A Bringer of New Things

Musings on personal growth, books, motherhood, writing, and more.

How Many Books Can I Read at Once?


When my time comes, I would like to die from an avalanche of books.

Happily, I live in a constant mini-avalanche of books. Maybe it’s smarter to read one book at a time, in order to get through each book more quickly and give it undivided attention. But that just doesn’t work for me.

Why I Read Several Books at Once

1. It keeps my reading appetites partially satisfied (they’re never fully satisfied!), so I don’t go stir crazy while I’m trying to finish, say, Moby-Dick* and launch off on some crazy new scheme, as I’m prone to do.

(For example, one time I thought I had a brilliant idea: I would start a business helping people solve problems! I’d call myself the Personal Solution Finder. I started making a website…and a few days later, I realized that this business had only two likely outcomes: 1) nothing at all, or 2) getting myself into really big messes.) 

*which I actually never finished—see my post Funeral for My Attempt at Reading Moby-Dick.

2. Since I like to study and read textbooks, if I expected myself to read only one book at a time, I’d spend a whole year on just one book. (I’ve been reading Philosophy 1 by A.C. Grayling for about three years now.)

3. Even though reading several books at once means slow progress on each of them, that slowness is something I value: I get to digest what I’m reading slowly and leisurely, turning it over in my mind and making connections to life and to the other things I’m reading.

(I love that feeling of surprising coincidence when my readings converge! For example, last week, I read about Gothic architecture from three different books I was involved in: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Art Past Art Present, and…oh, the third was a magazine article, actually. Magazines have their place in my reading scheme too!)

And How

This is my latest reading method: I match each book I’m actively reading with a different time and place during my day. For example, I’ve been reading Don Quixote while I eat lunch at work. (Those of you who read my post Trial and Error: The Story of My Self-education Plans will recognize that I’ve reverted back to the place-based plan—just for a while, I think.)

In determining which book to read when, sometimes a book’s physical features—size, portability, print size, etc.—matter. (I don’t read ebooks; see my post Why I’m Grateful for Ebooks [But Still Won’t Read Them].) But what matters most is the book’s readability and subject matter. How much concentration does it require? Will it stimulate my mind or relax me, and which do I need at the moment? And so on.

Wait, Um, Why?

So why would I read a textbook if I don’t have to, you ask? Because I want to learn! But I do need structure for reading these books most of all, and this is where the time-and-place system really helps. For example, I’m currently “making” myself read at least two pages from Twentieth Century USA each evening before I turn to other, juicier books. Meat and potatoes before dessert!

Despite the tone of this post’s title, I don’t really feel overwhelmed (at least not right now) or apologetic about how much I love to read and study. We’ve all got a geeky thing, right? Plus, I know from your blogs that a lot of you are bookworms too!

The Books

So, without further ado, here’s what’s currently on my bookshelf.

Active: Books I’m reading a few pages of every day or so

  • The Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore
  • The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
  • Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  • Art Past Art Present by David Wilkins
  • Twentieth Century USA by C. B. Jones
  • Biology: Cliffs Quick Review by Kelly Schweitzer 
  • First French Reader by Stanley Applebaum (editor)

For Easy Reading: (I do read one book at a time in this category. Authors often in the rotation lately are Elizabeth George and Alexander McCall Smith.)

  • Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman

Listening to: (I also do audiobooks one at a time, usually.)

  • An American Childhood by Annie Dillard

For Research:

  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Other Invisible Illnesses : The Comprehensive Guide by Katrina H. Berne (along with other books on this subject)
  •  The Great Divergence : America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It by Timothy Noah (along with other books on this subject)

Passive: Books I dip into when I can

  • Philosophy 1: A Guide through the Subject by A. C. Grayling (editor)
  • The Good Book: A Humanist Bible by A. C. Grayling
  • The Norton Anthology of Personal Essays by Joseph Epstein (editor)
  • The Everything Book of Rock and Blues Piano by Eric Starr
  • Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Edwin Arlington Robinson: Poems
  • Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight
  • The Portable MFA in Creative Writing by The New York Writers Workshop
  • The Knitter’s Handy Book of Patterns by Ann Budd 

Pending: Books I’ve read partly and intend to finish A.S.A.P.

  • Republic by Plato, translation by G.M.A. Grube revised by C.D.C. Reeve
  • Lasting Love: The 5 Secrets of Growing a Vital, Conscious Relationship by Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks
  • The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality by Andre-Comte Sponville, translated by Nancy Huston
  • The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
  • When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron 

14 comments on “How Many Books Can I Read at Once?

