Source: Flickr

Alan Kay on How Many Books You Can Read in a Lifetime

Edit: Alan Kay has written a reply to this essay with his own thoughts and corrections. You can read it here.

The first thing Brian Dear noticed upon entering Alan Kay’s home was the books.

If you’re not into tech, you might not know of Alan Kay. But in the world of “hackers,” Alan Kay’s status is not far from that of a minor deity.

An ex-MIT professor of computer science, Kay known for his pioneering work in modern computing (object-oriented computing, graphical UI, the personal computer).

A quick search on Hacker News shows thousands and thousands of upvotes:

Alan Kay’s popularity on Hacker News

But yes, back to the books.

Author and serial entrepreneur Brian Deer tells the story of his visit to Kay’s home for an interview:

“First thing that struck me about his house was the BOOKS, books everywhere, bookshelves everywhere, shelves in every room, every hallway, stacked everywhere, just nonstop books. Of course, as we were walking through the house before we even sat down, I asked about the books. He proudly told me he read a new book every day. On every subject under the sun.” (Source)

When Kay isn’t revolutionizing the computing world, he is also a jazz guitarist, pipe organist, and an obsessive reader of books.

Very, very obsessive.

Kay comments:

“Somewhat by accident I wound up a fluent reader before going to school, and read voraciously from then on. I’m not sure how many books I’ve read, but probably no more than 20,000 (I have some friends — and have knowledge of some — who have read quite a bit more).”

20,000 books. Impressive.

I’ve written elsewhere about why I think reading 200+ books a year is possible for everyone. It’s a simple matter of freeing 3–4 hours a day to read — hours most of us already spend on TV and social media.

In that article, though, I didn’t explore the specifics—real examples of “bibliophiles” (book lovers) who spent their entire lives reading.

Kay is one of these bibliophiles:

“There were many years where I read around 10 books a week (the library limit). They don’t take long to read. I’m 76 and have been reading heavily for 73 years. My library at home has about 13,000 books and for the most part does not have books I read as a child. I still read roughly 4 books a week, etc.”

For over 70 years, Kay has been reading anywhere from 4 to 10 books a week. At an average of a book a day for 73 years (365 * 73), an ordinary human can read 26,645 books.

For bibliophiles, this is normal.

Because most of our classmates, coworkers and neighbors don’t read (most Americans don’t even reach 200 books in a lifetime), we start to see their actions as normal.

But what if we replaced these people with the biggest book lovers in history instead? What would “normal” look like?

More examples of bibliophiles:

  • Warren Buffett spends 80% of his work day (5–6 hours) on reading
  • Bertrand Russell: “In a normal day, I do four hours philosophical writing, four hours philosophical reading, and four hours general reading — so you can understand my wanting a lot of books.” (From BR’s autobiography)
  • Author and ex-trader Nassim Taleb’s habit of over 40 years: “I started, around the age of thirteen, to keep a log of my reading hours, shooting for between thirty and sixty a week, a practice I’ve kept up for a long time.” (From Antifragile)
  • Susan Sontag: “I read all the time. I probably spend more time reading than any other thing I’ve done in my life, including sleeping. I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours…” (From Brain Pickings)
  • Novelist George Lamming has read 8–9 hours a day for his whole life (he’s 89) and feels “unsatisfied” if he doesn’t. (Source)

It’s important to remember that many of these prolific readers balanced reading with full-time work AND family.

Before you say something is “impossible,” I suggest some time with autobiographies, memoirs and the like. Let me assure you… For serious readers, these numbers are normal.

Who Cares?

“So what?” you might ask. “Who cares if these famous people read a lot. What does this have to do with me?” Am I saying that everyone should read 4–8 hours a day? Of course not.

Why, then, did I write this article?

Well, in part because it offers a reference.

80% of US adults get fewer than 2.5 hours of exercise a week. No college athlete sees that statistic and says, “Oh, I’ll just practice for 3 hours a week and I’ll be fine.” That’s silly. Instead, she looks to her heroes — all of whom trained for 30+ hours a week — and emulates them.

It’s the same for reading.

The average American may read 2–4 books a year. But who cares? If you value reading, the average is the wrong reference.

Instead, look to your heroes. Aspiring entrepreneur? Look to Paul Graham, Ford, or Rockefeller. Aspiring writer? Look to Hemingway, Flaubert, Dostoevsky. Aspiring investor? Look to Buffett, Munger, Klarman, etc.

By looking at the correct “reference class,” we get a better idea of what we really need to do to reach our goals.

More Than A Number

Sadly, says Kay, a lifetime of reading only adds up to a small fraction of all the books in the world:

“There are more than 23,000,000 books in the Library of Congress, and a good reader might be able to read 23,000 books in a lifetime. …we are contemplating a lifetime of reading in which we might touch 1/10th of 1% of the extent books.

Perhaps as important as reading is choosing what to read. And then, there is what is most important of all:

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” -Mortimer J. Adler, in How to Read a Book

More on that another time.


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