It may come as a surprise to the people who read this careless little blog that it takes some planning to file every day, something I do only when I have a new book coming out.
I can’t remember what I intended to write for today, however. Whatever plan I had, it was out the window when I received some bad news: Syd Goldfield died yesterday. Hardcore regulars here know his wife June from the comments section and I think Syd even slipped in here once or twice.
I met Syd soon after I began publishing and he mentioned that he had a admirable goal: He wanted to read 10,000 books in his lifetime. Eventually, I decided to write about his quest.
One of my all-time favorite pieces of journalism is Roger Angell’s “Three for the Tigers,” a rare piece that focuses on fans. Who, if you think about it, are the engine that drives sports. But pieces about books also tend to be all about the writer’s side of thing, with the occasional exception of phenomena such as “Harry Potter” or the “Twilight” series. I’ve always been a big believer that there should be more stories about reading and readers.
And, I guess I can confess now: Last year, I even sent an e-mail to Motoko Rich, who covers publishing for the New York Times, suggesting she write about Syd, because I had calculated he should be close to his goal. She wrote back a very nice note, saying she was swamped at the time.
At any rate, in Syd’s memory, here’s the piece I wrote about him. Once you’re done, come to the comments section if you so choose, and try to figure out how many books you might read in your lifetime. Even if I give myself a somewhat generous 100 books a year over 70 years or reading — well, I come up way short of 10,000, don’t I?
(An inevitable question: Did Syd make it to 10,000? I think so. June dropped me a note, let me know he was close. That’s why, come to think of it, I wrote Rich and suggested him as a story.)
(c) Baltimore Sun, 1999
He was 14, the new kid in town. His father, frustrated when he couldn’t enlist in World War II, had moved the family from Atlantic City to New Haven, Conn., to work in a factory. Sydney Goldfield, all of 105 pounds, was a freshman in a high school where he knew no one.
Then he met Perry Mason.
The family’s landlady had a collection of pulp paperbacks, rows and rows of murder mysteries. She told Syd he was old enough to read them, and he plunged in, starting with the prolific Erle Stanley Gardner. He went through the first book like a hot knife through butter.
Then he opened a blue cloth binder and lettered carefully in green ink: “#1) The Case of the Sulky Girl.” Within days, he had added #2 “(The Case of the Counterfeit Eye”), then #3 (“Mr. Pinkerton Finds a Body”) and on and on. By year’s end, he was writing “#3) Lost Horizon.”
The ink would change, from green to blue to purple — an experimental stage in his late teens, when he was in the 400s — and back to blue. The looseleaf pages would need reinforcement over time. He would refine his coding system, so that series characters were noted in red alongside the titles. He would start recording the author’s names.
But the handwriting remained remarkably unchanged, even as the notebook traveled from Connecticut to Puerto Rico to Indiana to Pennsylvania to Baltimore. It followed Goldfield from the Air Force to college to factory jobs with RCA to Fort Holabird and, finally, to the Social Security Administration, where Goldfield worked until his retirement five years ago.
And then one day — it was May 1994, according to the notebook — Goldfield wrote down #8,300) “Blood Type,” Stephen Greenleaf. He was 65, he had been keeping his list for more than 50 years, and he suddenly realized: If I keep reading at this rate, I could read 10,000 books before I die.
As Cal Ripken Jr. would be the first to tell you, a streak begins as a routine that someone notes for the record.
# # #
There are two reactions when people hear about Goldfield’s march toward 10,000 books. The first — and the only one Goldfield says he ever hears — is “wow.”
But behind his back, people exhibit a kind of competitive envy. They begin toting up in their heads how many books they have read, only to realize that 10,000 books do not come easily, even to the most prodigious reader.
Here’s some context. Each Bibelot store, on average, stocks 90,000- 100,000 individual titles; Goldfield is trying to read 10 percent of the stock. The Duke of Windsor’s personal library comprised an estimated 3,000 titles when it was auctioned in 1998. Goldfield passed that mark in 1968 (“Seven Steps East,” author’s name not listed).
Larissa McFarquhar, writing in the online magazine Slate in 1997, cited a 1992 survey that found the average American adult reads 11.2 books a year; Goldfield reads almost that many books in six weeks, although he has been slowing down since he retired.
More context. The average person reads 250 words per minute; the average novel is 100,000 words. At the normal pace, it takes six hours and 40 minutes to read a book.
