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Dear Author (Who Is About To Die)

To whom it may concern - a letter to explain your imminent demise.

Dear Author

As you may be aware from my earlier letters, I am one of your biggest fans. I loved your last book — and I don't just mean I liked it a lot. I mean I loved it the way a man loves his wife, his children, his parents. The way a drowning man loves a life jacket, or the stranger who dives into the water to rescue him, heedless of the danger; the way that stranger loves others more than himself. I really, really loved it, is what I'm saying.

In fact, I love your books too much — and unfortunately, it is for that very reason that you are doomed to die.

See, I can't take the chance that you'll write yet another masterpiece that will force me to read and reread with joyous obsession. I can’t take the chance that the rest of humanity will feel like I do and will spend countless hours absorbing your words instead of changing the world.

I'm truly sorry about this — but rest assured, your words will live on forever, bringing joy and enlightenment to humanity and its heirs long after the atoms of your body have dispersed to the corners of the Earth.

Let me explain.

The Dream
When I was young, I had a dream: I would read every book ever written.

This was, of course, a stupid dream. But then, I was a stupid kid. As I grew older, I modified this dream: I would read every book ever written in a language I understand (this when I realised I would never be able to learn the thousands of languages around). Later 'twas modified again: every book written in English. Still later: every worthy book in the English language, every book which would add to my knowledge of life, the universe, and everything, or truly brighten my day, or just leave me in awe.

This was, you've probably noticed, still a stupid dream, and I'd long forgotten about it...until just the other day.

The Epiphany
See, the other day I was given a copy of a very boring and stupid book — not one of yours, naturally — as a gift by someone who ought to know better. And I read it, out of a sense of duty.
 
And then I realized I was reading a remarkably stupid book on a remarkably stupid subject that was telling me nothing new and doing it in a seriously annoying manner. And I just lost it. I started thinking about how many hours of my life I'd wasted on this stupid stuff, and how there are so many other wonderful books out there still to read, and then I remembered my dream. And then I did some math, and I realized just how silly my dream had always been.

Here's the quick back-of-the-envelope calculation that broke my spirit. Let's say I read a page a minute (faster for most fiction, much faster for comics, probably rather slower for dense technical works). And let's say I read four hours a day every day for my whole life (not easy, but it can be done if I sleep less and read when certain other folks aren't awake to distract me). That means in a year I'd read 365 x 4 x 60 = 87,600 pages. Now let's say I do this every year from the age of 10 to the age of 75 (and given the stupid things I do, that's pushing it). That's 65 years x 87,600 = 5,694,000 pages. Now if there are on average 300 pages in a book (though the trend does seem to be that books are getting bigger every year, but let's ignore that for now), then in my lifetime I will devour 18,980 books (which I'm going to round up to 20,000 because I'm a stubborn nerd and I'll keep on living just to reach that goal). I'm not including magazines and blogs and emails and work-related stuff in any of that, by the way — but there’s much worth reading there as well.

That's a lot of books, sure. But when you think about how many books are out there, it's nothing. Google once estimated there was something like 130 million of the little critters. If even 1 percent of those are in English (the lingua franca of the most book-heavy era in history), that's still more than a million books. That's...well, it's kind of a lot.

Sure, most of those books won't be worth my time...but making the decision as to what to read is itself a laborious and time-consuming process. A well-rounded reader (especially of the crazy dreamer type) knows that there are some things that need to be read: for cultural purposes (the classics, sacred texts, "literary" works); to satisfy intellectual curiosity (pop science, philosophy, theology, biographies); out of the need to understand the positions of others (creationist works, or postmodernist takes, and so on); and of course for entertainment purposes (sci-fi, fantasy, comicbooks, mysteries, whatever floats your boat).

And yes, there are structures in place to guide me – the New York Times bestseller list, say, or whatever you and/or Neil Gaiman recommend (I must say, you have impeccable taste — but you don’t need me to tell you that). But reading those lists cuts into my actual book-reading time, and also takes up more time as it makes me reflect on stuff I have read in new ways. Damned if you do, damned if you don't...

But even assuming I could find out exactly which books would do me the most good, and stuck to those, I'd still never finish — there are almost certainly more than 20,000 books that I would enjoy, or that would challenge my preconceptions, or give me insight into the human psyche, or whatever. I can't know that for sure, of course, but it seems likely given the numbers involved, and the fact that every day I spot at least one book that I really need to read (I think).

Scary stuff.

Endless Quest (For Me)
And then there's the kicker: books are still being written, thousands of them streaming out with no regard to my mammoth task. In fact, every year more books are written than I could ever read in my lifetime (around 300,000 of them or so in the U.S. alone if I can trust Wikipedia, and I know what you think about that).

Not that I'd want them to stop, of course. There are always new stories to be told, from new perspectives, new discoveries that need to be explained, new arguments, new takes on old debates, new ways of looking at the world that can only be communicated with a certain combination of words. I don't want there to be a time when no more books are written (whatever form they may finally appear in). But come on, guys, at least slow down a bit so I can catch up.

There's hope, I suppose. They could one day create some form of immortality treatment, giving me billions or even trillions of years to read all I can before the universe goes bye-bye (though unless the rate of new book creation drops precipitously, I'll still never catch 'em all). Or maybe I'll get my brain uploaded into some super-computer and get a major upgrade and scan through 'em all right quick (though quite frankly the thought of moving my consciousness around like that terrifies me for reasons I don't want to get into now, but are related to H.P. Lovecraft's excellent story, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and the biggest missed opportunity in Josh Whedon's Dollhouse series). Or maybe I'll get struck by lightning while working with chemicals and attain Flash-hood and read libraries in moments with my physics-defying super-speed.

But until that happens, I simply can’t afford to read bad books.

And more importantly, I can’t afford to read the same books over and over again, to spend countless hours poring over the same words — no matter how lovely and moving and world-changing they are.

And there’s where the trouble lies, for you.

The Final Solution
You write, I am afraid to say, far too well. Your last book was a delight, and I read it, and reread it, and missed important deadlines, and neglected my friends — because who needs any of those things when there’s a book like that in the world?

Your works have moved me and wounded me and made me hurt and made me laugh and made me love with all my heart characters who were never really real — while at the same time being more real than anyone I have ever known.

And all I have to offer you in return is the assurance that your passing will be swift, and — to the best of my ability — painless.

I had a dream, and it was silly, and overly ambitious, and just plain physically impossible, and a little bit of reality was enough to crush it. And when reality crushes your dreams, there are two choices. Dream a little smaller, or change reality. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from your beautiful books, it’s how to change reality.

Rest assured you do not die in vain — and that you will not die alone...

Yours in Words
With Respect and Regrets
Your Biggest Fan
 
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