24 July 2011

I read that 97.63% of statistics are invented...

I have just re-read Larry's Party. I don't know how long it took me to read on my first or second times, but I do know that it was on each occasion longer than is usual for me. This time, though, I can pin it down fairly precisely. I picked it up to track down a quotation which I wanted to use in a comment to an Unreal Nature post on the 9th of July, and immediately went on to read it through ... so, fifteen days then.

Why so long, when I would normally expect to finish a book of its length within the day? Because the book is structurally episodic, presented as discrete components drawn from (almost) each of twenty years in the protagonist's internal life. Each component is written in a way which makes it perfectly viable as a separate short story, though it is intended as part of a single narrative. I felt, this time through as on each of the others, compelled to put the book down, to stop, think, digest, after each component.

It's a remarkable book. Highly recommended.

Fifteen days ... at that rate, if it were replicated in serial reading habits (it isn't, in fact, since I read other books through the "pauses for thought" in Larry), would equate to 24.3 books a year. I'm prompted to that meaningless piece of calculation by a statistic in the final section of Larry's Party: that, apparently, an average man (perhaps Canadian; perhaps universally; perhaps in the developed industrial world; it doesn't say) reads 4.3 books a year ... so my Larry rate, taken alone, would put me an exact twenty above some kind of average. That exact twenty was what piqued my curiosity.

There are, of course, a lot of variables. Thick books or thin ones? Fiction or nonfiction? One participant in a discussion thread on Amazon.co.uk (where totals vary from five to two hundred) points out that page count is probably a more reliable measure than book count. Matthew Revell reminded me, during a recent email conversation about eReaders, that those devices change the situation: he is reading far more now that he has a Kindle than he did before, simply because it has become easier to have a book with him always.

Seeking the origin of the 4.3 figure, I asked Wolfram|Alpha for average books read per year. Unfortunately, Alpha is not good at this sort of thing ... it defined "per year" for me instead, as a unit. However, there are other sources of information.

UNESCO monitors number of books published, by country, but that's not the same thing.

According to an Ipsos poll for AP, in 2007 the average USAmerican read more than this 4.3 figure. The estimated mean is given as 20.4, while the median (probably the measure intended by Larry's 4.3) is 6.5. More meaningful, perhaps, are the modal group of four or five, a clear modal bulge (48%) reading between three and ten, and an interquartile range (that is, the "middle half" of the population) falling between four and about eighteen books per year.

In the same year (2007) an online straw poll by The Student Room showed a mean of more than thirty two (projection of the data curve suggests that it may actually be around fifty) and a median in the upper twenties. This is a British forum, but never mind ... gives us the unsurprising suggestion that students read more than the average citizen (though the 5.6% who claimed not to read at all is worrying in a student poll!) A similar straw poll on Yahoo answers, a month ago, gave answers (ranging from 0-120) with a median somewhere around ten or twelve.

Britain's Michael Gove, has expressed the opinion that a school student should read fifty books per year. I am not a fan of this sort of "should" target, myself, an cannot see how it could possibly be enforced, although I confess I would like to see the number rise of its own accord.

  • Carol Shields, Larry’s party, 1997, London: Fourth Estate. 1857027051

1 comment:

Julie Heyward said...

I hate reading books straight through. I much prefer jumping around between somewhat related books because the mix is, to my mind, much more interesting than one single harangue. I also avoid fiction that really grabs me because I have no self control and will sit there reading "a little bit more" until I get to the end -- which will be at 2:00 AM -- which means the next day is shot (too). I do not function without my full quota of sleep. Plus it always seems to be the stupidest books that do that (murder mysteries, for example). Yes, I am an old fart.

Erm, the question was "how many?" I can only tell you that there are seven tall piles that are currently being fed upon. (Not counting the four piles under the bed -- the "put me to sleep" kind of books; for example the current snoozer is an enormous volume of excruciatingly close readings of Emily Dickinson's poetry. Works like a charm.)