Why Do People Talk About How Many Books They’ve Read?

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There are positive and negative reasons for this, and sometimes those different reasons can be operating on the same person at the same time.

I include myself in this, of course, because I’m definitely one of those jerks who knows exactly how many books he’s read in his life (925, since I started counting), how many books he read last year (179), and how many he would like to read (millions!).

First the negative, because, although I don’t think it’s “wrong” or “impolite” to talk about how many books you’ve read, there are better and worse reasons for doing so. And certainly there are situations where you shouldn’t do it at all.

The negative reasons

  1. Bragging / Trying to Impress Others. I mean, why do people talk about how much money they make? It’s usually to highlight something about themselves that’s above average, that might make other people feel worse about themselves, or that they hope will make other people like them or respect them more. Respect them more? Possibly. Like them more? This probably almost never works as well as the bragger thinks it will. Which brings me to my next point…
  2. Social Stupidity. Bottom line: people who talk about how many books they’ve read (and recall that I am one of those people haha) often don’t realize how little other people actually care about this. They also wildly inflate the relevance that it has for other people, and consequently the amount that they will become further esteemed in the other person’s eyes. They simply don’t know any better. I like to think that I do know better, so I’m perfectly comfortable having a conversation end without the other person ever finding out my “number.”
  3. Box Ticking. This is the mirror image of one of the good reasons for talking about or recording how many books you’ve read, which I’ll get into next. It’s where someone reads some dumb list of “100 Books You MUST Read Before You Die,” or some other nonsense and decides to place their eyes over every single word of Plato’s Republic, trying to get through the book, not caring about whether or not any of that amazing book actually gets through to them. This makes reading a chore, a duty, something to be “got through,” and in my mind is just a total waste of a great book.
Image: Goodreads

The positive reasons

But now let’s switch gears into the positive reasons for talking about how many books you’ve read. Believe it or not, there are some! It’s not all bad, except, as I explained above, most people are just doing it wrong.

  1. Establish Credibility. This especially goes for book bloggers, or book reviewers, or what have you, that need to give people a reason to value their opinion. Speaking for myself, I answer a lot of questions about reading skills, how to read more books, what are some of the best books, etc. on Quora, and it helps, when evaluating whether or not you want to listen to someone’s advice, whether or not they’ve actually done the thing that they’re telling you to do! Same with reading. More than 900 people have signed up to get my book recommendations sent to them directly via email, and I think in large part it’s because I’ve established credibility as a “serious reader.”
  2. Good-Natured Competition. Ok guys, sometimes people just enjoy competing with/against others! I include myself in this camp too. My mother is extremely widely read, and part of me feels good when I learn that I’ve read something she hasn’t (I love her unconditionally, though, so I can honestly say I don’t experience jealousy or anything like that). I’m also in competition with Ryan Holiday (although he doesn’t know that haha) for “books read.” I recently went through his entire reading list and picked out the books I wanted to read in order to “catch up” to him. I don’t read anything I don’t want to read just for the sake of competition, but if there’s something he’s read that I want to read but haven’t, then in my head I’m like, “Oh yea? Let’s just see about that!” It’s just fun. Which brings me to my last point…
  3. Motivation. I love tracking the number of books I’ve read. It gives me a crazy sense of accomplishment, a worthwhile goal to shoot for, and it just makes me feel good. Nothing wrong with that. It becomes pathological when you corner people at a party and force them to listen to you rattle off titles of impressive books you’ve read, but when talking about the number of books you’ve read with other like-minded readers is done in a spirit of humanity and good-natured competition, there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

So I guess in closing, I’d tell people to loosen up a bit! Not as many people care about how many books you’ve read as you think they do, but if you do it for any of the 3 positive reasons above, I don’t see how you’re hurting anybody.

Remember, reading’s supposed to be fun! If tracking and competing and bragging interfere with the fun of learning, and of experiencing this beautiful world through other people’s eyes, then you should probably just stop.

All the best,

Matt Karamazov

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Top Writer in Books and Reading. Physique Competitor. Nonprofit Leader. Best Books: https://cutt.ly/hhmTASC

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