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A Nobel Prize for reading? Why not?

July 30, 2009

The Swedes give out Nobel Prizes for all kinds of things, including literature, but after reading yesterday’s BBC News story about Louise Brown, I’m wondering if maybe they should add a category for reading. Brown is the 91-year-old Scottish lady who claims to have read 25,000 books, all from one local library or another, since 1946. She’s borrowed a minimum of six books a week over that period, and in recent times has increased her count to 12 weekly titles.

Let’s assume the story is accurate — we can trust the BBC, right? Let’s also assume Brown is actually reading 12 books a week, and not taking them home and using them as coasters. I’ve known some dedicated readers in my life, but I doubt if any can rival Brown.

When I was a boy, in the first blush of reading love, I sat down one day and performed a rough calculation of how many books I’d be able to read in my lifetime. I was dismayed by the figure. At the time I was reading one book a week — then, as now, I read slowly — I figured I could take in somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 books ere my three score and ten were up. I was depressed for a week.

I was the kind of kid who always had a paperback in the back pocket of his jeans. I really did sit in class with a library book hidden in my text book, blissfully ignoring the teacher. My elementary school librarian, unable to conceive a 10-year-old boy could love books so much, chased me out of her domain one day after implying I had a crush on her. While working as a reporter for the Palm Beach Post in the early 1980s, I read Vanity Fair and Great Expectations on my lunch hour in a pleasant neighborhood park in the El Cid neighborhood of West Palm Beach.

I would have thought my reading devotion second to none. Yet I’ll never come close to Brown’s total. I’ve been distracted by making a living, raising children, spending time with family and friends — and I sheepishly confess to watching television and surfing the Internet. Reading remains my dearest pleasure, but not my only one. To read as Brown reads, I would have to live a monastic existence, and I’m not willing.

Still, at a time when traditional pleasure reading is under ever more challenge from the increasing pace of life and the proliferation of new forms of information and entertainment, Brown’s dedication and achievement deserve more recognition than a pat on the head from her local librarian and a small notice by the BBC.

I’m serious about that Nobel Prize.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. infloox permalink
    July 30, 2009 1:22 pm

    That’s a pretty crazy amount of books to read – I can only assume she was extremely devoted to it and had an extraordinary amount of free time on her hands! Just posted something related on my blog too – the BBC (yes, them again!) had released a list of 100 literary classics and claim that most people have only read 6. I find this quite hard to believe, to be honest. Please have a look at my blog🙂 I’m trying to get people to post how many on the list they’ve read in their lifetimes, to see how accurate the BBC’s claim really is. Here’s the link: http://infloox.wordpress.com/2009/07/30/the-bbc-says-youve-only-read-6-of-these-books/

  2. rachel permalink
    July 30, 2009 3:24 pm

    That is incredible, and she does deserve some recognition. I would love to talk to her, but I doubt she would have the time to pry herself away from her book! I have also fallen into despair when I think about the very small number of books that I will get to read in my lifetime. I read read read and then I think that I have read so many books this year, and then I actually do some calculations and it is sad how tiny the number really is. I read before bed, I read during my lunch, and two smaller breaks at work, I read during free time and still I could never ever rival Brown. How does she do it? And more importantly, is she enjoying it? I just finished reading The Last War by Ana Menendez (thanks for mentioning it in your blog last week) and I read it in two days. I was so taken with it that I roared through it. I consider myself a fairly slow reader, but I read a lot. After I was done with it and started on something new, I almost felt guilty for having read it so quickly, instead of taking my time and really enjoying it. But how was I to stop myself? I couldn’t! But I imagine that for Brown every reading experience would have to feel this way, and that would, in the end, make me a little sad.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 31, 2009 10:28 am

      Rachel, it’s always one of the greatest pleasures for a book critic when someone takes up his or her recommendation — and then agrees with it. I’m delighted you found Ana Menendez’s new novel The Last War as compelling as I did. This fine book deserves a wide and appreciative readership. I’m sure thousands and thousands of readers would share our enthusiasm if only they knew about The Last War. Try it, you’ll like it!

  3. March 12, 2014 1:56 am

    An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment.

    I do think that you need to publish more on this subject, it may not be a taboo matter but
    usually people don’t talk about these subjects. To the
    next! Best wishes!!

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