Monday, March 10, 2003

America's Biggest Readers
An obsessively omnivorous polymath, a speed-reading insomniac, an incomparably prolific reviewer and just some regular folks—here are our favorite people who read more than you do.
by Jesse Oxfeld

Americans buy more than two and a half billion books per year—about nine each for every man, woman and child in the country. Most Book readers are bigger book readers than that, but what about those impressive few who read way, way more? They're the folks we sought out for our first list of America's Biggest Readers. We canvassed libraries and bookstores and publishing professionals and our friends, and we found ten people (well, eleven, really—you'll see) who plow through more books more quickly than just about anyone we know. It's a cross section of big-reading Americans, some of whom are absolutely the country's most voracious readers—we'd be nuts not to include them—while others are quirkier choices. Think you read more than than this crowd? Then maybe we'll see you here next time.
America's Biggest Readers: Jules Arens, James Billington, Timothy Dickinson, Elsa Engelhardt, Mary Alice Horne, John Jordan & Marianne Zerbe, Harriet Klausner - No. 1 Reader in America, Kristin Mueller, Albert Murray, Ronald Yanagihar

Jules Arens
Location: Monroe, Neb.
Age: 32
Books per week: 2
Claim to fame: Reading her library's entire fiction collection, from A to Z
The problem with reading a lot is that you're constantly trying to figure out what to read next. Jules Arens had been dealing with that all her life. "I would read instead of play at recess," she recalls. "And I had two little brothers I didn't like, so I read instead of being tormented."Eventually, she says, "I was tired of trying to pick stuff out, so I decided to start at the beginning." For the last five years, she's been reading her way alphabetically through the fiction department of the public library in Columbus, Nebraska, where she works as a veterinarian. It's slow going because she's often waylaid by other reading, like when she buys a box of used books. Her typical rate was three or four books per week, but it's slowed down since she and her husband adopted a baby girl. "Now, if I'm lucky, it's one or two," she says. She's working on building little Josie into a big reader, too. "We read together as often as she'll let me," Arens says. For her in-order project, she's up to the Bs— "I'm at B-o-v, actually," she says—and she realizes just how slow that is. "It's going to take me until I'm ninety," she acknowledges with a laugh, "but that's okay."

James Billington
Location: McLean, Va.
Age: 73
Books per week: 8
Claim to fame: Runs the Library of Congress, still finds time to devour books
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with more than eighteen million books. Its annual budget is more than $500 million, it has a staff of four thousand and the Librarian of Congress, essentially the CEO, oversees the entire operation. James Billington, a Russian-history scholar, is the current Librarian, and, despite all the administrative duties of running this behemoth, he still finds the time to read copiously. "That's what I really enjoy," he says. "I'd much rather be reading than watching television." There's no clear line between his work reading and his pleasure reading, because his job requires a good deal of pleasure-type reading. He picks the poet laureate each year, he selects fellows to study at the Library, and he will oversee a new major prize, a sort of Nobel for the humanities. "In order to choose the right people," he says, "I have to read a lot of books." He reads plays and poetry and religious writing and the occasional mystery. Plus lots of books on Russia—which brings it all full circle. "My first great reading project was War and Peace," he recalls. "That's what got me hooked."

Timothy Dickinson
Location: Washington, D.C.
Age: 60
Books per week: 12 completely, plus "a penumbra" of others skimmed, reread, glanced at
Claim to fame: Knows everything about everything
You might call Timothy Dickinson a consultant. When pressed, he says his job is "giving advice to people, on things from books to Japanese trade." He's likely the best-read, most-informed person you'll ever meet, and he makes his living putting that vast store of knowledge at the service of others. He's thanked in many books' acknowledgments for helping their authors with ideas; he advises international lawyers, providing them with analyses of the regions they're working on; at previous times, he allegedly supplied the occasional mot juste or historical quote to the famously erudite columnists Lewis Lapham and George F. Will; and he volunteers his time to fact-check The Washington Monthly. "I've never met anyone who knows more than he does about anything," says Nicholas Thompson, who worked with Dickinson at the Monthly. "And that comes from reading everything." Born in England, Dickinson has read omnivorously all his life; he read "a score or more a week" as a student at Oxford, he says. All those books add up. He keeps several thousand in storage and yet still has problems with landlords worried that the overflowing collection in his apartment might be a fire hazard. "There's a geometric problem," Dickinson notes wryly. "You can only get so much on a wall."

