Don’t We Have Enough Books Already?

By Boyd Morrison

A couple of years ago, as part of Google’s effort to catalog every single book ever written, the company tried to figure out how many books that would encompass. After surveying the list of books in the Library of Congress, Worldcat, and numerous other book databases, they came up with a figure: 129,864,880.

How they could be so exact when new books are released every single day is a puzzle to me, so let’s just round up to 130 million books. And since that was in 2010, the number is now too low. Every year about 2.2 million books are published worldwide. So that’s about 135 million total in the world, with six thousand more published every day. You can even find a real-time counter here.

I don’t know about your reading speed, but I can read about 50 books a year. If I kept that average up for my entire adult life, that’s about three thousand books in an eighty-year lifetime (maybe upping it to four thousand if I have a lot of spare time in retirement).

I think you can see that four thousand books is somewhat less than 135 million. It would take me over three hundred lifetimes just to read one percent of the books in the world. Even the contents of a typical Barnes and Noble would be too much. And that’s not including the more than 88 million additional books that will be written before I die.

Which begs the question: why do we need more books?

I can see why new nonfiction makes sense. The world changes all the time, and nonfiction is a way we try to understand our world. But fiction accounts for about thirty percent of books, or approximately forty million volumes. Isn’t there enough fiction already?

Of course, as a novelist myself I would say no, but why? What new stories could be written that haven’t been told a hundred times before?

It’s been said that there are only seven or twelve or twenty basic plots out there, depending on who you ask. Because a story is much more than just plot, it’s the virtually infinite diversity enabled by a complex language and the passage of time that makes new stories possible. A detective story told in my present will have similarities to ones from Arthur Conan Doyle’s present, but the time elapsed between then and now has made new stories different enough that they provide unique takes on crime solving. In addition contemporary stories help us understand the world we now live in, whereas older stories show us where we’ve come from.

Being a writer, I constantly ask myself if what I’m coming up with is unique. If the answer is no, there’s no point in writing it. However, I haven’t read every book out there, so it may be similar to something that’s been written before, but as long as it’s unique to me, I’ll keep going.

Most new stories are modest variations on tales told previously, maybe told better. But occasionally we’ll find that ground-breaking plot or character or style that’s never been seen before, and we’ll fall in love with the discovery process of reading all over again.

That’s what will keep us writing and reading forever, no matter how many stories have already been told.

Why do you think we need more fiction?

12 thoughts on “Don’t We Have Enough Books Already?

  1. As a female who doesn’t enjoy reading what the majority of females tend to read, I keep searching the new fiction in hopes of stumbling across that one writer who sees the world w/just a little different perspective–one who writes in a genre, style & voice w/a plot that appeals.

    So no matter how many bazillion books are out there, I hope all authors will keep pounding away @ the keyboard. You never know when they might be exactly what I’m looking for. 😎

    BK Jackson

  2. I recently read some of the early works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, namely his Martian Chronicles, as well as C.S. Lewis early works of the Perelandria series and found many of the same elements of the our modern thrillers in these century old works. The difference, and the reason I believe modern writers keep making a living, is the generational perspective provided by newer writers. People want a fantasy world based on their current perception of the ‘real world’.

    While those early works may give an accurate picture of man in light of the universe, they do not include our current technologies and therefore they do not carry the same sociological weight as a story written today about what the writer perceives as the ‘near future’.

    Therefore my answer to your question is, we seek the dreamed of the future in the context of our current reality therefore current fiction sales will always surpass realistic expectations.

  3. Great question, Boyd. I read recently that a 12-year-old boy found a 5-carat diamond at the Arkansas Crater of Diamonds State Park. Thousands of visitors each year dig for diamonds in the Arkansas mud. Most find nothing of value. For me, it’s the same with books. I keep reading because there’s always a chance I’ll dig up a diamond.

  4. The number of books is lower than I would have expected. Not that I had a firm number in mind. So from that perspective, we just don’t have enough. There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere. Thank you for this question.

  5. We may not “need” more ficiton; there’s plenty there already.

    More to the point, what does need have to do with it? People like to be told stories, and they always want more of them, even if it’s the same story with a different twist. Let them have them.

  6. Although I think there will always be room for more books, sometimes I agree with the words of Ecclesiastes 12:12, to the effect that “of the making of many books, there is no end…” By the way, the next line (often quoted by my colleague and I while studying in med school) is “and much study is a weariness unto the flesh.”

  7. Narrative has changed over the years. If you don’t believe me, compare short stories by Poe, M. R. James, and Stephen King.

    Most readers today don’t have the patience to plow through the dense narrative style of the past. Just ask any English teacher, and she’ll tell you the same thing.

    Society has changed as well and novels reflect that. Most kids today don’t get what the big deal is in THE SCARLET LETTER, adultery, and out-of-wedlock babies.

    Then there’s the books that relate to today’s society. Books, in particular for younger readers, need to relate to their lives. The lives of kids from ten years ago, let alone much further back, are as alien as life of another planet.

  8. In addition to most people being truly fascinated by sometimes very specific sug-genres of fiction, and each person’s desires being different, there is the fact that most writing, fiction or otherwise, is not truly timeless and is only truly comprehended by even its intended audience only for a few decades or even years, if that. References, analogies and “signs of the times” will only make sense to readers who have lived and or learned of the times and its significance.
    New fiction must always be brought forth to satiate the needs of the upcoming generations. Even if stopped writing new fiction this very day and read only what has already been published, a definitive “timeliness” would be noted in writing within years or even months and certainly cease to be entertaining or provocative to most readers within a decade or less. Very few works of fiction withstand the test of time not because they lack substance or good writing but simply because they are very dated. They can be spectacular in their own right but insignificant in the very near future where the “day and age” more rapidly ebbs and flows into the next. We must always have new fiction to feed the ever arriving minds of the future.

  9. There can never be enough stories. Story telling is rooted in human nature likely from the early cavemen days. Our tales reflect the world around us, and that view is unique to each individual. So regardless of the limited number of plots, each book will be unique to the writer and to the time and cultural influences under which it’s written.

  10. I love being surprised when a story that sounds familiar resonates in a new way for me. Ah, the beauty of looking at the world through the eyes of many storytellers. Keep ’em coming.

  11. Each of us feels both anticipation and anxiety about the world around us and the future. Stories help us learn, anticipate or escape from our anxieties. Stories build shared experiences and connect us to others. Human nature doesn’t change, but the conditions that surround us do change. As long as authors are students of human nature and willing to explore “what if,” story tellers will have listeners/readers.

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