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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