How Many Books Will You Read Before You Die?

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.

13 Responses to “How Many Books Will You Read Before You Die?”

  1. Bryce Moore says:

    I’m just banking on the fact that we can still read books *after* we die. Then maybe I’ll finally catch up on everything I’m behind on, and that would feel like heaven in and of itself.

  2. Great post! I had this same realization a couple of years ago and blogged about it. I’ve kept a book diary for several years, so I know how many books I’m getting through. (I need to update Goodreads.) Every year, I set my goal a little bit higher. I also plan to die with a book in my hand. :)

  3. About 637.2 more books, assuming the werewolves from one of your books don’t come to eat me first.

  4. Alissa says:

    I think you should round up. I know I wouldn’t die until I got to the end of a book…it would keep me alive because I would want to know what happened (like not going to sleep until I finish because I just HAVE to know…this is assuming I die of natural causes-old age in my bed type thing). So I guess I might die dramatically at the end of a book. :)

  5. t.j. schutt says:

    i wouldn’t so much care if i didn’t find anything better than what i already love, as long as something i love was the last thing i saw….or read, or whatever.

  6. Eliza says:

    “scare yourself, not just into reading more books, but into reading good books”

    I completely agree. When I was younger it was harder for me to put down a book, even if I hated it. As I’ve aged, and also gotten less time in my day to dedicate to reading, I’ve realized that there just isn’t enough incentive to read something I don’t love. Now, I put down books a page in, or halfway through, whenever I get to the point where it hurts more to pick up the book and read, than it does to ignore it.

    This begs the question-if you knew you had enough time to read one more book, what would you choose?

  7. Dang. I need more audiobooks since I can get through more of those in a month. I hope The Hollow City audiobook is done soon.

  8. That was a very cool and very interesting post! I finally subscribed to audible so that I could start reading more of the books that I really want to read. I can get loads of free audio books from my public library, even some current fiction, but they don’t have you or much of the current Sci-Fi and Fantasy I really want to read. Thanks for the awesome post!

  9. Oraymw says:

    2376.96 books left. Also, I’m hoping that about 30-50 of those will be yours :)

    Of course, I’m also an aggressive book dropper, and I tend to drop about as many or maybe a little more books than I finish. Which means that I’ll probably put down 2674.08 books in the rest of my life.

    Altogether, that means that I’ll have had the experience of tasting 5051.04 books in the rest of my life. “And that is an encouraging thought.”

  10. Suey says:

    Oh boy, now I feel a bit panicky.

  11. Kashmir says:

    9,993.6 :) My life expectancy in Ohio is only 77.52 years or it could have been more. I’m a voracious reader – I rounded it out to 15 a month. Dan, I read Partials, I Am Not A Serial Killer, Mr. Monster and I Don’t Want To Kill You all in about a week, maybe a week and a half because I had to wait on one of them to come in at the library. I wish there was a job where I could just read great books all day. Talk about dream jobs!

  12. Well hey, there’s your .6. You go through 10% of six books (just far enough into a book to know for sure it’s not worth reading), and you’ll hit your .6 in no time. Of course, then you’ll have to make sure to only START really good books after that, or you’ll have to cycle through ten more bad books to keep from landing on a fraction again. Wouldn’t it be great to have the book in your dying hands fall to the ground on the last page? Talk about dying with your books on!

  13. Rose says:

    Mine is 6, 345.6 and I rounded the amount of books I read per month down to 8, it’s usually more but I’ve so many exams this year.

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