Sunday Salon: Book Monogamy

One of the things book blogging has opened my eyes to is the wide diversity in people’s reading habits, and one area where I see a lot of variety is in the number of books people might have on the go at any one time. Some folks are definitely in the one-book-at-a-time camps, and others have nightstands ready to buckle at the weight of all the books they’re working on.

Me, I tend to be a book monogamist. I like to focus on one book and only one book. However, in practice, I can’t quite manage a pure monogamous state. I always have my “main” book (starting The Dream Kingdom by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles today), but I also usually have an audiobook on the go (The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee). And since joining my church’s book club, which discusses 100 or so pages each week, I also have a book club book on the pile (Silence by Shusaku Endo). For some, this may not seem like much to be reading at one, but I’ve figured out that more than three books, for me, can often become reading chaos.

Last year, I went through a four-book-at-a-time period because I was also rereading books over my lunch break at work. I really enjoyed those rereads, and keeping a separate book at the office was great because I didn’t have to worry about leaving reading material at home. However, I haven’t been doing that this year for a couple of reasons. The main one is that lately I haven’t been able to take my full lunch break as consistently as I’d like, so several days might go by when I don’t read at lunch at all. It would be silly to keep a book at work if I’m not going to get more than an hour of reading done all week.  But that’s only one reason I’m putting the habit aside: Last year, when I joined my church book club and added a fourth book to my pile. I sometimes felt like I had more books than I could handle. I was doing a lot of reading and not making much actual progress. What’s more, sometimes my passion for my reread in progress ended up coloring my opinion of the main book I was reading at home. Despite these disadvantages, I may take up the reread at work habit again at some point, just because it was a good way to get some rereading in, but it’s probably a practice I’ll avoid when I’m feeling scattered.

I think this inability to juggle may have to do with my general methodical tendencies. I like to start a task and work consistently at it until I’m done. I hate having several projects happening at once. At work, I do often have to manage several tasks, but I try even there to organize my day so I’m devoting large blocks of time to a single task. I can happily work away at one thing all day long, although I like some variety from one day to the next. If I keep having to set aside some task to do something else, I end up having to orient myself to that task all over again—I never achieve “flow.”

I do sometimes wish I were a better book juggler. I’d like to be able to dip into several books at once. I miss my rereading at work. I also know that certain kinds of books—heavy non-narrative nonfiction or short story anthologies—don’t lend themselves so well to reading straight through. I’ve tried different ways of integrating these kinds of books into my reading life (short stories at breakfast, a chapter of heavy nonfiction each week), but even when the books are good, I don’t find these kinds of reading experiences as satisfying as reading straight through, one book at a time.

How many books do you tend to have on the go at once? If you’re a juggler, how do you manage it? At what point do you feel like you have too many books in your currently reading pile?

In other news: After all my dithering last week, I ended up going ahead and buying an e-reader this week. I still think it’s kind of a silly purchase on my part when I have so many books on my TBR pile, but I knew I’d like one eventually, and I was wasting way too much time comparison shopping, scanning eBay auctions, and so on. So, when I spotted a Sony Touch (PRS-600, so not the latest model) for $99, I went ahead and grabbed it. It arrived on Friday, and I’ve already loaded about a billion (or 144) free classics from Project Gutenberg, Girlebooks, and onto the reader; and I’ve acquired e-galleys for several upcoming releases from Netgalley. That process was extremely easy. It may be a while before I read anything on it because I’m holding firm to the TBR Dare until April 1, but I’m considering reading one of the heavier books on my TBR pile on it in the next month or two. Once I’ve read something on it and can better assess that experience, I’ll offer a full report.

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47 Responses to Sunday Salon: Book Monogamy

  1. Say it ain’t so! As my mother might say, don’t you have enough books? Why did you need another 144? And not even real books. Sheesh. :) I am definitely not a monogamist reader. Right now I have two in active process and about three more that are in some state of progress but not being actively read.