Elsa Engelhardt
Location: Los Alamos, N.M.
Age: 64
Books per week: 2
Claim to fame: Reads constantly, in at least three languages
Librarians and library regulars are of course some of the biggest readers around. But at the Mesa Public Library, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, librarian Elsa Engelhardt particularly stands out. "Elsa reads all the time, in all these different languages," says Bernadine Goldman, the reference manager. "She really hates to miss a book—I think she looks at every one that comes in." Engelhardt reads in three languages—English, French and Polish—and, though she won't cop to it, Goldman suggests she can get by in Hebrew, too. (When the library's book club read Amos Oz, Engelhardt, as Goldman recalls, was wistful for his untranslated text.) Engelhardt is generally modest, insisting that she's too busy these days to read as much as she used to. "For about two or three decades," Engelhardt says, "I read a lot—any leisure time that I had." She lived in Quebec for many years and makes an effort to seek out Canadian literature—Crow Lake by Mary Lawson is a recent favorite—but she credits her love of books to her childhood in Warsaw, Poland, where she first learned to read at age seven, after the war. "I was so deprived of books as a child that they're still special to me now," she says. "I've always felt, even if I were widowed, destitute, living in a room someplace, I could never be completely unhappy as long as I still had books to read."

Mary Alice Horne
Location: Warrensville Heights, Ohio
Age: 78
Books per week: 13
Claim to fame: Keeps a log of the 700-ish books she reads each year
Elderly or homebound patrons in the Cleveland, Ohio, suburbs can have books delivered to them by their local library. Mary Alice Horne loves the program, but there's just one problem: A person can take out only fifty books at a time. "There are times when I'll have fifty books in the house," says Horne, who last year read 675 books, "and my daughter will get some, too, so I'll have enough." For the last dozen years, Horne has kept a record of every book she borrows and reads, and in each one of those years she has read more than six hundred books —in every genre except romance ("I'm past that point in my life") and science fiction ("I never got into that"). The year 1999 was her best, with 729 volumes completed. "My mom read to me when I was small," Horne says, "so I've always enjoyed it." Then, in high school, she went through an experimental speed-reading program. "Some people don't like being alone," Horne says, "but I don't mind, because I like reading so much." And insomnia doesn't hurt either. "Quite often I can't sleep," she says, "so I just read all night."

John Jordan & Marianne Zerbe
Location: Houston, Minn.
Age: 54 & 54
Books per week: 3 each
Claim to fame: Read early in the morning or late at night, and farm all day in between
Organic farmer John Jordan has a congenital love of reading: He likes to repeat his father's story of hiding books around the farm as a kid "so he'd have stuff to read while he was mowing hay." And, fortunately, Jordan also found a wife who reads as much as he does, each about three books a week. But they don't necessarily read together. "I get up really early, so my M.O. is to read for a few hours in the morning" before heading out to work the farm, Jordan reports. But his wife, Marianne Zerbe, an artist, "is very much a nighttime person," he reports. "So we're opposites that way." And in other ways too. While Jordan gravitates toward history (he'd just finished Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time the morning he spoke to Book), biography (he's working on Jane Smiley's Charles Dickens bio from the Penguin Lives series) and science books, Zerbe confesses she reads "a lot of fluff." "I like to read junk books," she says. "They're my popcorn." But they do recommend books to each other, and their combination has been powerful: Together, they've accumulated nearly ten thousand books. "We have a library chock-full of books," Jordan says. "Plus there's some in every room. And we have a mobile home that works as the farm office—there's a thousand more in there."

No. 1 Reader in America
Harriet Klausner
Location: Morrow, Ga.
Age: 50
Books per week: 20
Claim to fame:'s No. 1 reviewer
Faster than a speeding bullet—or at least faster than your average fast reader—Harriet Klausner calls herself a "super speed reader": "It's like some sort of freak talent," she says. She can plow through a book in just an hour or two—and she typically reads two or three a day—so when she worked at a Pennsylvania library in the '70s, she started writing brief reviews of all the new books for the library's newsletter. The habit stuck, and she's been writing brief book reviews ever since. A few years ago, started allowing people to submit reviews to the site, and suddenly Klausner found herself labeled the No. 1 reviewer. "It totally happened on its own," she says. "I didn't do it for the numbers." Rather, Klausner just wants to introduce people to lesser-known authors. She confesses her own favorite is Patricia Cornwell, but goes on to name Kathy Reichs and Jan Burke as smaller names she discovered and liked. "I figured if I could show there's good books out there by unknown authors, it's worthwhile," she says. Klausner has posted more than 4,100 book reviews on Amazon, and there's a guy who's trying hard to beat her. Which wouldn't trouble her at all. "Number one is nice," Klausner says. "But it's not that be-all and end-all of everything."

