Too Many Books, Too Little Time: The Synthetic Reader Solution

In a recent article at the Daily Beast, writer Mark Wortman made the argument that books are simply too long, and that size has become a deterring factor for him in choosing what to read in a world with countless worthy selections but a finite amount of time. While many of the books he cites are biographies and other works of non-fiction, which oftentimes (but not always) are by necessity hefty tomes, and his speculation that e-book price-per-page analysis and the ready access of massive amounts of corroborative data for author’s via Google and the Internet has led to this unnecessary increase in voluminous monographs, might strike some as unconvincing – large books are certainly not a modern phenomena – bibliophiles and armchair scholars might be sympathetic to the angst underlying Wortman’s piece: that there’s simply not enough time to read all the things one wants to.

This concern is a recurring issue among booklovers. Whether it is the morbid excitement of Burgess Meredith when the apocalypse at last provides him with the opportunity to catch up on his reading in the classic Twilight Zone episode, Time Enough At Last, or the musing of writer Maud Casey, who once stated that she was “…born with a reading list I’ll never finish,” this feeling is pervasive and well-established in readerly circles. Alberto Manguel, the great scholar of reading, wrote in his book, The Library at Night, “Ultimately, the number of books always exceeds the space they are granted.”

While that musing reflects a spatial concern common among readers it also, when viewed through the lens of our own mortality, becomes a more poignant and melancholic observation. With both the classics and the must-reads from the past stretching back into antiquity combined with the never-ending flood of new releases demanding our attention, it’s no wonder that people sometimes feel a sense of regret that there is simply not enough time in one’s life.

Others may not agree with this book lover’s lamentation or have sympathy with those who read less then they might want. Author Laura Vanderkam has contended that we have more time then we think and that the illusion of being too busy is constructed by society as a measure of one’s worth and utility. She might argue that Wortman could be able to find the four requisite hour’s a day he says in his piece that he would need to be able to complete his reading list in a reasonable amount of time. Historian David McCoulough also seems unsympathetic to the idea that there is simply not enough time to catch up on ones books, noting in a piece, “No Time To Read”, that Theodore Roosevelt managed to finish Ana Karenina all while traveling in bitter conditions under extreme stress.

Regardless of the merit Vanderkam and McCoulough’s rejoinders, there very existence speaks to the pervasive and entrenched feeling that there are simply not enough hours in the day for many things, including reading. Studies have shown the when the economy is in decline leisure activities suffer as a result through diminished availability of time, decreased amounts of disposable income, and increased worries about the future; only adding to the existing stresses of the book lover still trying to get through 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. Furthermore, if one finds Wortman’s contention persuasive, this concern is again compounded by writers and editors unnecessarily padding their works with extra and superfluous content simply to up the page count – a claim that has some merit in academic circles.

So what are Wortman and other concerned readers supposed to do? Vanderkam naturally offers solutions in her book, 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, but some might find that counterproductive as it would only add another book to an already overburdened nightstand or an overflowing Kindle. Some readers have decided to supplement their habits by moving to audiobooks and downloading titles directly to their iPods or smartphones from iTunes and websites like This path may be risky for some who prefer the tactile component of reading or who, like Sven Birkets, who dedicated an essay to books on tape in his fascinating yet perhaps overly Cassandra-esque collection The Gutenberg Elegies, believe that something is irrevocably lost when a person is hearing the words instead of seeing them. In addition to concerns about information retention there is also the awkwardness felt by some concerning whether are not they can say they actually “read” Franzen’s Freedom if they actually listened to it, or if it is disingenuous to put The Pale King on the “read” shelve of your Goodreads page when you actually plowed through it on your iPod.

Regardless of this concern, sales of audiobooks have been rising over the past decade, with one site stating that audiobook sales rose 36 percent in 2011. It could be argued that some of these increases could be coming from existing listeners increasing their purchases, and not from new customers deciding to forsake the codex or the e-book for the soothing narration of a gifted storyteller, but a survey done by the Audio Publishers Association states that frequent audio book listeners tend to read on average nine more books a year than those who only read and do not listen. These findings suggest that voracious readers are supplementing their habits through audio alternatives, possibly as an attempt to meet the demands of more books and not enough time.

This idea of the synthetic reader, the one who reads/listens to the books through a variety of media, is one that is gaining currency. With sales of e-books now eclipsing those of printed alternatives – both hardcover and paperback – it is now more common to see people using a variety of platforms to get their fix from the world of letters. Despite the bibliophile doomsayers lamenting the decline of print and the call for the embrace of the new digital reality by the futurists, it seems that readers are, at least for now, rejecting this as a false dichotomy. A survey from the Pew Research Center, echoing the APA findings, shows that people who read e-books also on average read more printed books than people who only buy print. Instead of eschewing one for the other, many readers instead have an audiobook for the car, a Kindle for the bus, and a paperback on the nightstand. While it may be hard to confirm, it’s highly likely that the rise of the synthetic reader is at least on some level a response to the lack-of-time-angst felt by many.

Yet e-books and e-readers might not be the only way that publishing is responding to the inexorable pull towards the brightly-lit digital future. The question of form and structure has also been raised in a world no longer restricted by the necessities of paper publishing. Robert Darnton, scholar, Director of Harvard University Library and founder of the Gutenberg-e project, has been studying the evolution of books for years and offers his own vision of the potential future of the codex. In The Case for Books – an clearheaded collection that avoids the pitfalls and hyperbole often found when discussing the future of publishing and letters – Darnton discusses the creation of a type of “pyramid” book, structured to fit the needs of the reader. He explains:

“The top layer could be a concise account of the subject, available perhaps in paperback. The next layer could contain expanded versions of different aspects of the argument, not arranged sequentially as in a narrative, but rather as self-contained units that feed into the topmost storey [sic]. The third layer could be composed of documentation, possibly of different kinds, each set off by interpretive essays. A fourth layer might be theoretical of historiographical, with selections from previous scholarships and discussions of them. A fifth layer could be pedagogic, consisting of suggestions for classroom discussion, a model syllabus, and of course packets. And a sixth layer could contain readers’ reports, exchanges between the author and the editor, and letters from readers, who could provide a growing corpus of commentary as the book made its way through different publics.”

While some traditionalists might be appalled at this potential digital restructuring and reject it as an excuse to ignore nuance and depth – who would really go beyond the first tier or two? – others might find it refreshing to be able to exert more control over what they are reading to emphasize the aspects they find compelling while restricting those that are less relevant to their interests. Furthermore, in an age of Wikipedia where people can wander through the vast labyrinth of hyperlinked-connections and overlaps to explore any topic they find interesting, pluming the depths of Darnton’s pyramid book might be an appealing prospect. Moreover, it might be an answer to Wortman’s primary criticism concerning the length of books; with a tiered book that allows readers to create their own level of engagement, publishers and scholars can pad the books with as much extra detail – or unnecessary fluff – as they desire but readers won’t necessarily feel compelled to have to read it all.

Confucius is quoted as saying, “No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” Ultimately, the belief that there is not enough time to read is a recurring and entrenched issue whose solution is not clear. Whether Wortman’s belief that we should challenge publishers and writers to avoid making their work unnecessarily hefty or Darnton’s tiered book/database approach will help alleviate this angst of the readerly class is uncertain. Perhaps new iterations of old media only replicate recurring problems with a new veneer. So until readers plagued by this concern can upload information directly into their brain, or slow time, they can at least take comfort in the knowledge that if they will never have enough time to read all the books they long to enjoy, then at least it guarantees that for the rest of their lives they will always have something to read.