I asked myself a simple question. Then I asked the only other person in the room. Neither of use really had an answer, so I did what humans are currently trained to do in situations like this. I googled the question.
I immediately ran into a paywall.
That didn’t stop me, and as I continued to research the question, “How many books do people read across a lifetime,” I discovered there really isn’t a good answer. There might be a good enough answer though, depending on your perspective.
Using a combination of public library resources and some more Google sleuthing, I came across a Pew Research Study widely cited by pretty much any article asking questions like this, or similar questions. Articles and blog posts referencing this study all point to the following –
People read an average (mean) of 12 books in 2016, the median was only 4 books per year.Pew Research Center, 2016
If you think this is low, then you’re probably not the average reader. But here’s the catch. If you actually read the Pew study, they write, “Among U.S. adults ages 18+ (including non-readers), the mean and median number of books read in whole or in part in the last year.” Let that sink in for a minute.
Most readers I know only consider a book read when they complete it in its entirety. All those Goodreads “DNF” (did not finish) tags are usually omitted. But not in the Pew Research Study!
The question remains however, so even when using the Pew Research Study to kind of sort of create a baseline like Emily Temple did over at Literary Hub, her estimates orient towards the future. They don’t account for the past, especially those pre-surveillance capitalism decades where the only way to track books read were good old pencil and paper (or old school Excel). So yeah, I honestly have no idea how many books people read over an entire lifetime.
I do know, though, that some dude published a fairly popular book called “The Lifetime Reading Plan”, a collection of suggested readings across genre and centuries that – theoretically – widens perspective and deepens knowledge. This tells me that there are people asking this kind of question and that somebody was smart enough to capitalize their curiosity.
So moving on, I guess the next question is this –
Does a lifetime reading plan actually lead to reading more books across a lifetime?