Friday, September 4, 2009

How Many is Too Many? On Reading Multiple Books at the Same Time

I'm reading four books right now — Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery and Hardball by Sara Paretsky. I'm reading the first because we're in the last weeks of Infinite Summer; the second because it seems like everyone is reviewing it and I want to read it; the third because I loved her other book (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) and because it just came out in the U.S.; and the fourth because I interviewed her this morning and needed to talk about it. They're four very different books, which means getting the plots mixed up is impossible. But what happened to the days of picking up one book, reading it, and then moving on to the next one?

Growing up I would occasionally read two books at once, but I think it was in college that I really started reading multiple books at a time. When you're studying literature, and you have to read more than one novel a week, you kind of have to be reading them all at once. But I also think in some ways my literary multi-tasking is related to the way our world is changing. Nowadays, we're expected to be able to balance an in-person conversation, keep up with two e-mail inboxes, and field phone calls that come in — all at the same time, thanks to new devices like the iPhone. While I'm in the camp that is flat-out refusing to have any hand-held device with the Internet, the expectation is there that we are able to do many things at a time. So while I may not be able to answer my e-mails and cook dinner at the same time, can I read a book for a review, along with a book for an interview, along with a book I'm reading for myself? Sure. I just did it this week.

But when you're reading multiple books it's easier for some of them to fall by the wayside. Every time a shiny new book comes into the D.C. Public Library with my name on it, Infinite Jest gets put down. Whenever I have to read a book for an interview or review, (two nights this week were devoted to reading Kate DiCamillo books), other things get set aside. And everything is going to get put down this weekend when I tackle the stack of New Yorkers, Food and Wines and Smithsonians that I've skimmed through but haven't read thoroughly yet.

I think this is okay, because even though I put books aside, I almost always go back to them. Sure there are books I don't finish, (I'm looking at you, Snow), but usually once I start a book, I have to see it through to the end. Maybe it's because so many of my writing projects linger unfinished for months or years, while finishing a book is much easier, less time consuming, and also gives me the satisfaction of completion that I need. At the same time I worry — is four books too many? Am I not giving them all the time they deserve? Is it really bad to put a book down for a long period of time before picking it back up? I don't know.

Does anyone else do this too?


  1. Amy, I'm really excited you've started this blog! I too have a tendency to get into about four books at a time -- usually one novel, one nonfiction book, one book of short stories, and one cookbook (I read them the way a person might read smut), but as you suggest, this is typical behavior for English majors and lapsed grad students. With a daily subscription to the NY Times, a couple magazine subscriptions, and my devotion to various blogs, it's a wonder I can hold a job! But, to answer your question, no -- I don't think it's a bad thing to read that many books at a time. Different books feed our brain in different ways, at least that's my rather unscientific rationale.

    Thanks for pointing me toward Gourmet Rhapsody. I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and so did my entire family. They'll be thrilled to hear that Muriel Barbery has another book in print in the U.S.!


  2. Thanks, Diana! I like that you read cookbooks — what are some of your favorites?

    And I just finished "Gourmet Rhapsody." It's good, but I didn't like it as much as "Elegance."

  3. Amy... new blog digs, eh?

    I typically have about 5 books open at any given time. Easy fiction, "Literature", Easy Nonfic, grad level nonfiction, and something totally out there... like, say, balloon art.

    I think a lot of older readers tend to do this...

  4. Oh, I'm continuing the other blog as well, but writing about books didn't have much of a place there.

    It's been nice to learn either here, or through twitter, or emails how many people are reading multiple books and it's not just me who is trying to do a balancing act.

  5. I'm enjoying your blog, having just found it today. I have always read too many books at one time. It's my guilty secret and I've always been embarrassed about it. But when I try to "reform," I find I just can't. I have to have more than one book at a time. Nice to know that others do this too!