    • Teresa says:

      As if you can talk about collecting books ;) It is precisely the fact that these aren’t “real” books that makes me feel okay about acquiring them.

  2. I used to have several books going at once, but found that it was too easy to make DNFs that way. Now I force myself to stick with one at a time (except for an additional audiobook in the car which I consider not to “count” as an additional book since it’s not in the house!)

    • Teresa says:

      I think it’s the same for me. In the past, when I tried to juggle, I ended up neglecting at least one of the books I’m working on and a DNF was usually the result.

  3. As long as they’re on different platforms, I think I can manage—currently, I’m testing out a three book stratagem. One audiobook, one digital book, and one print book. We’ll see how that goes…

  4. diana mack says:

    i can do an audio in the car, my current read, and a devotional…any more than that and i feel like i can’t get anything accomplished!!

    • Teresa says:

      That’s about the same for me, although exchange the devotional for the church book club book. (Actually, I do have a devotional with poems that I read from most mornings, but the readings are very short, so I don’t count it.)

  5. cbjames says:

    I think the correct term for you is “serial monogamist.” As opposed to a polygamist, I guess. I tend to have periods of each. I don’t think there’s a term for that.

    I’m glad to see we’re all sticking it out until April 1. Almost one month finished, too. I’m hitting a wall myself. I just got two new books in the mail that I really, really want to read.

    • Teresa says:

      You’re right–serial monogamist is more appropriate. Otherwise, I’d just be reading Jane Eyre over and over, which isn’t the worst thing in the world, I suppose… Perhaps you’re an occasional polygamist, or a serial monogamist with open relationships”?

      The e-reader is definitely throwing a kink into my TBR Dare until April 1 plan, but I do have some hefty books on my TBR that I wouldn’t have wanted to cart around in my purse, so that might just be my workaround.

  6. I used to read one book at once, but now read several. The trick is to ensure they are from very different genres or at least have different subject matters. I like to have one lengthy or complex book to make slow progress on over several months, but I will also read a few shorter books at the same time. I find it enables me to read for longer, as I often find myself needing a break from one book, but am happy to carry on reading for another hour with something a bit different. It gets easier with practice :-)

    • Teresa says:

      I think part of the problem with me is that I rarely have more than an hour or two to read each day, except on weekends. So two books on a single night would require too much shifting of gears, and skipping more than a day or two on a single book often means having to read back a bit and refresh my memory.

  7. Bina says:

    I think I’m a bit of a juggler but with a main book. I prefer reading two books, simply for varying moods (like a cosy mystery and then some nonfiction). But often uni forces me to read other books and I don’t want to give up on my personal reading, so that’s how I sometimes get to 5 books.
    I don’t like that too much though, three is the max of what I can keep track of and enjoy at the same time.

    • Teresa says:

      When I was still taking classes, I did often feel overwhelmed by the number of things I was reading. Fortunately, my school reading was usually articles or selections from larger texts, but still… a lot of reading.

  8. Victoria says:

    I’m a book monogamist. At least for the vast majority of time. I mean when I was reading Infinite Jest a couple summers ago with that online group I did read other books between, and I’ve done if a few other times. Even when I’m in a book club I try to pace out my reading so that I only have one book going. I just like to immerse myself into what I’m reading I suppose, I find that I experience it better. I do agree that short story anthologies don’t lend themselves to that necessarily and think those are better to own since you can grab it from the shelf and read a story or two from it whenever you want. But I would still only read through the whole story before picking up something else.

    • Teresa says:

      I did that Infinite Jest readalong too, and I eventually had to break down and power through. Otherwise, I would have given up entirely. Like you, I’m an immersive sort of reader, and I can’t divide myself up that much. I do have to read my book club books bit by bit because that’s the way we discuss them, and it’s easier discussion-wise to stay with the group.

