 1623, because the thought of dying halfway through a book is pretty depressing, but the more I think about it, the thought of giving up before I reach the end is even more depressing, so I’ll leave the 0.6 on there. I will die with a book in my hand. But even this number isn’t super accurate, because today is not my birthday and I am not, therefore, exactly 35–I’m actually just a few days off of 35.5, which would give me (using the Utah data) 1605.6. I lost 17 books! Have I read those 17 books in the last six months? I’m not sure, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. Maybe my estimate of books per month is too high. If I drop it to two books per month my total becomes 1070.4. Ouch.
We could go on like this all day, tweaking the data, but consider two important things:
1) The number is not exact, and is not intended to be. The point is to give you a general idea of how many books you have left.
2) The only meaningful tweak you can make to the data is to read more books. Living healthier, moving to a country with a higher life expectancy; none of that will change the data as much as just reading one extra book per month.
Actually, consider one more important thing: the only possible reason for putting yourself through this grim mathematical ordeal is to scare yourself, not just into reading more books, but into reading good books. 1623.6 seems like a lot of books, and it’s certainly more than I have in my Goodreads library thus far, but…it’s finite. It seems obvious in hindsight, but I’d never really considered that there was an upper limit on my reading–I want to read everything. But unless I change my habits a bit I’ve only got 1623.6 books left. So yes, by all means, read more books and raise that number, but here’s the even bigger take-away for me: don’t waste any of those precious slots on lame books. Life is too short to force yourself to finish a book you don’t like. Whatever criteria you use, (I usually give a book two chapters before I give up, unless it’s been recommended by a trusted source), as soon as you know a book’s just not doing it for you, drop it and grab another one. Ever since I learned this formula I’ve been an aggressive book-dropper, and I’ve found that not only do I read a lot more, I enjoy the books I actually read a lot more than before. I’m reading more books, and better books, and a wider variety of books, because I’m always searching for my new favorite thing.
After all, if I still have more than half of my reading life ahead of me, the odds are good that my favorite book, and maybe my favorite genre, is something I haven’t even encountered yet.