Scarcity and abundance

There are far more books out there than we’ll ever be able to read in a lifetime. That’s depressing enough. There are far more books out there than we’d be able to read in several lifetimes. Far more than we’d manage to read if we shared the burden as a community. There’s simply way too much.

700 years ago the task of going through most of the books in circulation was both imaginable and actually achievable. An intellectual person in the ancient world, the medieval period or the Renaissance could have easily written an overview of all the readable books on the market. Some even accomplished this astonishing feat – the equivalent of listing all the books and authors available on Amazon, at least on the short tail. Statista reported that there are currently more than 45,000 writers and authors represented by the bookstore industry at any given time.

The book market has been flooded for decades. This is a good thing. It keeps the mind hydrated and the spirit moist with fertile encounters.

Our culture has changed as more books became available, to the point that a single person may not even have an idea anymore of everything that is published. This superabundance of print has created a wild division of labour and fragmentation of personal preference and taste. It was easy in Cicero’s time to devour everything written. It was convenient for Thomas Aquinas to peruse all the books on philosophy, theology, science, classics, etc, for the development of his profuse mind and his monumental Summa. For Dante to synthesize all Western European literary culture – literally – in his diamantine Divine Comedy.

We are unable to do this kind of thing now. We work in tight niches, write narrowly and read sectionally. A trip to the local bookstore exposes us to an average of 30% of the books on offer. Libraries can barely keep up with the supply of published works.

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