Zelophehad’s Daughters

How Many Books at a Time?

Posted by Kiskilili

After a catastrophic experience last Christmas involving shopping cartfuls of books being lugged through snowbanks, I promised myself I would never check out more than 100 library books at a time again. But I don’t seem to have figured out what the happy medium is when it comes to reading. How many books can one reasonably read simultaneously? Is there a saturation point at which you stop really paying attention to any one book because you’ve spread your cognitive resources too thin? Is 10 too many–if all of them are on different subjects or in different genres? How about 20, or 40?

As much as anything, I think my inability to settle on just a few books at a time is indicative of my fundamentally indecisive nature. I can agonize at length over which dish to order in a restaurant or which flavor of yogurt to buy. When it comes to books, why not just have a buffet?

At least I haven’t yet looked up a book in an online catalogue, noticed it was checked out, and then unknowingly recalled it from myself, because I forgot I was the patron who checked it out. (At least not yet.) But I did once check a book out that I was eager to read, and then, in frustration when I realized it was checked out, check the same book out of another library. Then I bought the book. Sadly, I still haven’t made it past page 2. (At least I’ve returned both library copies.)

I’ve instituted a policy that I won’t recall books from other people unless I intend to prioritize them in the line-up. But in general, I have difficulty deciding how to order my books in the queue. First there are the stacks of books around my bedroom, which should deserve the most pressing attention; then there are the reading lists I’ve created on my computer, and then short lists of long lists, and short lists of short lists.

One of the things I love in The Name of the Rose is the mysterious and massive secret library hidden away in a labyrinth. I would like to build such a library in my dream home. Except that sometimes I feel like I’m wandering that labyrinthine library, as it were, thoroughly unsure where I should be going or how to get there, dipping into books at random and reading nothing carefully because I can’t stop wandering (the point of a labyrinth, after all, is to get lost).

On my nightstand next to my bed, at the top of a stack, is a history of urbanization I’ve been reading for months (or has it been years?) off and on. It’s not that it’s uninteresting; on the contrary, I’m fascinated to discover that for most of history cities were not self-replenishing but relied on a constant influx from the countryside to maintain their population. But since I own it (I picked it up off a bargain table), it’s never the priority, since I feel an illogical obligation to read library books first.

But sadly, even library books don’t always manage to make it up to the front of the pack before they’re called home. I’ve checked out God’s Funeral at least three times now without having read it. Perhaps the fourth time will be the charm.

I have only a few qualms about putting a book down, though, if it proves uninteresting. Many years ago I glanced through a book of essays on the Pearl of Great Price, in one of which the author attempted to calculate how many books one could read in a lifetime (the point being you should focus your limited energies on the scriptures). In sheer horror that I had so little time to read and I was wasting it on an exercise in quantitative drivel, I put the book down forever. (Not to be confused, of course, with “having the book put down.” The book remains alive and well for others to peruse at their pleasure, should they choose.)

Am I temperamentally not a scholar, because I’m too engrossed in a history of cleanliness to investigate one single topic sufficiently in depth to produce a dissertation on it?

How many books do you read at a time, and why? Is it best, in recreational reading, to read one book straight through before starting the next? Is there a maximum number of books one can juggle simultaneously, and if so, what is it?

23 Responses to “How Many Books at a Time?”

  1. 1.

    At least I haven’t yet looked up a book in an online catalogue, noticed it was checked out, and then unknowingly recalled it from myself, because I forgot I was the patron who checked it out.

    K, one day you, too, will reach the depths of my forgetfulness.

    I’ve instituted a policy that I won’t recall books from other people unless I intend to prioritize them in the line-up.

    That explains why I’ve been able to keep my books for so long!

    Really, though, I feel encumbered by the same problem. Right now, I don’t even bother with fiction, though I’d love to. Sadly, The Name of the Rose has been top on my “fun” priority list for years…

  2. 2.

    Embarrassingly enough, The Name of the Rose is on my list, too! But since I own it, I haven’t made it past the first 50 pages or so (and that was years ago). I have, however, made time to watch the movie. I recommend it, except for the unfortunate gratuitous sex scene. One day, perhaps soon now, I’ll even read the book [hangs head in shame].

