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?
- 2 April 2008