Word Count

13 July 2020

One of the things I often need to do as a science writer is to give people a sense of scale. We often talk about billions of stars or thousands of light-years. Large numbers are easy to say but difficult for us to fully grasp. They just aren’t a part of our daily lives, so we don’t have an easy way to make it real for us.

So here’s a sense of scale for the coronavirus. Just to be very clear, stop reading now if you don’t want to hear some grim statistics.

Suppose on the day the coronavirus reached your country, you decided to start reading a book. But you would only read one word for each death.

One life, one word. No more, and no less.

Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. The first sentence of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye represents 13 lives. A baker’s dozen of living, breathing humans. Gone in a single sentence.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Ten families have lost a loved one. A parent, grandparent, child.

Call me Ishmael. Three funerals.

If you live in the United States, you would have started reading on February 6.

You would have finished The Bluest Eye on May 13.

If you had chosen The Hobbit, you would have finished on May 19.

You would be two-thirds of the way through Moby Dick.

You would currently be reading 14 pages a day.

Masks. Handwashing. Physical distancing.

Actions, not words.