  3. 3.

    I think 2-8 at one time is fine with 3-4 being ideal. I find that if I skip around too much, I forget what’s going on. I’m also a big believer in books in context — the book by the bed, the book for the commute, the book on the PDA, the book for Sunday afternoons.

    One at a time doesn’t work for me because then I only read fiction. I need to have a couple of novels and at least one non-fiction work going on at a time so that if I’m not in the mood for one, I can pick up the other instead of watching TV or whatever.

    I have been using GoodReads — http://www.goodreads.com — to organize my reading since last July. Yes, it’s a bit of a commitment to input stuff, but its way better than the huge Word document I was using. The great thing is that you can add tags to the books to help organize them — and you can make some tags mutually exclusive.

    So, for example, I have to-read, currently reading, read, and on-deck. On-deck means that the book is on order from the library or in the house AND something that I want to get to soon. I find that that really helps me prioritize my reading. If a book is in the currently reading category, but I’m not actually reading it, it gets pushed back to on-deck or to-read. If a book is on-deck for awhile and I find that I really don’t want to read it right now, it goes back to the to-read category.

    It keeps me honest. And it also has made me more aware of my reading patterns and persuaded me to round out my reading a bit more (even though speculative fiction still ends up being the bulk of what I read).

    There’s a social networking component to it as well so it’s fun to see what your friends are reading.

    Also: I really enjoyed The Name of the Rose but I don’t know that I’d have any interest in seeing a movie based on it — so much of its appeal is in the literariness of the mystery.

  4. 4.

    Thanks for the recommendation of goodreads, William. I know several of us ZDs have had long discussions about how best to write notes for each other about books we like and don’t like. We still pretty much just email them around with a group email list, but we’ve talked about trying LibraryThing, Google Books, Amazon Media Library, and I think Lynnette even started us a family book Wiki once. Goodreads looks like a nice straightforward (and cheap!) solution.

    Kiskilili, I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum. As a kid and teenager, I read several books at a time (although nothing like at the level you do!) but now I find I can only read one or at most two at a time. Perhaps it’s because of a deficiency in my long-term memory. Or if not a deficiency, that I worry that it’s there so I don’t like to be away from a book too long and still think I can pick the thread of it back up when I go back. I guess I am very much like you in that I keep long lists of books I want to read, but I typically don’t acquire many books (either from the library or by buying them) until I’m really just about to read them. Sad to say, I can still sympathize with checking out a book a bunch of times without reading it. It’s just that I take library books ten at a time, instead of in hundreds so I might have it happen less often. :)

  5. 5.

    I usually have 5-6 going: a heavy novel; a light novel; a teaching novel, play or critical text; a collection of essays a history or other non-fiction; and a rotation of ‘classics’ (Homer to Malory).

    As a school teacher in Finland, I get priority checkout from the public libraries! It is a power I try not to abuse, especially after a student complained that he had been waiting forever for the Beevor Spanish Civil War book and I had queue-jumped him and let it languish on The Pile. I have an awesome power: I ought not abuse it.

  6. 6.


    You are welcome. Some people hate that kind of thing (all that data entry), but for anyone who reads more than a couple of books a month and/or has a long reading list, it really is quite nice. And, of course, it’s all Web 2.0 so that you can publish your categories (bookshelves) as RSS feeds to a mobile device so that when you are at the library or a bookstore you have what you need to get right there.

    And in addition to “friending” each other, and commenting on each other’s books, you can also create a ZD group.

    Look at me being all the web evangelist.

  7. 7.

    I use LibraryThing.com for maintaining my library (wow, when I call it my library, it makes me sound so fancy!), and if I were ever more organized, I could use it to keep track of what I’m reading, etc.

    I’m currently in the middle of 7 books. It’s too many. Toni Morrison and Leif Enger and Coke Newell and Cervantes all get into too many fights in my head about who belongs where. The non-fiction I’m reading is easier to categorize in my brain and keep separate. My nightstand is unhappily unseen under the weight of about 40 books. I should get another bookshelf…

  8. 8.

