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?