LET’S face it, too many books are published. Figures vary but it is generally believed that in the region of 200,000 titles are published in the UK each year. This is a staggering number which leaves us dumbfounded. Needless to say, many of these books make little impact on even the most eclectic and voracious readers while others sell so few copies it’s barely worth printing them. On average literary novels are reckoned to sell fewer than 200 copies, which makes it extraordinarily difficult for their authors to make a living from their endeavours.
Here’s another alarming statistic: people who are constant readers and who have reached the age of 65 can expect to read just 2080 books before they depart for the heavenly library. If you’re 45 and what’s termed a ‘superb reader’ you can count on reading 3240 books before you shuffle off; if you’re 80, you may yet read 800 books. How such things are computed we know not, neither do we much care.
In sore need of consolation we turned to books that have been clamouring for our attention, like dogs panting to go for a walk. First was Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books, published in English in 2004. Like us, Zaid is alarmed at the exponential output of books. Since the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, when in the first one hundred years 35,000 titles appeared, there has been a torrent of production. In the half-century between 1950 and 2000, for instance, thirty-six million books were published. By any standard, this is too many. ‘The human race,’ writes Zaid, ‘publishes a book every thirty seconds. Supposing an average price of £20 per book and average thickness of two centimetres, twenty million pounds and close to fifteen miles of shelving would be required for the yearly addition to Mallarmé’s library, if the poet wished to be able to say: “The flesh is sad, alas! and I’ve read all the books”.’
Mind-boggling as Zaid’s statistics are, it is some comfort to know that we live in an age when there will always be something new to read. The problem for Zaid, and us, is that by spending so much time reading it leaves less time to live. It is difficult to get the lifereading balance right, especially of you are the kind of person who, on finding yourself on a journey with nothing to read, feels keenly that precious time is being wasted. Readers need to read as fitness fanatics need to clock up their strides on their Fitbits. It is a form of tyranny.
We turned next to Adventures of a Bibliomaniac by Kenneth White. Published by Fras Publications, it is an essay-length pamphlet in which the Glasgow-born nomad reflects on a habit he has no chance of kicking. His library, he insists, is a working library, which gives his addiction a veneer of respectability, the implication being that if it were not a working library it would lose something of its legitimacy.
Wherever White has found himself he has acquired books, each book becoming part of who he is. Yet he too is disturbed by the phenomenal outpouring of books despite the fact that we often hear about ‘the end of the book’. Books continue to defy the odds and to see off their ephemeral enemies. Kindles were meant to lead to their demise; who now believes that?
Finally, we picked up Reading & Writing: A Personal Account (New York Review of Books) by the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul. There is a sense when reading about what writers read when they were young that they were the lucky ones, as if they had survived some terrible disaster in which countless of their peers had perished. What, they ask, would have become of us if we hadn’t been readers? How would we have lived our lives? Wouldn’t we have been bored witless?
With Naipaul there is no sense of this. As a young boy, he says, he wasn’t much of a reader. He liked Hans Christian Andersen’s tales and Aesop’s fables but that was about it. A teacher gave him Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea but all he remembered of it was the name of the submarine and its captain. What Naipaul really wanted to be was a writer though he came later to appreciate that this ambition had been part of a process, which started with ‘the little things my father read to me from time to time’.
‘Literature is the sum of its discoveries,’ reflects Naipaul in ‘The Writer and India’, the second essay in his slim book. ‘What is derivative can be impressive and intelligent. It can give pleasure and it will have its season, short or long. But we will always want to go back to the originators. What matters in the end in literature, what is always there, is the truly good.
’We agree and trust readers of the Scottish Review of Books feel similarly. By all means buy books for Christmas – what better gift is there? – but make them good ones.