    I should get another bookshelf…

    Don’t you mean another nightstand? :) Gotta keep those books handy! Another bookshelf would be too out-of-the-way.

  9. 9.

    Currently I am in the middle of four books, not counting four or five other books I have been reading significant chunks of for school. I feel like the best number for me would be two or three: one fiction book, one non-fiction book, and possibly one more.

    My problem is that if it takes me more than about two weeks to read a book, I tend to get antsy, and sometimes I start to read another book to give myself something new to think about (and to enjoy that awesome starting-a-new-book feeling!). Of course, this only means that it will take me even longer to finish the first book. I know, I know, my strategy makes no sense. I am convinced that the problem would disappear if only I could read faster.

    I often get over-ambitious about how many books I can read in the near future and check out way more books from the library than I can feasibly read before the due date. In a few cases, I have racked up big library fines simply because I didn’t want to return books before I had read them (and I had used up all my renewals). When matters get really out of control like this, I put myself on what I call Library Probation: I deny myself the privilege of checking out any more books until I have paid all my fines and read and/or returned all the books I have.

  10. 10.

    After my own heart…

    Unfortunately, our library only lets one hold 10 items per card. So I fill up my card and my husbands with books, and I’m about to get my 3 year old a card so I can use his 10 holds, too. Some books come quickly, some take quite a long time. Because of that, I never have too many at once. Maybe 10? I read really fast, so I tend to stick to one book at a time and just plow through them quickly. For example – read one yesterday, almost done with another today. (of course, that all comes at a loss of remembering what I’ve read too far down the line)

  11. 11.

    I have to put in a plug for LibraryThing over GoodReads (although mostly because I’ve already got an account over there, so it would be more convenient of me to keep track of the ZDs if you were on that site). However, I think that you (Ziff) would have a ton of fun with the amount of statistical data available on LT, and I understand that GR is more lacking in that area.

    I have a LT account for all the books I own plus all of the one’s I’ve ever read. (Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do that; there aren’t any LT police to stop you from doing it.) I’ve got a separate LT account for the books that I want to read, carried over from my University of Illinois “bookbag” that was integrated into their library catalog.

    Personally, I’m usually not reading more than 3 or 4 books at once. Usually it’s a combination of reference book + lighter reading or foreign language book + English language book or art book + novel. And since I’m apparently the only one at my library who cares about the 600 page Routledge Swedish Grammar, I’ve got it perennially checked out, although I’m not technically reading it.

  12. 12.

    Thanks for the recommendation of GoodReads, Wm Morris–this is the exact sort of thing we ZDs need for exchanging titles and recommendations, among other things. It would be a blast! And your system for reading sounds awesome.

    Justine, you’re absolutely right that it’s not feasible to read too much fiction simultaneously; I’ve had similar problems! Even if you don’t confuse the plots, a character will be mentioned and you have no idea anymore who they are. (Your nightstand sounds like mine! :) )

    Anna, I think I suffer from the same problem you do; isn’t there a Ramona book in which Ramona takes one bite out of a huge number of apples, because the first bite is the best? I frequently start new books because they look so shiny and interesting even though I haven’t finished the old books, and then I start even more because there are more topics I’m interested in than I can currently be reading about at any one time. And I’m similarly unrealistic about the number of books I can read before they’re due.

    Julie, I’m seriously shocked you’re limited to 10 library books at a time! This is just wrong! What do we pay taxes for, anyway?!?

    LibraryThing sounds fun, too, Katya. I don’t think I can come down to 3 or 4, but perhaps I can start limiting myself to 6 or 7 reads at a time (counting English books only)?

  13. 13.

    I will not snark.
    I will not snark.
    I will not snark.

  14. 14.

    How do librarything and goodreads.com compare with Shelfari? I got talked into registering at shelfari by a friend but never remember to actually enter any books.

  15. 15.

    Hmm, I didn’t realize that about cities. Do you have a link to the book on Amazon?

  16. 16.

