The Bibliophile’s Problem


For nearly 30 years I have kept a log of the books I have finished reading—not of those I have dipped into, browsed, read much of, or sampled, but finished. How many books fall into those other categories I can’t say, but I know precisely how many books of which I have read every page (not counting indices and the like).

I consider myself a slow reader. When I was young, I took a speed-reading course, and for a short time I read at two thousand words per minute. I discovered that my comprehension was in inverse proportion to my speed, so I settled back to a rate that allowed me to move along while savoring the author’s use of the language, and there I have remained ever since.

While I am not a speed reader, I am a speed book-purchaser. I acquire books faster than I read them, which means my goal of finishing all of my books is an ever-receding horizon.  Given the size of my library—it fills the den and a spare bedroom and overflows into the living room—at least I have a theoretical possibility of finishing every last title, provided I discipline my purchasing. I have three acquaintances who have no hope of making it through their libraries.

One fellow has 10 thousand books; the other two have 30 thousand each. Their shelves are not filled with fluffy romance novels or titles you find at airport book stores—quick reading, those. Many of their books, like mine, cover theology, biblical studies, or history, which are not subjects one breezes through.

Assuming my acquaintances read at my speed, it would take each man four uninterrupted hours to finish an average book (60 thousand words). The fellow who owns 10 thousand books would need 40 thousand hours to read them all. That is the equivalent of 20 years of 40-hour work weeks. The other men would need 60 years to finish their books. The first man never will read all of his 10 thousand books because he has to work for a living and has a family. The other two are worse off by a factor of three. They would need Methuselah’s genes to see their reading to completion.

Of course, none of the three collected so many books expecting to finish each one. Their excuse has been that they need extensive research libraries for their writing projects. Their books are to be sampled, not digested. I wonder what their wives have thought of such a rationale, since one of the men has never written a book and never has seemed inclined to; another has written a few but of a sort that requires no extensive preparation or footnoting; and the third has written a larger number of books, all but one or two being in a popular style that, again, requires little research.

The unacknowledged truth is that the large majority of the books on their shelves were purchased because they were available, not because they were needed. The same can be said of most of those on my shelves. My acquaintances got many of their books when seminaries sold their holdings at pennies on the dollar. I missed those opportunities and acquired my books by conventional channels—once upon a time by frequenting book stores the way some men frequent bars, but nowadays chiefly online. It is only by having a wife who wants to live in a home and not a library that I have been kept from my acquaintances’ fate and have preserved the chance, however slim, of actually finishing every book I own.


Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers, the country’s largest apologetics and evangelization organization. He is the author of five books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe.

This article appeared in Volume 22 Number 2.