  9. Heather says:

    I read one book at a time – I’m not good at switching back and forth between books at all. I tend to want to be immersed in the world of a book, whether it’s a novel or poetry or nonfiction, and that only works for me when I’m not moving between the different worlds of different books. I do usually have an issue of The New Yorker on the go at the same time as whatever book I’m reading, though even there I don’t tend to switch back and forth within the same day, and sometimes I’ll let The New Yorker pile up until I’m done with the book!

    • Teresa says:

      It’s switching back and forth that doesn’t work for me. I have to be focused on one thing at a time. One of the reasons I don’t get magazines anymore (despite being a magazine editor) is that I couldn’t switch from book to magazine either!

  10. I can have two or three going at once, depending on what they are. Sometimes I’m doing a long book for a group read, like Dickens, and I’m stretching it out so I have to have at least one other book going, usually something quite different. And sometimes I have to take a break and squeeze in a book for a face-to-face discussion, so my other books get put off. I may also have an audiobook in the car, sometimes a book I’ve already read, so I don’t feel pressured to find out what happens. But I can’t have too many going, or I get antsy.

    • Teresa says:

      One of the reasons I don’t do the scheduled group reads that I’ve seen is that I can’t easily parcel out my reading. I manage it for book group, but that’s a special case.

  11. Jenny says:

    I used to juggle several books, but I find as I’ve gotten older I have only two going at once: the main book I’m reading and the book of poetry I have on the simmer all the time. Occasionally I add a third — something I have to read for class — but usually if I do that, I make it my main book. As my real life has gotten more scattered, I have needed more focus in my reading life!

    • Teresa says:

      I seem to remember you always having several books on the go in college. I did too, but they were usually assignments. (Remember when I was reading Bleak House and Sound and the Fury at the same time? Urgh.)

      • Jenny says:

        Not only do I remember this, I totally blame it for your failure to love Dickens :)

      • Teresa says:

        But Bleak House is one of the only Dickens novels I like. Bleak House was like my mental holiday when I was reading Faulkner. It was gorging on the more cloying ones in high school that put me off Dickens I think. (But I will try Our Mutual Friend someday, I promise!)

  12. bookssnob says:

    I used to read several books at a time but then it just made me feel stressed every time I saw the pile of unfinished books by my bed, and I was forgetting the plots etc. So now I tend to stick to just the one book, though at the moment I am reading two – one on the train, and then I’m reading Little House on the Prairie before bed at night. This is mainly because Little House on the Prairie is an antique copy though and I don’t want it falling apart in my bag!

    I find if I want to read another book while I’m reading another, I’m usually fed up of the book I’m reading and should just stop reading it!

    • Teresa says:

      Yes–forgetting the plot and having to catch myself up is one of the big problems I have when I try to juggle. And I’ve also found than when I’m longing for something different, it often says something not so great about the book I’m reading.

  13. Amanda says:

    I tend to prefer reading single books at a time, unless they’re different kinds of books. I don’t, for instance, have a problem reading one and listening to another. This year I’ve got added on a short story collection (reading one story each morning) and Harry Potter in French which is more like a textbook than a reading book because of all the work I’m doing to get through it.

    • Teresa says:

      That makes sense. I don’t have trouble separating my reading from my listening at all. I think working in other things, like a story collection or a book to study more than read, has as much to do with the amount of time I have available as anything else. Stories used to work great for me at breakfast, for instance, but I’ve started reading from a devotional book then, so the stories are gone.

  14. Trisha says:

    I really prefer one book at a time, but every now and then I do this silly thing where I stop reading book 1, read the entirety of book 2, and then go back to book 1. I am doing this right now with book A being A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, little breaks with easy reads helps. :)

    • Teresa says:

      I can definitely see doing that when reading a long book. I’ve read graphic novels or YA and children’s lit to get a break when reading something long. That’s not a habit, though, just something I’ve done when I needed a break but wasn’t ready to give up on a tome.

