Running Time and Reading Time

by F.

In THX 1138, children learn by hooking up bottles of chemical knowledge to their veins. It’s an appealing fantasy. I know people who buy books as if they are such bottled knowledge. They seem to think that the content of their recently purchased books will somehow magically show up in their heads even if the books just sit on the shelves. Maybe some day that’ll happen, but for now those books still need to be read.

I think this overbuying comes in part from miscalculation about how long it takes to read a given book. For instance, I have a friend who’s the most voracious book buyer I’ve ever met. But he’s not a very efficient reader. I went into his office one day and saw six books, each with a bookmark sticking out of it. And each bookmark was placed around page 10. My friend has probably read more prefaces and acknowledgment pages than anyone I know. He has maybe 500 hours of reading started. I asked him how many hours he read a week. “Two or three,” he said.

I tend to do the same thing. Buying the book, or getting it from the library, is the easy part. To correct this tendency, which I think most of us share, I do what might be considered by some to be a strange thing. I calculate the book’s “running time” as if it’s a movie and use the running time to plan my reading.

Once I get past the preface and acknowledgments, I read three full pages and time myself with a stopwatch. Then I count the number lines on the pages (usually between 30 and 40). After that I estimate the average number of words per line (usually 10-14). Using these figures, I calculate how many words I’ve just read and then use that number to forecast my words per minute for that book and then its running time.

It’s all about resource allocation—time and money. If you know how long a book will take to read, you can plan and and prioritize. If you can only read one hour a day, you only have 365 hours to spend on reading per year. That’s not that much. That’s maybe 10-20 books a year. They should be chosen wisely. Is Ulysses worth the time it takes to read? Not for me.

I’m less stingy with my money than I am with my time, but calculating a book’s running time also allows me to see how much bang I’m getting for my entertainment buck. If I rent a movie at the video store, it costs me around $5.00. Generally, features are 2 hours long, so that’s $2.50 an hour. Books are generally, I think, a great value. Suppose you buy In a Budding Grove for $15.00. It’s probably 40 hours of reading, at least, so that’s around $2.50 an hour—like a movie. And you may read it two or three times over the course of a lifetime. This calculation is also useful for comparisons—how much entertainment will Book A give me relative to Book B.

Now the question is, Why don’t publishers put “reading times” on books?

They could say something like, “At 200 WPM, this book has a reading time of 14 hours.” Every DVD has the running time on it. I think books should have the same info on the jacket.