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George Vanderbilt & The Reading of Many Books

George Vanderbilt, a late 19th century heir to the family fortune and builder of the Biltmore Estate, reportedly read 3,159 books during his lifetime (approximately 80 books per year). He kept a list of the books he had read in a diary; his last book was Henry Adams’ third U.S. history volume.

Most of us wish we could amass the knowledge that represents. Books give us insights into the perceptions and perspectives of foreign minds. They widen our horizons, and foster our understanding of beauty. But few of us will surpass Vanderbilt’s reading achievements (unless we inherit large fortunes and thus become able to amass and devour the contents of a 10,000-book library). We lack the time available to Vanderbilt; he had neither work nor Twitter to distract him from his reading. Reading takes time—and in our technological, time-driven age, we’ve become ever more aware of how time-consuming reading can be. New Yorker contributor Rachel Arons wrote Monday of a recent proliferation of speed reading apps on the market:

As we’ve transitioned from print to screens, we’ve started clocking how long reading takes: Kindles track the “time left” in the books we’re reading; Web sites like Longreads and Medium include similar estimates with their articles (total reading time for “Anna Karenina”: eighteen hours and twenty-two minutes); in June, Alexis Ohanian, a co-founder of Reddit, published a book with a stamp on the cover advertising it as a “5 hour read.” … The fact is that little of what we read on the Web today is formatted in discrete pages, so it seems logical that, as reading online continues to supplant reading in print, hours and minutes will become increasingly useful units for measuring our progress.

I used to think that, if I tried really hard, perhaps I could read as many books as Vanderbilt. When I realized that this was probably an impossible goal, it felt something like a punch in the stomach: it was a moment of finitude.

Because of that moment, I could empathize with a girl I recently overheard talking with friends at Capitol Hill Books. Browsing the overstuffed shelves, she mentioned that bookstores often scared her, because she realized she “would never be able to read them all.” It’s only a matter of time before we realize that our to-read booklists can easily surpass the bounds of reason. There are so many tantalizing stories lying outside our grasp, and never enough time to read them all.

Some reject the infinitude stretching before them by deciding not to care. There’s too much to ever possibly absorb, and we become frightened and disheartened by the realization that we cannot have it all. Some become reading automatons, determined to absorb as much information as possible before they die. Speed reading apps, despite their usefulness, can turn reading into a personal competition or race to win. This often takes the joy out of reading, and makes it a chore (though for some, competition may enhance the experience).

When we can, we should read for quality’s sake: savoring every book, re-reading the ones that enchant us most. Yet at the same time, not every essential read is worth savoring. Speed reading is useful for the accumulation of necessary knowledge. Slow reading is essential for the appreciation of written beauty. Perhaps our best reading choices lie at the junction of quality and quantity: we can speed read tedious or secondary works, then slowly absorb the masterpieces worth relishing.

Few of us will meet or surpass Vanderbilt’s incredible standard—even if the speed reading apps may help. But do we really want to read 3,159 books? The Preacher observes in Ecclesiastes, “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” At some point, even the greatest bookworms must set down their books and live the life that enriches our readings with understanding. After all, that’s the lesson of the bookstore’s infinitude: our lives aren’t long enough to chase after the endless.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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