100,000 Pages: A Screed

November 16, 2008 at 7:43 am | Posted in Book Blather | 2 Comments

Is my latest milestone actually a milestone, or not?

You might be surprised to hear this from someone who has just read 100,000 pages in less than a year, but it’s not all it’s chalked up to be.  The truth is it’s virtually impossible to quantify how much someone has read by page numbers alone.

Think of all the factors that have to be taken into account.  First of all, the page count in a hardcover or paperback edition of the same book is always different.  Then compare one hardcover to another.  You’ll find vast differences between font, line spacing, margins, and even page size.  There’s also the problem of what counts as a page:  Not every book begins on page one; an index or bibliography will count toward the final number, but an introduction, prologue, or foreword usually won’t, even though we don’t read from the first group and usually do read from the second.  Page numbers don’t include the book jacket or copyright page, even if the author has used these areas as part of the story.  (See A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, among others).  Photo inserts also don’t count, even if studying the images is intrinsic to the book, and in fact perusing these sections often takes longer than reading plain text.  Likewise, diagrams tend to take up a large section of a given page, yet they can take longer to figure out than the same area in text.

All of these issues are entirely separate from the larger problem of context.  On the one hand, there are books aimed at different age groups, though there’s truly no guarantee that a young adult book will be faster to read than, say, a mass market potboiler paperback for adults.  On the other hand, there’s the issue of writing style.  On the third hand, there’s the inherent complexity of the material.  I’ll take two recent reads out of my stack for an example.  I read the 155-page White Like Me at a rate of about 30 pages an hour.  The next day, I read the 290-page Little Heathens at a rate of about 70 pages an hour.  Therefore a book 47% longer than another took me only 8% longer to read.

My best friend in junior high school, Brandi, and I used to have two competitions.  In the summer we would compete for who could read the most, and I would always win.  During the school year we would compete over highest GPA, and she would always win.  (Loser had to buy winner a sundae at Tastee Freez).  We had to work out an extremely elaborate system of page counting, including subtracting any pages that were not actual text, and flipping through the book to estimate any pages at the beginning or end of a chapter or with an illustration, so they could be calculated by fraction.  This was done partly to ensure that one of us (Me?  Now, see here!) wouldn’t be so opportunistic as to seek out shorter books on purpose.  Luckily for my sanity, we never bothered to compare font size from one book to the next.

In the end I have to say that I don’t think page count matters one little bit.  (That’s part of why I brought an 800+ page book on vacation).  I use that number very simply as a handy way to estimate whether I’ll be able to finish a particular book on a particular day.  I prefer to think of each book as a little gem, with a value related more to quality than to mass.  I challenge anyone who has read something brilliant like Fox in Socks or Where the Wild Things Are to claim that these books stand out less in her mind than any random book read, say, five years ago.  Likewise, tell me with a straight face that something like the 454-page CPOS* Da Vinci Code is somehow worth more than the 160-page graphic novel Maus.  A book should be judged on what we learn from it or how it affects us rather than on something so crass as how long it is.

And now, a gratuitous Monty Python reference:

Sailor #1: Well, how long is it?

Sailor #2: That’s a rather personal question, sir!

Sailor #1: You stupid git.

 

*  [Foul language alert] Complete Piece of Shit**

** I know, I know, I should really move on to picking on something else.

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2 Comments »

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  1. I have often thought page number didn’t matter and yet I still track it. Similarly, a friend and I used to count books read every year and compare, and she read a lot of books aimed at middle schoolers and I used to get so angry.

  2. I’ve never tracked page count for my reading. I’ve heard that The Da Vinci Code was not stellar, and I agree that it doesn’t make sense to use page count to compare something like Da Vinci Code to Maus. I loved Maus I & II!

    Nevertheless, congrats on the milestone!


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