What are you reading?

Published On: November 24, 2019 09:14 AM NPT By: Mukesh Baral

Mukesh Baral

Mukesh Baral

The author is Cofounder at Advocacy for Refugee and Immigrant Services for Empowerment (ARISE), a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts

If we can just read around 2000 books in our lifetime, we want that time to be invested in good books, not those which consume our time but do not contribute to our cognitive growth

We were sipping milk tea from glasses that had shrunk considerably in sizes. When college friends gather, after a long time, there is always a lot to unpack. We were trying to exchange and process everything that had happened since we last met, holding shot sized tea glasses. It felt like sitting in one of those college exams where you must spill everything you learnt in an entire year, coherently in ink, within a couple of hours. Yes, the time too had shrunken like the tea glasses. Everyone was too busy oiling life machines.

Friends who bought just a single copy of a classic and passed it around till the cover disappeared, and discussed it over a shared cup of tea, would eventually come to a question: “What are you reading?” And we did too. One of my friends pulled out a book from a Nepali author and jokingly declared: Any free book that arrives for a review. Well, that’s one dilemma of a journalist/reviewer. The other lamented that there was barely anytime for reading. Of course, coming from similar educational background, we talked about some of the books that we read and wore our analytical glasses and pulled threads off some and stamped our approvals on others. But, we mostly agreed that time crunch has really slowed our reading.

Let’s do the numbers
The conversation entered into a serious self assessment territory: How many books do you actually read? At least one book every month, one every week, or somewhere in between? You want to do the numbers with me? Remember numbers speak the truth, sometimes harshly. 

Well, if you read one book a month, you read 12 books a year. That adds up to 480 books in 40 years. With most of us just reading the prescribed books till college and hardly developing a reading habit, till the age of 20 or 25, that is a reasonable number. If you read two books a month, that is about 1000 books in 40 years. Probably we can hit that target. If you read at least one every week, except two weeks in a year, or occasionally surprised yourself by pulling the 5th, to cover for crazy weeks, that’s 2000 books. But the catch is, you must consistently read for at least 40 years. Well, that’s a pretty big target already. If you got lucky and remained healthy and cognitively sharp, you can continue reading for life and positively impact the national or international conversation and give back to the larger community even after retirement. But the age factor must be considered. And retirement is not just for reading. So, it is safe to assume that if you have to work to make a living, which most of us do,  you read around 2000 books in your life time, provided that you not only lived but survived reading and stuck to your plan. With audio books that you can listen to on your way to work, or before bed, your book count might go up a little. But, I don’t think it will make a serious dent on the books available in the market. Even if you are rich enough and hungry enough to keep reading, without doing anything else, the books you read in your life time is a drop in the bucket.

How so? Let’s run some more numbers. Google identified 130 million published books, using ISB numbers and algorithms, a decade back. Thanks to the algorithms, human beings, using their heads, probably would not have been able come up even with a rough estimate of the published books. Since then, around 2.2 million books are being published each year. That is roughly another 22 million books in the last decade only. With this rate, best of luck reading even the titles of the books that get published yearly. Actually, it will take roughly 50 days just to read the titles of all the books published every year, provided that you spent no more than two seconds on a title of each book and did not take a break till you finished the list. But even if you managed to get the list, reading it thoroughly is a pretty useless task unless you want to be the modern day Sisyphus and set a world record on reading book titles.

Market works on you
Well, there are a lot of books out there. Thanks to the language limitation, we don’t have to worry about more than half of the books that are published in the languages we have no access to, unless and until they get translated into our language of proficiency. And there is the issue of availability. You might be tracking them to actually buy from stores or borrow from a library, but you can only consume what is available. Because the market in a way shuffles books for you, by genres and writers of your interest. Selecting books requires scanning through reviews and recommendations. It’s hard to know if you actually make a decision or the market decides for you because whatever you click creates a data point and the market force work on you like an omnipresent God online.

You do have an option of sticking with some of your favorites and make the selection process easy like devouring everything by J K Rowlings only. But, that means you are limiting yourself and willing to live in a fan bubble and consume whatever your favorite writers produce. The fan base would know when a new book is coming to market, weeks in advance. The star power creates its own waves, and there are always others— explained and unexplained ones. For example J K Rowlings will unintentionally capture the book market for weeks, if not months, when she brings out a new book. This is a writer who became a billionaire just by writing and publishing the Harry Potter series. She has become an icon in writing. Her series has been sold more than 500 million copies and translated in 80 languages. She is brilliant, but, at this point, she is a brand. There are other fiction writers like Dan Brown, Stephen King, Sidney Sheldon who are widely read and are their own brands with respective fan bases. Millions of their fictions have been sold. Arundhati Roy, who happens to be my favorite Indian author, sold over six million copies of her recent novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which got translated in 50 languages, is a considerable achievement for an Indian writer whose fame was limited to the Man Booker prize two decades back.