    Sure, Stephen; it’s called Cities, by John Reader. Thanks–you’ve just rekindled my interest in it. I think I’ll move it up in the queue, so to speak.

  17. 17.


    LT is the only service that grabs data from sources besides Amazon. They take catalog records from the Library of Congress and hundreds of other libraries, so they have better coverage when it comes to older materials and non-English materials. Also, Shelfari has the unfortunate reputation of tricking its customers into spamming their entire address books with invites.

  18. 18.

    At least I haven’t yet looked up a book in an online catalogue, noticed it was checked out, and then unknowingly recalled it from myself, because I forgot I was the patron who checked it out.

    I must confess I’ve come very close to doing that, but fortunately caught myself in time.

    I’m terrible when it comes to checking out excessive numbers of books. When I’m doing research, I don’t seem to have the patience to actually look at a book while I’m at the library and figure out if it’s actually applicable to what I’m working on–so I check out anything that looks vaguely related. Which is probably not the most effective strategy, especially since the books usually come home only to sit in piles on my floor.

    When checking out books for fun, I find this interesting spiral in which the more you have, the easier it is to add to the pile. It might take me a long time to pick an initial book to check out. But once I have one, it’s easier to grab a second–and once I’m up to fifteen, I’m prone to just add random titles that caught my eye. Though I don’t have a car at the moment, and I live uphill from the library, which restrains me a little.

    I remember once as a kid deciding to read all my library books at once, a chapter at a time. I put them in a pile and rotated through. But I think I only managed to do that for one chapter–then one of the books got so exciting that I cheated and finished the whole thing without going back to the other books.

    I also find that I travel with too many books, because it’s hard to guess what I’ll be in the mood to read and I want to have options. (Then there’s the fact that I’m usually delusional about the amount of studying I’ll do on a trip.) Then when I find myself hauling ten books in a suitcase that I never bothered to look at, I wonder just what I was thinking when I packed!

  19. 19.

    Thanks Katya, I’m glad that I’ve been a slacker at doing anything with Shelfari based on what you said.

  20. 20.

    My new strategy is to be more selective about the books. So I give a book 25-50 pages. If I’m not feeling it after 50, it’s gone.

    I feel free from the servitude of “must finish a book”.

  21. 21.

    My attention at the moment is already so divided (blogosphere, e-mail lists, TV, magazines, movies, small children) that I really can’t handle more than one book at once (you can’t really count the Judith Thurman bio of Colette with a bookmark in the middle for the last three years as something I’m currently reading). Even before I had children (and there was no blogosphere), I was more likely to just read one book at a time. I’m a fast reader, but my short-term memory is not as good as I’d really like it to be, so that makes it easier for me to keep track.

  22. 22.

    I can relate to that problem, Janeannechovy, but for some reason it doesn’t deter me from reading multiple books at once! Most of what I read is nonfiction, which makes it easier to keep track of. (You can frequently pick up a nonfiction book after several months hiatus and get a general idea where you were headed. Although you probably don’t pick up on the complexities of an author’s argument that way. :) )

    Even though in theory I adore written fiction, and even though my favorite TV show ever is a documentary, right now I’m finding it extremely difficult to find good fiction or good documentaries. So I’m getting my “information” from reading and my vicarious experience from movies/TV. In practice this split works well, but I’m not sure I like it in theory.

    Rowish, I think that’s a wise policy. In the past I’ve forced myself to finish too many books I simply wasn’t interested in.

    Lynnette, I have the same problem with research (which is exactly where the 100+ library books came from to start with–at least for the most part). I keep getting library notices that I have books on hold and I don’t even remember putting the books on hold, let alone why. Accruing bigger and bigger stacks of “stuff” hardly seems like the most efficient way to research.

    Norbert, I would be similarly tempted if I commanded such library power!

  23. 23.

    During school, it’s all class and research reading, but during breaks I keep three to five going at all times. I try to do a range of types, so that it’s easier to keep them separate and I have something for each of my moods: a novel, a critical work, history, art history, and usually something in German.

    And Lynette, I, too, check out every book vaguely related to my topic, and then only read a very small selection of them.

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