Kristin Mueller
Location: Portland, Ore.
Age: 25
Books per week: 5
Claim to fame: Was already a speed reader by the first grade
When Kristin Mueller was in first grade, the teacher informed her mother that she didn't read correctly. Of course not. Kristin, without really realizing it, had taught herself to be a speed reader. "I've always read like that," she says. "I think I read in chunks." She graduated from college in December 2001, and she's hoping to start a graduate program this fall in—what else?—literature, but for now she's working full time at a medical supply company, which cuts into her reading opportunities. "I get up really early in the morning now, to read, and then I read at lunch and on all my breaks," she explains. "You'd be surprised how much time you can find." At a book or so a day, she reads just about anything she can find—almost always fiction, but in lots of varieties, from trash to classics. "If I had my way," she says, "I'd just work part time, so then I could read for the rest of the day."

Albert Murray
Location: New York, N.Y.
Age: 86
Books per week: 1
Claim to fame: Among the best customers of the famous Strand Book Store
The Harlem apartment Albert Murray and his wife have shared for forty years boasts views of Riverside Church and the George Washington Bridge to the west, the Triborough Bridge to the east and nearly all of Manhattan to the south. Except for those windows, the apartment's walls are covered with the noted cultural critic, novelist, biographer and poet's enormous collection of books. He still writes full time—on jazz, on literature, on American identity—and that's why he's got so many books around. "You're constantly referring to these things," he says. There are new books and beautiful old first editions, novels and biographies and classics and reference works and art books. They're all carefully organized: poetry on an upper shelf along one wall, literary criticism outside the kitchen, friends' books in the bedroom. An octogenarian, Murray is a bit worn by age, but he's still an avid book shopper, regularly making the 120-block trip down to the Strand Book Store, with its famous eight miles of books. "I used to get down there two or three times every week," he says. "Now I'm lucky to get down there a few times a month." he says. And he's always going back through his big collection. "Some people collect books because they're studying something, or because they're getting a degree," he says. "My thing is, I have a constant and professional need for these, because I use them for everything I do."

Ronald Yanagihara
Location: Gilroy, Calif.
Age: 57
Books per week: 2+
Claim to fame: Fits his reading in with a full-time oncology practice
If we've learned anything from ER, it's that doctors are incredibly busy people. Dr. Ronald Yanagihara, an oncologist, is no exception, with a bustling practice treating cancer patients. But it's tough to imagine Noah Wyle's Dr. Carter doing what Yanagihara does: finish at least two books each week, often complicated, serious literary novels by authors like V.S. Naipaul and Rohinton Mistry. "I think of my nonmedical reading as a treat to look forward to," Yanagihara says, adding that he likes to read for a while each night before he goes to bed. And his nonfiction choices are weighty, too: He likes to read about the "history and personalities" of physics. "When the paragraph is well done, I feel like I can almost apprehend the inherent beauty of it all," he says. "But in the next instant I couldn't begin to explain it to someone else."

Biggest-Reading Writer
Nicholas Sparks
Six bestselling novels in six years—Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember and the new Nights in Rodanthe among them—make Nicholas Sparks an extremely prolific writer. Turns out he's an even more prolific reader, finishing about 125 books a year. "I love to relax with a good read," he says, and he focuses his attention on fiction—mostly commercial fiction—plus the occasional history or biography. Also, he says, "I love classic literature, whether it's a 'new' classic or an 'old' classic."

Fastest Reader in the World
Howard Stephen Berg
When Howard Berg appeared on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee years ago, the hosts gave him twenty minutes to read a 240-page book. They then brought out a surprise guest: the author, who quizzed Berg on what he'd just speed read. "I scored 100," Berg proudly reports. Guinness-certified in 1989 as the world's fastest reader (the category has since been dropped from the book), Berg can read eighty pages per minute. He doesn't read constantly, and he doesn't always speed read. "But when I want to learn about something," he says, "I learn it really quickly and really well."

Biggest Reader in the White House
Condoleezza Rice
Just imagine, to start with, all the briefing books and policy memos. The president's national security adviser is his gatekeeper on foreign policy issues, the person who mediates among the so-called "principals"—the secretaries of state and defense and so forth—and funnels their advice to the boss. So Condoleezza Rice must be bombarded with things to read, all day long. But in an administration not known for its appreciation of intellectualism—"conspicuous intelligence seemed actively unwelcome in the Bush White House," writes former presidential speechwriter David Frum in his new The Right Man, an ultimately hagiographic memoir of his time working for Bush—Rice, a tenure-track Stanford professor at age twenty-eight, stands out as a thinker. She's often spotted toting historical works around Washington, and her family has spoken of her childhood requirement to read a book a day. Before the September 11 attacks, she reportedly set aside an hour or two each day to read journal articles and the like. And as a classically trained pianist, she appreciates the music of fine literature. "I actually read War and Peace in the Russian," she told an interviewer. "It's really quite beautiful."

Know someone who puts these Big Readers to shame? E-mail your suggestions for our next list:

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