book pile

Ryan MacEachern / Penguin Books

Just like your workout routine, Sunday brunch order and #blessed afternoon by the beach, book piles have acquired serious social media clout in recent years. Move in certain Instagram circles and stacks of novels – ideally artfully arranged on a wooden table next to some fresh flowers and a latte (soya, obviously) – fill entire feeds, alongside familiar hashtags #currentlyreading, #bookstagram, and the rest.

For most of us, this is probably a source of some ambivalence. It can fill you with guilt over your own reading habits (or lack of), or it can inspire you to reconnect with an act which is, in many ways, the antithesis of brainless scrolling itself.

Whatever your response, the implicit message is that, when it comes to reading, more means more: the higher your pile, the more literary you must be. But is that really the case?

Studies into how many books people read on average are far from conclusive, perhaps because of our tendency to massage the numbers. Does something you got halfway through before abandoning count as a book ‘read’? Anyway: a Pew Research Center study from 2015 put the average yearly figure, in America at least, at 12 – a number inflated by serious bookworms (the most reported number was four). 

A more interesting figure for British readers – albeit one that should also perhaps be taken with a healthy dose of salt – came in 2019, when a study by Kantar Insights found that, while 51% of UK adults had read a book in the past year, only 34% of readers managed 10 or more – a total pushing them into the ‘heavy readers’ category. 

book pile

Ryan MacEachern / Penguin Books

I feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘heavy readers’. It makes it sound like you’re Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill, or poor Boxer toiling on Animal Farm. Besides, sometimes it’s more a case of speed than devotion. My partner reads at a pace I find bewildering – sometimes it’s more like being in bed next to someone driving a F1 car than turning the pages of the lastest Ali Smith – and I console myself by pretending I’m savouring the act more than her, rather than accept it as yet another sign of our unequal cognitive abilities.

No, ‘heavy readers’ won’t do – any more than the idea that the one-book-per-month among us are somehow deficient. Instead, I humbly propose the following categorisations based on the size of your #monthlyreading pile. Remember: it’s what you do with it that counts.

1-2 books: The Connoisseur

When it comes to reading material, you’re as pitilessly discerning as a Crufts judge: only the shiniest coats and bushiest tails will do. That means the very best of your chosen breed, whether it’s historical fiction, celebrity memoir or shenmo (fantasy novels based on Chinese mythology, obviously).

3-4 books: The Cultural All-Rounder

Books are just one thread in a rich tapestry of your crushingly impressive cultural life, no more or less important than music, film, art or ballet. You try and squeeze a book or so in a week, but there’s your chamber jazz sessions and gavotte lessons to think about.

book pile

Ryan MacEachern / Penguin Books

5-6 books: The Weekend Reader

There’s no way you’re squeezing six books a month into twenty minutes snatched from the jaws of sleep or the forty minute commute. Instead, you must be the kind of reader who has long since decided to devote their weekend leisure time to the page. We salute you.

7-8 books: The Legendary Bookworm

There’s no other way of putting it: you’re a lumbricus terrestris tearing its way through pages like damp earth. Reading rules your every private hour. Talking to people? Going out? Forget about it!

10+ books: The Unstoppable Reading Machine

Woah. Averaging two and a half books a week means you’ve probably shaped your entire life around reading: otherwise, where are you finding that time?! You belong to the elite level of literary life. Unless you’re speed reading, or sticking exclusively to 100 pages novellas. That’s just cheating.

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