Willette Heising, a professional list-maker whose “Detecting Women/Men” guides to series mystery fiction help readers like Goldfield keep their own lists straight, estimates she has read 1,100 novels since 1992. At that rate, she, too, could read 10,000 books — by the middle of the next millennium.
You might think professional readers, acquisition editors at large publishing houses, read 10,000 books in a lifetime. Think again. Robert Weil, an executive editor at W.W. Norton, never has time to read; he’s too busy line- editing.
“I’m in awe of them; I envy them,” Weil says of those amateur readers who have the time and inclination to read. “I wish they’d genetically clone them.”
Weil knows people with libraries of 10,000 books, 20,000 books and, in one case, an estimated 50,000 books. Goldfield owns relatively few books, but no book goes unread in his household. Well, except two: Dorothy Allison’s “Cave- dweller” and “The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood,” by David Simon and Edward Burns. “Too depressing,” Goldfield says.
A spokeswoman for the Guinness Book of World Records says the company keeps records on publishing, such as the longest poem (the Kirghiz folk epic “Manas,” 500,000 lines) and the largest library (the U.S. Library of Congress). But a reading record would be impossible to verify, although Guinness has received many inquiries.
That’s OK, Goldfield says. He’s not doing it for anyone but himself.
# # #
“He’s just a listmaker and a thinker,” June Goldfield says of her husband of 30 years. “Everything is lists with him. I’m always saying, you need lists of your lists.”
He presented her with a list on their second date: Six things they would need when they married. This list didn’t survive, and they can’t remember every item, but it included a television, a refrigerator, a washing machine and a bedroom set.
He was a widower, fairly new to Baltimore, and Mrs. Goldfield recalls he drove up for a party at her aunt’s house in a little yellow Mustang. When they married in 1969, they moved into the Pikesville split-level where they live to this day. The upstairs, neat as a pin, is her domain. Goldfield and his various collections – - books, records, 45s, autographs — have taken over the downstairs.
He has begun to organize his autograph collection on a computer, but for his list of books, he still uses paper. There is the master list, in the blue binder. There is the monthly list, which he carries with him. There is another list of series books, so he won’t get confused about which ones he has read. He also keeps a detailed diary, which comes in handy. Recently, he had a dispute with George magazine over a bill. All he had to do was consult his daily diary; he knew he had paid it.
ed George as a result of that disagreement, but he doesn’t lack for periodicals. June tries to count them up in her head. “The New Yorker. Time. The Jewish Times. The Owings Mills Times. City Paper — he picks that up while he’s out. The East Baltimore Guide, which I bring home from work.”
When there were three newspapers in Baltimore, Goldfield subscribed to them all.
“I just really like to read,” he says. He was 68 before he needed bifocals.
His list of books has few overlaps with the kind of lists that purport to include the most important books of the century, or in the history of the English language. His favorite authors are Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr and his very first writer, Erle Stanley Gardner. “Sometimes, I get a yen for autobiographies,” he says, but oh, how they slow him down.
Strangely, retirement has slowed his reading. He’s lucky if he reads seven to eight books a month these days. He keeps one book in the bathroom, one in the bedroom. The last book he read was “Reckless Endangerment” by Robert K. Tanenbaum, which is somewhere in the 9,300 range — he won’t know the exact number until he transfers his November reads from the monthly list to the definitive one. He thinks Sara Paretsky’s “Hard Time,” inscribed by the author, will be next. (“Go Red Sox,” Paretsky wrote, after Goldfield confided that he hated the New York Yankees.)
His last good spell of reading came in September, when he was on bed rest after surgery. The list shows he read 16 books that month — he hasn’t seen numbers like that since he was 14 and working his way through his landlady’s paperback mysteries.
But he has to stay healthy to reach 10,000. At his current pace, he calculates he needs another five or six years to hit the magic mark. He’s beginning to think it should be a pretty special book. A mystery, because he loves mysteries. But he doesn’t want to get ahead of himself.
The fact is, the mark is largely symbolic, not unlike the millennium itself. There are books he read before he began keeping the list. Some books — “Lost Horizon,” for example — he read twice by mistake, so he counted them twice. And “The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes,” #10, could have been five entries.
Mrs. Goldfield said to him the other night: “I hope you hit 10,000 and beyond.” He’s not taking anything for granted, but he knows if he hits 10,000, the next day he’ll pick up 10,001.
“Maybe it sounds kind of egotistical,” he says, “but I’m doing this for myself. I just like to read.”