One for the Books

It might not be an official record, but as Sydney Goldfield's reading list edges toward 10,000 even he seems pretty amazed


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 "#132) 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.

By the numbers

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.

A born listmaker

"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.

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