Carl Sagan on the Importance of Choosing Wisely What You Read (Even If You Read a Book a Week)

More than a few of us have a reading goal for 2021: a book a week, say. Some of us may have had the idea planted in our heads long ago by Carl Sagan, in his capacity as creator and host of the PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. “If I were to read a book a week for my entire adult lifetime,” he says in the clip above, “I would have read maybe a few thousand books. No more.” This is part of a longer monologue set in a library, a background that provides Sagan an ideal visual reference for how many volumes that is. Even seen as a portion of just the shelf space he stands by, it doesn’t look like a terribly impressive amount. Indeed, it makes up “only tenth of a percent or so of the total number of books in the library.”

The trick, Sagan adds, “is to know which books to read.” He himself got started addressing this question rather early, having drawn up an ambitious reading list previously featured here on Open Culture while still an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.

Sagan included (see the list here) everything from the Bible and Plato’s Republic to André Gide’s The Immoralist and Aldous Huxley’s Young Archimedes to Communication Circuit Fundamentals and Thermodynamics: An Advanced Treatment — those last being course readings, but impressive ones nevertheless. Though Sagan lived an abbreviated life, dying at the age of 62, we can rest assured that he nevertheless got his few thousand books in. Can we do the same?

To gear up for your reading year to come, consider watching this short documentary on the world’s most beautiful bookstores, which recommends daily reading habits that add up to surprisingly many books over a lifetime. But if you choose your books without discernment, as Sagan implies, it doesn’t matter how many you read. Before drawing up your own reading list, have a look at the ones other serious readers, writers, and thinkers have used before: Charles Darwin, for instance, or the many names in our personal reading-list roundup including Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Jorge Luis Borges, Patti Smith, Bill Gates, and David Bowie. Mark Twain also composed a reading list for kids and adults alike, but whatever we take from it, we should enter the new year with one of his famous aphorisms in mind: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

Related Content:

Carl Sagan’s Ambitious College Reading List: Plato, Shakespeare, Gide, and Plenty of Philosophy, Math & Physics (1954)

What Did Charles Darwin Read? See His Handwritten Reading List & Read Books from His Library Online

How to Read Many More Books in a Year: Watch a Short Documentary Featuring Some of the World’s Most Beautiful Bookstores

7 Tips for Reading More Books in a Year

100 Books to Read in a Lifetime

29 Lists of Recommended Books Created by Well-Known Authors, Artists & Thinkers: Jorge Luis Borges, Patti Smith, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, David Bowie & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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