How many books is too many books to read at once?

I started a book yesterday, which wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, except that it is a problem, because I’ve fallen into the habit again of starting books and not finishing them.

Not permanently not finishing them, just starting another book before I’ve finished the one I was on, and then having a pile of started-but-not-finished books build up on my night stand.

My current stack is particularly bad. It includes:

  • Putin’s Russia, by Anna Politkovskaya (1/3 finished, two years on stack)
  • An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, by Etty Hillesum (3/4 finished, 1 year on stack)
  • The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, by Michael Shermer (1/3 finished, 1 year on stack)
  • Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer (1/2 finished, 8 months on stack)
  • Voices of Chernobyl, by Svetlana Alexievich (1/2 finished, 3 months on stack)
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (3/4 finished, 2 months on stack)
  • Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, by Gretchen McCulloch (1 chapter, 1 month on stack)
  • House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones (1/2 finished, 2 weeks on stack)
  • Exhalation, by Ted Chiang, (1 story, 1 day on stack)

These are all books I’ve picked up recently enough to consider “current reads,” and all ones that I have definite plans to finish. I’ve not counted books that I started and have currently consigned to my “unfinished” list. (Sorry-not-sorry to Walden and Gravity’s Rainbow.)

Here’s how my stack got to be this way.

I usually feel that it is fair practice to have one fiction and one non-fiction book going at once. But with fiction, I tend to also want a “light” book to read as well as a “heavy” book. I often read fiction to escape—to relax and relieve anxiety. But one doesn’t readily do either of these things with a book like The Handmaid’s Tale. So if I feel myself getting bogged down, I’ll let myself pick up a faster read to keep me afloat. Thus, since starting Margaret Atwood a couple months ago, I’ve also read Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air, both by Diana Wynne Jones, as well as Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell.

Then there’s contemporary fiction. In any given year, I like to read a few books that were just published that year to keep up on what’s current. So I have to balance that against the fiction of previous decades that I’m also interested in. Plus, there are the books that friends have lent me, which I tend to want to read faster so that I can return them, but which always seem to linger longest in my reading pile.

A similar process happens with non-fiction. I like to have either a history book or a book on contemporary Russia going, so that I can reassure myself that my degrees are still relevant. I also like to have a book on language going, for both personal and professional interest.

But what about other topics that I am invested in? I’m also interested in psychology and ethics, as well as contemporary politics/journalism (the current history, if you will). And at some point I’ve promised to read Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, and must I really not read any other nonfiction until I get it done?

(I should mention that I don’t count poetry in all this. I figure poems are things you’re always picking up and setting down, and giving yourself a read-by date for poetry is like deciding to have a drink-by date for liquor—consuming too much at once can go straight to your head, and there’s no rush as it’s not going bad anyway.)

Anyway. I’m still not sure how many books is too many books to have going at once. I’m certainly not in the “one at a time” camp. I think my comfort level is probably in the 3–4 range.

9 is clearly too much. Looks like I should work on whittling that down.

2 thoughts on “How many books is too many books to read at once?

  1. I completely agree about poetry. I feel like poetry needs some time to digest, and rushing through a whole volume at once gives me literary indigestion!
    I sometimes forget what I’ve started, and then discover a book around the house with a bookmark 20 pages in. Depending on when I last picked that book up, I might have to reread from the beginning to remind myself of what is going on. A bit of a Sisyphean task!


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