Thing a Week 21: Background Noise

The average adult person reads approximately 250 words per minute, a little over four words per second — a speed which is typically achieved by the sixth grade and generally doesn’t improve much throughout adulthood. Similarly, the average reading speed hasn’t changed much in the past one hundred years either. From the 1900s to now, people average 250 words per minute, roughly two minutes per page.

In the time it takes to read this sentence alone, two separate property crimes — theft, burglary, larceny, arson, and so on — will be committed somewhere around the world. With sixteen more words, another person will fall victim to the unyielding stream of property crime. All the memories someone has cultivated over the years, their sentimental keepsakes, hand-me-downs, photos — all gone. For no reason other than chaos, hate, or greed; oh! there’s a fourth property crime.

Stuff is stuff, though. Even though a robbery occurs somewhere every ninety seconds, it’s still just stuff. But people need their medication, a safe place to sleep, and food they might not be able to replace. Robberies disproportionately affect the poor — in both frequency and impact, especially since seventy-eight percent of families in America live paycheck to paycheck. Oops, arsonists just burned down two more houses.

If you’re reading this at an average reading speed, two violent crimes have been committed against two unsuspecting victims in the brief time since you read the tongue-in-cheek title, and one aggravated assault — a felony assault with a deadly weapon — probably ended an innocent person’s life. By the time you finish reading this text, a stranger somewhere out there will rape or attempt to rape someone — and will again every five minutes after that, forever.

This text is exactly 500 words long, which should take the average reader two minutes to read.

During that time, five people will die from heart disease. Four people will die from cancers. Three people will die from HIV or AIDS. Two people will die from car accidents. Two people will die from digestive diseases. At least one person will make a conscious choice to kill themself: a decision that ripples into a tidal wave of suffering for every friend and family member around them.

If you read this text five times, two people will die from malaria. Reading this three times results in someone drowning. Six reads through and four people will die from alcoholism or drug overdoses. It takes seven reads before someone dies from a fire, and sixty reads before someone dies from a natural disaster.

The average person meets an estimated ten thousand people in their lifetime: an extremely small fraction of the world at large. On any given day, more than 150,000 people die in this big, bad world. If a person reaches eighty years old, they’re surviving over twelve million other nameless deaths — any one of which could statistically be them or one of their friends and family; but also statistically are more likely to just be background noise to their own life.

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