Books in the Web Library

By Tomaiuolo, Nicholas G. | Searcher, April 2002 | Go to article overview
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Books in the Web Library


Tomaiuolo, Nicholas G., Searcher


How much time do you calculate people spend reading? Well, how many books do you read each year? How many books could or would you read if you had no financial or temporal constraints and could devote as much time as you desired to your avocation? Ten books? Fifty? Five hundred?

In October 1999, the Gallup News Service released the results of a poll asking these questions and tallying the responses of 1,698 Americans over the age of 18. The results showed that at least 84 percent of Americans had read "all or part" of one book during the previous year (and that number has stayed approximately the same for the past 20 years). Thirty percent of the public had read between one and five books, and 16 percent had read between six and 10 books; about 40 percent reported they had read more than 10 books in a year; and 7 percent read over 50 books in the past year [http://www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr991004b.asp].

Although individuals have many diversions open to them, on some of which they spend more time than ever before (television, Internet access, listening to music), according to the U.S. Census Bureau the reading habits of Americans remain steady. People have read about 100 hours a year for the last decade. The professional journalism magazine, Quill, distilled this information and stated that Americans spent 1,595 hours watching television in 1997 (or about 4.4 hours per day), but they read a book for only 17 minutes per day. Table one at right, derived from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2000, illustrates book reading compared with other types of leisure time activity preferences.

Readers concerned that they don't read enough should consider that, even with all the great literature in the world at hand, it would be difficult to tackle even the tip of the iceberg. A few years ago, when the Modern Library [http://www.randomhouse.com/modernlibrary/100best/novels.html] issued its Board's decision on the Top 100 Novels since 1900, led by James Joyce's Ulysses, many readers took exception with the list. But while browsing the online bookstore Amazon.com one day, I noticed a comment on the Modern Library's list made by novelist, essayist, and travel writer Paul Theroux (The Mosquito Coast, The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific, Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents, and others) that put the argument into perspective. Theroux wrote, "There is a lot of talk about books. This is often a silly and philistine activity. Much better to read the books -- not the 'Top 100' as listed by a lot of old buffers, but the top 10,000." Theroux's comment is also relevant to the vas tness of the reading material that is all around us.

Suppose that you had unlimited time to read. Suppose your goal is not only to divert yourself but also to expand your intellectual reach. Think about the great masterpieces of literature you may have already read. If you are like many people, you probably have already had a taste of Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, and perhaps Kafka, Poe, and Zola. What about the other classicists and classics you've yet to become familiar with? Plato, Homer, the Bhagavad-Gita, and Gulliver's Travels? Again, with all the time in the world available to you, you may want to begin with best literature available. How much would it cost to stock your personal library with the world's most enduring works?

How Much (Money) People Spend on Reading

Financial figures from companies like Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and Borders demonstrate that people buy plenty of books. Having done more than $2.5 billion in sales in the year 2000, Amazon.com is one of the biggest players in electronic commerce. Most people who use computers know that Amazon sells more than books these days. But back in its infancy in 1996 and 1997, Amazon was still doing a very brisk business, based chiefly on online book sales. In 1996 its sales hovered around $12 million, but by 1997, sales had shot up to $118 million!

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