  15. I usually have two books going at once – a harder more thought provoking read and then a lighter one for little snippets of time. I also have three audios going – one in my IPOD which sits in my bathroom and I listen to it as I get ready in the morning, one in the kitchen for when I cook and clean, and the third in my car.

    For some reason that works for me. :)

    • Teresa says:

      Wow. I cannot imagine listening to three audiobooks at once. But I can pretty much only listen to audiobooks while driving. I perhaps could when walking or on the treadmill, but that’s podcast time for me.

  16. Jenny says:

    I often have more than one book going at once, but doing this sometimes makes it harder for me to feel properly in love with any one of the books. Eventually I have to stop reading all the books and commit myself to finishing one at a time. Plus, blogwise, if I’m reading four books at once, I’m not posting any reviews because I’m not finishing anything. I think having a blog has tipped my reading habits slightly in the direction of serial monogamy (though not wholly — I’m in the middle of five books right now).

    • Teresa says:

      What you say about not being able to properly fall in love with a book when juggling has been my experience. I think that’s because I’m an immersive sort of reader, and if I don’t let myself get immersed, there’s no hope. Also, sometimes I do get immersed and fall in love and lose all interest in the other books I’m working on and resent the very thought of making progress on them. Even if they’re perfectly good books.

      And I must add that the beauty of having a blogging partner is not having to stress too much about finishing in order to post a review.

  17. Annabel says:

    I’m a one at a time gal too, although that’s one at time – hard copy and a different Kindle ebook now! I’m coping… by reading totally different books on each – ie Kindle is for Classics, real books are everything else – something in that doesn’t feel quite right but it works…

    • Teresa says:

      Since I got my e-reader, I’ve been chuckling at the fact that I’ll be reading old books on new-fangled technology and buying newer books. I have yet to see whether the reading experience is different enough for me to always have a Sony book on the go. I doubt it, but that’s mostly because it’s a time problem as much as it is a format problem.

  18. Jeane says:

    I’ve never managed to read four books at once! The most I can manage is two, and they have to be of entirely different sorts- like fiction and non-, or I get too mixed up. I’m like you; I like to focus in on one task before I start another. I never thought of how it relates to my focus on books, though.

    • Teresa says:

      I really do think my tendency to like to work through one big task at a time relates. That’s so interesting that you’re the same, Jeane, both with the tasks and the inability to book juggle.

  19. Dorothy W. says:

    Yay for the e-reader! I’m happiest when I have only one novel on the go, but I want to read other kinds of books more slowly, so I tend to mixed in some nonfiction, poetry, essays, or challenging novels that I don’t want to spend hours with. I always have one book I AM willing to spend hours with, though!

    • Teresa says:

      I would enjoy mixing in some collections or a book that’s more of a book to study than to read, but I often end up forgetting about it altogether when I try to do that.

  20. Kathleen says:

    I am definitely a book monogamist. I’ve tried reading multiple books at a time and just can’t do it! I envy people that can read 5 books at a time when I can only read one.

  21. I usually read two books at a time (one fiction and one non-ficton/chunkster) because it generally takes me long to get through the non-fiction or the chunkster. For example, this month my evening reads were The Metamorphoses by Ovid and Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.

    • Teresa says:

      I know lots of people who do that, and I could probably manage something similar if I weren’t also working slowly through a church book group book. We can’t do everything :)

    • Teresa says:

      I know lots of people who do that, and I could probably manage something similar if I weren’t also working slowly through a church book group book.

  22. rebeccareid says:

    When I was reading a lot more (i.e., last year), I”d often have four or five or eight books going at once. I liked having the option to pick up something else if I wasn’t feeling one book AT THAT MOMENT. I loved that. But since I’ve been getting about 100 pages of reading in a week so far this year, I’ve gone down to one or two. It’s much more manageable when I’m not reading as much. Like you say, I want to feel I’ve actually made progress in a week.

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