Shawn Vestal: Voracious reader enjoys thrill of tale well told, 4,000 books later
Paul Wasson is reading his 4,000th book since 1971.
Or perhaps that should be cast in the past tense: He was reading it, as of Tuesday. By now, he’s probably on 4,001.
Wasson, a Spokane attorney and omnivorous reader, has been taking in a couple of books a week since he graduated from Gonzaga University. It’s a whole lot of books, and while there are surely others who have read as much, Wasson’s careful habit of tracking everything he’s read – an inch-thick list covering 42 years – makes him unusual even in the world of book gluttony.
Anyone who has enjoyed a long reading life would envy Wasson his record-keeping – a massive accounting of the nourishing and enjoyable hours spent with your nose in a book. “It’s just slightly under 1,000 books a decade, a hundred books a year,” he said.
You might assume Wasson reads constantly, eschewing television, tablets and the other time-sucks of modern life, but he doesn’t.
“Oh yeah, I watch TV,” he said. “That’s one of the regrets. I think about how much time I’ve wasted. … I think, ‘How many books could I have read?’ ”
At his pace, that’s an open question. Wasson, 64, grew up in Spokane, one of 10 kids, and he went through the full complement of Gonzaga education: from G-Prep to GU Law School. Upon his graduation from GU in 1971, he decided to start keeping track of what he read – the typewritten list that even now bears the heading: BOOKS READ SINCE COLLEGE.
“I figured, well, let’s not let the education go to waste,” he said.
The first title was John Steinbeck’s “Sweet Thursday,” the sequel to “Cannery Row,” and Wasson finished it May 10, 1971. Wasson read a lot of good stuff that first year, from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” to Cormac McCarthy’s debut novel, “The Orchard Keeper.” He read a few Rex Stout titles; Stout was the author of mystery novels starring the detective Nero Wolfe.
The Rex Stout novels show the seeds of what would become a lifelong passion for Wasson: detective stories and mysteries. He reads widely in different genres but has a particular interest in great series with recurring detective characters. The walls in his home library are filled with the evidence of his favorites: James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard, Dennis LeHane, P.D. James …
In recent years, he’s begun reading more Scandinavian and European mysteries.
“I ran out of good American mysteries,” he said.
An early riser, Wasson often is up by 4 or 4:30 in the morning, and he reads until work. In the evenings, he might read for another hour or so.
“To read two a week, I always have five or six going on the bed stands and lamp stands,” he said. “I always have more going than I can finish.”
Wasson’s record-keeping allowed him to note the moment, in 2006, when he crossed the million-page mark. And it alerted his “crazy book club” to his 4,000-book milestone, for which they produced a mock proclamation, honoring him for his “feat of intellectual studiousness, sedentary arterial occlusion, mind-wandering globe-trotting … and deliverance from reality.”
Wasson’s habit is evident the moment you enter his home – and walk into a library lined, floor to ceiling, with bookshelves.
“This is the fiction,” he said. “It starts over here by the staircase with the A’s and goes all the way around” – he sweeps his arm nearly full circle – “to the Z’s over here.”
He shares the bounty with friends and family. He keeps a long list of mystery series, including the major recurring characters, as suggested reads.
“A lot of people will come over with their sack or their boxes, and when they leave they’ve got another sack or box full,” he said.
Wasson reads across many genres, in many forms: physical books, e-books, audiobooks. He gives each book 50 pages to grab his interest, and a lot of books have made the cut. Browse his list and you’ll find J.D. Salinger next to Ed McBain in 1976, John Updike alongside Louis L’Amour in 1981, Albert Camus next to James Ellroy in 1990, John Cheever next to Walter Mosley in 2000.
What’s the value of all that reading? Wasson said it is, in part, a way of expanding empathy for others. Reading carries you out of yourself, which is an important place to be.
“It obviously is an easy way to travel around the world,” he said. “It can really get you out of your own skin, I guess, and get you into other people and places.”
For his 4,000th book, Wasson chose to get into the fictionalized skin of Gary Gilmore, who was executed for murder in Utah in 1977, by rereading Norman Mailer’s “true life novel,” “The Executioner’s Song.”
Wasson tallies books again when he rereads them. When people protest, he has a ready reply: He was a different person each time he read it.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.