How Many Books Do You Read At Once?

So I recently read about someone who’s reading prowess means that it’s not unusual for him to have – at the extreme end of things – 45 books on the go at once. As he’s a writer and professional reviewer, it would be natural to assume that he is often reading multiple books at once. But his reasons for doing so go beyond his profession.

His logic is sound: more reading improves your mind, makes you a better writer, and gets you through a growing pile of books (a joyful pang I know only too well). It just sounds like an absolute mammoth task, even as an avid reader myself.

It just won’t stop!

I take no pride in saying this (neither am I ashamed of it), but I’m not a particularly fast reader. I’m not slow in the sense that I take time to read through passages. I’m slow in the sense that I’m the poster child for an easily distracted generation. I’m probably not the worst offender, but I’m in a no man’s land in my brain with two trenches on either side. In one sits a stack of books and a cup of herbal tea. In the other, a screaming cacophony of loud videos and bitesized social media posts. The onus is entirely on me. It’s not the technology’s fault it’s so mind-warpingly inviting.

I usually try to have at least one maybe two books on the go at any given time (you can see which books on the side bar of this site), but inevitably one will get pushed to the side while I put more effort into the other. And I’m okay with that.

It could be argued that I do have multiple books on the go, though I don’t count the majority of the ones that have been put back on my shelf with a bookmark lodged in them (“bookmark” read: “WH Smith receipt”). Those are the types of books that I’ve left unfinished for so long that, at this stage, going back to the beginning is the only way I can be sure of remembering the whole plot. I don’t really like having a year long hiatus on a story. To me, it’s like breaking off a conversation with someone mid-sentence to go on a gap year trip to Indonesia.

If memory serves me correctly, the following is a list of books that I started reading in the past, enjoyed what I’d read so far, then promptly put down with the intention of continuing at some point:

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
No Isn’t Enough – Naomi Klein
Rabbit, Run – John Updike
The Watchmen – Alan Moore
House Of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski
Discipline & Punish – Michel Foucault
A Brief History Of Seven Killings – Marlon James
The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

I absolutely admire people like the author of the article linked above. Reading should be a constant adventure. If a book isn’t doing it for him, he doesn’t shelve it. He moves onto something else until he’s ready to return to the previous book. Ad infinitum.

For him, reading dozens of books at once is like sampling the food at the buffet or going from jazz to heavy metal between tracks. To me, it’s more like moving from one room to another, each playing a different film, and trying to keep up with the plot of them all.

I suppose it’s all down to the fact that I usually read one book a month. This pales in comparison to even myself from just a few years ago and, in hindsight, if I’m going to take a whole month to read one book, I may as well take a whole month to read three, or ten, or twenty, at the same time. But it’s like writing a story and leaving it half done to rot on my hard drive. My brain becomes an unfocused mess that’s having to deal with bits of plot, half formed character arcs as well as the acute existential awareness of the inevitability of the human condition (or, you know, whatever).

More than two books at a time feels Olympian rather than a challenge I’d probably want to set myself. I would find it hard to become emotionally invested in multiple and disparate narratives, laughing at one plot, seething with rage at another, becoming philosophically contemplative with yet another (Clifford books are allegorical, I’m sure you’ll agree). But that’s me. I’m sure I’ll be open to the idea of starting and finishing more than five books simultaneously. I can honestly see the benefit of switching between novels, digesting a diaspora of characters and interactions, giving your brain a swarm of ideas that keeps your mental health in top shape. I might give it a try one day.

Except Ayn Rand. Balls to that.


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