Was it possible for one person to read every book he wrote (in English)? ‘Literary Axis’

“At what point in human history were there so many (English) books that you could no longer read them all in one lifetime?”
– Gregory Willmott

This is a complex issue. Getting accurate statistics on how many books existed at different times in history is very difficult, and close to impossible. For example, when the Library of Alexandria burned down, many writings were lost, but What is the price It is difficult to determine the missing writing. Some estimates range from 40,000 books to 532,800 manuscripts. Other writers describe these numbers as implausible in one way or another.

Researchers Eltjo Buringh and Jan Luiten van Zanden used historical book catalogs to compile statistics on the number of books (or manuscripts) published annually for each region. By their numbers, the rate of publication in the British Isles probably exceeded one manuscript per day around AD 1075.

Most of the manuscripts published in 1075 were not in English, or even in English variants common at the time. In 1075, literature in Great Britain was usually written in a form of Latin or French, even in areas where Old English was commonly spoken on the streets.

Stories consist Canterbury Tales (written in the late 13th century CE) It was part of a move toward vernacular English as a literary language. Although it is technically written in English, it is not entirely readable to the modern eye:

“Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I know ynogh, even and a-morwe,”
Quod the Marchant, “So is the case with another mo
That was related.”

(If a 9th grade English teacher is reading this, don’t worry, I’m just making a joke. I totally understand this passage.)

Even if we know how many manuscripts are published annually, to answer Gregory’s question, we need to know how long it takes read manuscript.

Instead of trying to figure out how long all the missing books and manuscripts take, we can step back and take a longer look at things.


Tolkien Books the Lord of the Rings At 11 years old, which means he wrote at a rate of 125 words per day, or less than 0.085 words per minute. Harper Lee wrote 100,000 words To kill a mockingbird Within two and a half years, an average of 100 words per day, or 0.075 words per minute. Where To kill a mockingbird It is her only published book, her average life is 0.002 words per minute, or about 3 words per day.

Some writers are significantly faster. Author Corín Tellado published thousands of romance novels in the mid-to-late twentieth century, turning a book weekly to her publisher. For most of her career, she has been posting over a million words a year, giving her an average of two words per minute over most of her life.

It is reasonable to assume that historical writers had a similar range of velocities. You might indicate that typing on a keyboard is twice as fast as typing a cursive font. But writing speed is not a bottleneck for the writer. After all, at a writing speed of 70 words per minute, it should only take 24 hours to type To kill a mockingbird.

Writing and writing speeds are very different because the bottleneck in book writing is the speed at which our brains can organize, produce, and edit stories. Perhaps this “story-telling speed” has changed over time much less than our physical writing speed.

This gives us a better way to estimate the time when the number of books became too large to read. If the average living writer, in their lifetime, fell somewhere between Harper Lee and Corinne Tillado, they might produce 0.05 words per minute during their lifetime.

The average person can read 200 to 300 words per minute. If you read for 16 hours a day at 300 words per minute, you can keep up with a world with an average population of 100,000 living in Harper Lees or 200 living in Corín Tellados.

If we estimate that during their periods of activity writers produce between 0.1 and 1 words per minute, one dedicated reader might be able to keep up with a population of about 500 or 1,000 active writers. The answer to Gregory’s question – the date when there were too many English books to read in a lifetime – occurred sometime before the number of active English writers reached a few hundred. At that point, catching up became impossible.

the magazine seed It is estimated that the total number of authors reached this point around 1500 and has continued to rise rapidly ever since. The number of active English writers passed this threshold shortly thereafter, around the time of Shakespeare, and the total number of books in English probably exceeded the lifelong reading limit sometime in the late fifteenth century.

On the other hand, how many do you want from them Wants to read? If you go to goodreads.com/book/random, you can see a near-random sample of what you’ve been reading. This is what came to me:

School decentralization in the context of globalization and governance: an international comparison of grassroots responsesby Holger Down

Powołanie (Dragon Age #2), by David Gayder

Introduction to vegetation analysis: principles, practice, and interpretationby David R. Kausten

AACN Essentials of Critical Care Nursing Handbookby Marian Cholay

National Righteousness and National Sin: The Essence of a Speech at South Salem Presbyterian Church, Westchester Co.. , New York, November 20, 1856by Aaron Ladner Lindsley

hall ghost (Goosebumps #24), by R.L. Stine

Supreme Court No. 153; Warren Related Debtors and Creditors Status SummariesWritten by Dana L. Platt

Suddenly no more timeby Emil Gaverlock

So far I’ve read… the Goosebumps book.

To get through the rest, I may need to get some help.


Adapted from What if? 2: Additional serious scientific answers to silly hypothetical questions by Randall Munro. Copyright © 2022. Available from Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

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