What to Read and Why: Tips for Discerning Readers (Part I)


This post is the first part in a series aimed at helping readers to more effectively identify books they will enjoy—that is, to invest their reading time wisely, and to reap all of the dividends accruing therefrom.

I decided I was getting old the day I realized I would never finish reading all of the books I wanted to read. Nothing really changed that day other than my awareness of the underlying mathematical impossibility. As much as I hate to admit it, though, the math is pretty convincing.

Consider: every year there are roughly 300,000 new titles and editions published in the U.S. alone. The worldwide total is roughly 2.2 million per annum, but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend I’m an ardent literary nationalist and deal only with the 300,000.

Let’s further make the generous (and no doubt wildly inaccurate) assumption that fully half of the 300,000 are new editions of old titles.

Out of the remaining 150,000 new titles, let’s overextend the Pareto Principle and give our attention to only the “best” 20%. (Let’s also put a pin in our use of the term “best” for a few paragraphs.) Lo and behold, we’ve reduced our reading list to a mere 30,000 titles.

Now let’s consider how long it would take to read 30,000 titles.

The life expectancy of an average American man is now estimated at 77.4 years. I started reading before I turned three, so to make the math easy, let’s say that leaves me 75 years of good reading time. To finish off my assigned 30,000 volumes over that span, I’ll need to sustain a leisurely pace of a little more than a book a day.

Unfortunately, I think I’m already a little behind schedule.

Worse yet: book publishing has been around for, oh, about 536 years longer than I have. It seems likely that at least a few of those titles published in the Pre-Me Era are still worth reading.

Similarly, it seems safe to project that the next 50 years of my reading career will turn up at least a few more titles of interest. At a rate of 30,000 titles per year, though, I might not even finish reading the titles, let alone all that pesky text inside.

I guess I could try to extend my career by eating a few more greens and spending a bit more time on the treadmill—but that really cuts into my reading time, you know?

Tell you what, sometimes math can be a real downer. (That’s why I’m in an MFA program.)

In this case, though, the math highlights an important problem for discerning readers: supposing I read a book a week for the next 50 years, I’ll still only make it through another 2,600 titles.

Over that same span, assuming the rate of book publishing stays relatively constant, the world will produce something in the vicinity of 110,000,000 new titles.

That’s bad news for readers and aspiring authors alike: even if I never read another book published before 2014, the odds of me reading your book are about 17 times worse than those of your getting hit by lightning.

(And especially bad news for me, a reader and aspiring author. I can’t win for losing here.)

All of this begs the question: how in the world am I ever supposed to choose? How do I pick the lucky 2,600 out of the hundreds of millions of titles that beckon my readerly attentions? And how can I ever hope to pick the best titles when “best” can vary so wildly from person to person?

BMR tries to help with posts on “Weekend Reads” and “Summer Reads,” but those posts are kind of like going to a restaurant and asking the waiter for his favorite dish: his opinion might be helpful, but who knows how his tastes align with yours?

Bookstores used to help us curate the veritable floodtide of new text, but thanks to new technologies like Amazon and Google Books, the long tail of the sales chart is more accessible than ever before. In some ways, that’s a good thing: we’re drawn to choices, and we now have more freedom to accommodate individual preferences than at any point in recorded history. (And niche authors now have a better shot of finding a market than ever before. That, however, is the subject of a different article.)

Unfortunately, studies have shown that too many choices can be paralyzing. We end up—to paraphrase Led Zeppelin—dazed and confused, and substantially more dissatisfied than we might have been if presented with a lesser array.

This problem of choice is exactly what keeps book reviewers in business. Even then, though: how many of you have ever spent so long browsing Netflix that you didn’t end up watching anything at all?

Reading time is, for most of us, a precious resource. Choosing what to read next is a fraught and deeply personal decision—and choosing poorly is frustrating, disappointing, sometimes downright infuriating. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Well, I’m never listening to that reviewer again!”)

I actually know people who have been so paralyzed by the choice that they’ve gone weeks and months between books, searching forlornly for the right one.

That’s why Blue Mesa Review is here to help.

Over the course of this series of blog posts, I’ll survey some of the best methods I know of for separating the wheat from the chaff and harvesting a new crop of titles perfectly to taste. I may be getting old, but that just means I’m even more inclined to invest my time wisely.

Check back in over the days and weeks to come and I’ll try to help you do the same.

Michael Noltemeyer is a third-year MFA candidate at the University of New Mexico. He is the Nonfiction Editor for Blue Mesa Review