When it comes to readers, everyone has bubbles. Nepali writers writing in English like Samrat Upadhyay and Manjushree Thapa have different reader bubbles than Indian writers like Kiran Desai and Arundhati Roy. All writers cater to their bases most of the time. But, in order to survive long term, they must expand their bases, like Arundhati Roy expanded hers by reaching out to so many Asian readers, throughout the world, including Nepali readers, reading in English. 

I met her in person in Boston when she came for her book tour swing in America. I was stunned by a full auditorium of thousands of people who actively participated, picked multiple copies of her books, and waited for her signature copies patiently. Book promotion tour, after all, is a page that came out of a marketing book.

The recent trends on nonfiction markets are promising as well. Yuval Noah Harari, one of the most read writers, sold 20 million copies of his recent nonfictions. Sapiens, which has been translated in 50 languages, was sold 12 million copies followed by Homo-Deus and 21st Lessons in 21st Century, sold six million copies and two million copies respectively. Harari’s three books in a row, the third one largely a collection of his previous writings that sold piggybacking on his previous great reads, is an unprecedented achievement in the nonfiction world. Late Astrophysicist Steven Hawking sold more than 10 million copies of his A Brief History of Time and was translated in 30 plus languages. But that was a while back.

Other writers like Cognitive Scientist Steven Pinker and Cosmologist Max Tegmark have created multiple social media bubbles, and are consistently capturing the readers’ reviews and psyche of many nonfiction readers. They are contributing in expanding the reach of nonfiction books. And these are just a few examples that I believe are changing the landscape of nonfiction, based on my limited exposure. Again, I might have fallen victim to the market force. There are so many other amazing writers whose dreams are unrealized because of how markets work. Their writing is being overshadowed, both in publication and sales, by big name recognition. Writers without publication backing and book promoters don’t even have an access to a decent review in good newspapers. It’s like releasing a film when most of the cinema halls are occupied by a movie of a star actor or an actress.

Nepali market
Nepali book publishing market is taking baby steps compared to the international market. The recent hits, Buddhi Sagar’s Karnali Blues, and Narayan Wagle’s Palpasa Café, are probably the best selling Nepali books cashing on the booming readership of Nepali language lately. Even though the sales numbers of these books reportedly reflect the interests of competing publishing houses, they are promising signs for Nepali writers. Some of their work is being translated in other languages too.

I recently had a conversation with some voracious readers of Nepali literature who, unlike me, minutely observe the Nepali book market. One of them, who I consider a reliable source in Nepali writing, named writers who have broken the trust of their fans by releasing mediocre books. Some writers in Nepal have reportedly resorted to abusing their star powers. Or probably they themselves have fallen into the traps of publishers. They must publish to remain relevant and publishers must cash them when they are in vogue. What these writers forget is they might have the name recognition today but won’t remain readable tomorrow if they fail to offer something new. They would lose their luster sooner or later. The market that spins narratives for them will dump them and spin for someone else. After all, publishers are chasing profits. But, in the process, they have also rigged the readers’ ability to identify books for themselves.

The proliferation of writers writing in Nepali, from Nepal and abroad, who hardly read but are self-published is another problem. They are pushing their substandard books into the market. There are Nepali writers with business or political capital who write their stories of triumphs and cater to the bookstores because they think they have stories to tell. And interestingly they might not have a history on writing or publishing, sometimes not even regular articles, and they come out with books in a language they hardly have command over. 

It’s like people running a national marathon without any precious running records, not even local ones. And these overnight marathon writers try to influence journalists and rely on reviewers who are compromised. They use social media and mislead readers to buy their mediocre books that readers otherwise wouldn’t have picked. Some of these books corrode the whole idea of a book.

Recently, I bumped into a writer who was trying to sell his frustrations with life as a book. And there are others who write their delusional accounts, put a cover, and call them books. You probably have dealt with these types of writers as well. Once you feel their knowledge on interdisciplinary studies, you know who they are.

Choose wisely
Regardless of all these hurdles, with multiple publishing houses seeking quality writing, and content editors putting checks and balances, Nepali book market is expanding. But, it is likely that the game of minting and branding writers will continue. Some of the publishing houses seem to be taking that approach already. Our role and responsibility as good readers and honest reviewers is going to keep their excessive power on check.

Let us now revisit our initial concern. If we can just read around 2000 books in our life time, we want that time to be invested in reading good books, not those which consume our time but do not necessarily contribute to our cognitive growth. I think, keeping our eyes open to lists referred by good writers, reliable reviewers, renowned readers, and established newspapers are some ways to make sure that we don’t have to spend our valuable time reading mediocre books. Reading as many books as possible is good, but numbers alone should not drive our reading. Quality of books we read is the key here. I have seen people select them online too. “Good Reads” is one that is currently in vogue. But the results in there are compromised by your previous readings, other readers’ reviews, and ratings provided by those readers. But it is a good forum to deliver our verdict on books.

Despite all our efforts, we still end up picking crappy books now and then. In a way, those missed judgments will help us understand the value of good writers. 

Well, thank you for sticking with me to the very end and best of luck with your reading!



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