  1. emilievardaman
    May 19, 2014

    Keep up the good read!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. booksoutsidethebox
    May 19, 2014

    Love this post- I read multiple books at a time too. Currently reading Once the Shore during my commute, An Abundance of Katherines at lunch, Meditation Made Easy in the mornings, Moby Dick too, though I’ve been working on it for over 2 years and haven’t touched it in 6 months, plus my never-ending stack of New Yorkers.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      May 19, 2014

      Awesome! See, I knew I wasn’t the only one. 🙂 Glad you liked the post. Those sound like good reads. Here’s to multi-course reading!


  3. Ginene Nagel
    May 19, 2014

    I’m always glad to hear about a good audio book because I listen to them while I’m working.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      May 20, 2014

      That’s cool! I wish I could listen to them while I’m working. But I listen while driving, knitting, or just lying in bed resting sometimes. Audiobooks are a great invention!


  4. Sarrah, I love your eclectic list of books! I’m also glad to see someone reading some Greek literature and pursuing a second language. Brava!

    There is a Moby Dick read-along coming up on Roof Beam Readers blog but you may have been too traumatized by your first attempt to want to torture yourself again. 😉

    Glad to have found your blog through The Classics Club!


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      May 20, 2014

      Thanks, Cleo! I’m glad to see another fan of classics and learning foreign languages too. It gets lonely sometimes!
      Hmm, yes, I’m not quite ready yet to try Moby-Dick again. It wasn’t exactly traumatizing (at least as far as I read), but just agonizingly slow and boring to me. I just have SO much I want to read (heh, obviously)—I can’t afford to waste time on books I don’t like!


  5. bbutler627
    May 28, 2014

    Great post.. Hefty list you’ve got going there! I read many at once too but only write about one at time usually. I may have to challenge myself this summer to read one of your picks above. I saw your comment on Classroom as Microcosm and wanted to check out what you do with your reading life. I posted about mine there too. I love a summer book club that is not required and very diverse. Glad I stopped by!


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      May 28, 2014

      Hey, thanks! Yes, I can be rather ambitious, sometimes too ambitious for my own good. But I’m trying to be good. 🙂 If you pick one of the books on my list to read, I’d definitely love to hear about it!

      I checked out your blog and am following you now. It’s great to connect with other book lovers!


  6. sharonhughson
    May 28, 2014

    Wow! The list of what you are currently reading is amazing – and lengthy.
    Until I was completing my degree while working full-time between 2010 and 2013, I read a single book at a time. I invested my whole brain in it and finished within 48 hours (unless it wasn’t too compelling). This was impossible to maintain while getting an English and Literature degree. I had two textbooks and an anthology to read at all times. I taught reading at a middle school so I also had YA books to read with the students (or to model reading to them during the silent reading time). It was during this time that I relegated my “for pleasure” book to my bedside. One or two chapters before heading off to sleep was a reward for getting everything done. Some nights I could even stay awake for it.
    Since then, I have learned to pile up books. Aside from the writing craft book and personal growth book I’m currently reading, I have three other novels in progress. My brain really can keep up with all the stories.
    As a side note, many of my books are ebooks. I have found reading on my iPad is a much easier way to read while on the treadmill. Also, I can take more ebooks along with me whenever I travel. I haven’t been without a book to read no matter where I was since downloading the Kindle app onto my phone.


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      May 29, 2014

      Thanks for your comment, Sharon. I love to hear about other people’s reading lives. I’m glad you have found ways that work for you to get more reading in your life these days!


  7. Pingback: Discussion: How many books at once? | studentspyglass

  8. Meg and Gosia
    June 20, 2014

    This made me chuckle but how it resonates!

    My current piles in various places around the house (as obviously I read everywhere) include:

    Paul Kingsnorth ‘The Wake’ – a crowdfunded post-apolyptic historical tale written in something that resembles Old English
    Chatto & Lloyd – ‘Dear Friend & Gardener – Letters on Life and Gardening
    Colloquial Icelandic – because I am teaching myself yet another completely pointless but linguistically and historically rich language (life is too short and fascinating to stick to practical choices alone!)

    Frank Boons (Ed.) – The social embeddedness of industrial ecology – for my dissertation
    Twyla Tharp – The Creative Habit – one of my touchstones for staying focussed on my creative writing

    Living room
    Alys Fowler – The Edible Gardener – a manual, almanac, gardening touchstone that is permanently consulted
    William Cobbett – Cottage Economy – ancient but as per above
    A.S. Byatt – Possession – a well-thumbed, dear old friend…


    • Sarrah J. Woods
      June 22, 2014

      What fun and interesting reads! Thanks for sharing. I like how you designate books for certain rooms, too—great idea. Happy reading!


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This entry was posted on May 19, 2014 by in Discoveries from Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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