I've never read Moby Dick or Heart of Darkness. Haven't cracked Lord of the Rings. Same for the Bible and Catch-22.
On the other hand, I've read Walter Tevis' The Hustler about a dozen times, and I'm working my way through the complete works of both Hunter Thompson and Charles Bukowski. I've read Fletch (yes, the book which became the Chevy Chase movie) maybe a half dozen times; The Talented Mr. Ripley at least three times; and a novel called Balling the Jack, about a darts match, at least four.
My high school was pretty heavy on the new classics. Heart of Darkness was actually required reading and I failed that test,. For a while — far longer than necessary — I actually felt guilty for not having that book and others. These are important books, and I don't say that facetiously.
And yet I can't bring myself to do it. I've tried reading Catch-22 several times but the first chapter is so incredibly dull I never make it any farther. And virtually no one will tell you Moby Dick is a fun read.
As a kid, I was "well read." And into middle school and high school that was still probably an apt description — I'd read what I was supposed to, and then a lot more. But as years went on, the things I wanted to read were dramatically different from the books people kept putting in front of me. I got a D- in English 101 as a Freshman in college.
Your average American reads about five books a year.
About four years ago, Google estimated the number of books in print worldwide at 129 million. For these purposes though, a far more relevant figure is probably 328,000. Although I cannot find a direct source, that figure is reportedly the number of new and editioned books published in the United States in 2010, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
In the U.S., about a third of the population will read 11 or more books in a year. Let's say you read a lot, and more than double that number. You read two a month, or 24 books a year. Let's give you a reading lifespan of 60 years — essentially all of your adult years. That's 1,440 books you can read as an adult, assuming you read twice as much as those Americans who already ready more than most.
The number of books you can read is tiny, insignificant, compared to what's out there. Maybe not all books are created equal, and maybe a classics-heavy diet to start your reading career out is a great way to begin (they are classics for a reason).
But at a certain point, and maybe for some it comes sooner than others, you start to find your own literary way. If you enjoy reading it's essential - you have to get off the map and explore, you have to create your own reading resume. Because just like the world is big and you can't see it all, so is the literary world.
If you carved out big chunks of time, you might make it through 1% of the books out there. To me, that's incredibly freeing. The sheer futility of thinking about it broadly means a hyper-focused approach makes sense.