It’s July! Do you have time off? Are you going to the beach? Are you reading more? I have been thinking more about my reading habits––there are always so many books I want to read. 2021 was a big reading year for me; I read a total of 40 books, including some of the Quaker ones I mention here. However, I barely made a dent in the three million books currently in print I could have read, not to mention the out-of-print ones. I recently started to think about ways I consumed books last year: both where I bought them, and what influenced me.
How many books do you read a year?
I am neither a voracious reader (romance readers reportedly read an average of five books a week) or one of the one-third of Americans who read no books at all. Wait––did you read “No One will Read Your Book?” So great. Two important takeaways: “The market for our attention is intensely crowded,” and “Not enough people read enough books.” Amen. A recent article in the New York Times about diversity in the book industry came to the same conclusion when publisher Lisa Lucas asked, “Instead of fighting over slices of a shrinking pie, can publishers work to make the readership bigger for everyone?” More reading! More readers! More books! But back to my habits…
Last year, I spent $500 on books but last year was kind of an outlier. I generally read 15-20 books per year. But last year, with my local libraries closed, and as I waited to be vaxxed, and be “ok” to go out in public, and then…went back inside during Omicron, I had more alone time to read.
Why do I still read so slowly?
I sub-vocalize as I read. I go back when I don’t understand things. Wait, where was the castle again? I print out lists of characters from Wikipedia if the novel is dense. I look up plots online. I edit in my head. I plod on to the end like a dutiful student and rarely DNF unless I hate something. Reading for me has always been kinda painfully slow…yet still sort of enjoyable in a very nerdy way.
So how much does my reading 40 books contribute to the publishing industry?
The U.S. publishing industry made $15.4 billion in 2021 (note that this number includes instructional materials.) $15 billion may seem like a big number but remember that Americans spent over $10 billion on single-day holiday Halloween in 2021, and $103 billion on pets. But my $500 was no doubt part of the $1.1 billion increase the industry experienced in 2021.
Thinking more about 2021: how did I chose my books and where did I get them from?
Reader: my habits here may seem downright odd. I don’t usually look at the NYTimes Book Review, or Bestseller lists, or Bookbub, or emails I get from publishers, or what people are reading on Goodreads, or library displays, or ads that pop up. So where do I get my books? And how do I decide what to read? Bear in mind, I am in the midst of writing historical fiction and my tastes are pretty niche. These lists are not a guide to where I feel people should get their books, but where I actually obtained books in my biggest reading year.
Books: my 2021 sources from least to most with totals
- I picked them up on the street! TOTAL: 1 For years, I have tried not to pick up anything from the street, no matter how appealing. Bed bugs! COVID!! Book Lice! But I couldn’t resist: there was a brand new copy of NORMAL PEOPLE lying on the bottom step of a building. And I had been in touch with a book group that was reading it. And I was watching the series…
- Foreign bookseller TOTAL: 1 There is nothing more exciting than finding an obscure book, only available in another country. I was super-excited to order OXTON for my research from Nottingham Books. Of course…things happen…and I had to re-do my order a couple of times to make sure the money was exchanged correctly and covered the postage. But it did and then that moment there’s a package from overseas in your mailbox: Yay!!
- Flea Market TOTAL: 1 In 2020, I moved to the center of Flea Markets: Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Walking around an inside market last year, I found a copy of that old American Revolution chestnut (that I’d always meant to read), MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD, for like $1.35. Why go to the library? The library was still closed anyway.
- Buying second-hand online TOTAL: 1 I love Thrift Books. I am often looking for that random, scholarly book, only available by going to a research library (not open last year) that is $85 new, or $5 on Thrift Books.
- Museum TOTAL: 2. I am a sucker for the museum gift shop. The tinkly soft music (new agey or 18th Century, or what have you), the smell of fake parchment and sachets and then…there is that book you thought about getting at the library, but maybe you can carry that happy museum gift shop moment with you. Sold!
- Wal-mart TOTAL: 2 Yes, I’m sorry to admit it, the company store, and all that. But they do carry A LOT of books, often at discount prices, and weirdly, some that aren’t carried on Amazon.
- Old Books on Shelf TOTAL: 2 Is it weird?I really only have a few books left I haven’t read on my shelves. And there they were in the midst of COVID. Why not read them?
- The Library: TOTAL: 2 Remember how some libraries still weren’t open last year? And then they were.
- Indie Bookstore TOTAL: 2 I don’t want to talk about the indie bookstore closest to me when I’m in NYC (where “You” is filmed) and where you just can’t…believe the comments on Yelp. Yikes! I am SCARED to go in there!
- Amazon TOTAL: 26: Reader, I admit it. It’s quick. It’s convenient. And last year I needed to get that book for book group right away. Jeff Bezos is laughing all the way to the bank, as usual.
Now that I looked at the places I obtained books, I started to think about how I actually chose them in 2021. I really surprised myself when I went to analyze this.
Books: My 2021 Influences in choosing books, from least to most with totals
Friend recommends TOTAL: 1. “You should really read this book about Quakers in the Civil War..” Yes, I should. A writer in multiple book groups, I get this comment all the time.
Twitter: TOTAL: 1. I keep seeing people talking about that book on Twitter. I really should read it.
Museums gift shops spontaneous purchase TOTAL: 2 See #5 above in re. the tinkly music and the zen-like state I find myself in. Before you know it, I’ve left with a book in my hand.
The Week Magazine TOTAL: 2 A magazine for people who like their news slow.I’m a fan. I always look at the Review of reviews: Books section, especially for nonfiction and the Book List. I love the authors’ lists of their chosen “best books.”
Friend or acquaintance from college writes TOTAL: 2. If I know the writer, I’m more likely to read it.
Hulu TOTAL: 3 Ugh, yes it’s true. I’ll watch the series/movie and then there I am…buying the book.
Birthday gift TOTAL: 3 I usually request particular books nowadays. But in the past, family members and friends often gave me books that became (see above #7) Old Books on Shelf. I really should read that…last year I did.
Facebook TOTAL: 3 Ugh, also true. It’s not the ads. It’s when someone in a group recommends a book. In my case, it was books on writing and religion. I guess that’s one reason FB has groups…to sell stuff, and study how we buy stuff. Ugh.
- Book Group TOTAL: 10. We take turns recommending books. One of my favorite parts of being in a book group is reading something I ordinarily never would, like bestsellers.
- Historical Novel Society and HFChitChat: TOTAL: 13! I was surprised by this, too,…all of those tweets and critique groups and online presentations…and there I was. Last year I attended HNS’s online conference and I regularly watch HNS of NYC’s Zoom presentations. @HFChitChat is a group on Twitter that regularly discusses historical fiction in chats, online groups or just day-to-day Tweets. All these groups were super-influential in my choosing books to read.
How do you choose your books? Do you look at what’s selling? Or do you have niche interests like mine? Has social media been an influence? Or are you influenced by what your friends are reading IRL? I hope the rest of 2022 has us trying to make more of a dent in that 300 million books, visiting libraries, and hanging out at friendly neighborhood bookstores (if you’re lucky enough to have one).
Happy summer reading! Kate