Do You Read Just One Book at a Time?

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, 1/1/21

For some reason I can’t read just one book at a time. Well, I actually do read just one book at a time if we’re talking about the singular now. But if we stretch the definition of time to mean a more generous sense of the now, then I’m always reading several books at once.

The eight books pictured above are the main ones I’m concurrently reading in that bigger definition of now.

I switched between reading and listening to Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America by Kurt Andersen, and discussing it with my friend Linda who is also reading it. I call this my two-person book club. Andersen chronicles how conservatives began manipulating law schools and the judicial system back in the 1970s to reduce personal and corporate taxes and fight regulation. This essentially covers the rise of the libertarian movement. Evil Geniuses plows similar ground to Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer which Linda and I read years ago. I also bought Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman and 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang to supplement our reading of Evil Geniuses. In this one case, you can see how one book pushes me to read multiple volumes. Kurt Andersen is a great synthesizer.

I’m also listening to The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson because it’s probably the most important science fiction novel since Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Like Zanzibar, it’s told in a nontraditional narrative style, which will probably annoy some readers, but then so did Zanzibar. The story narrative is frequently interrupted by monologues and dialogues that lecture the reader. However, I don’t mind. The opening chapter was one of the most dramatic and scary visions of a climate change future that I’ve ever read. I highly recommend following the link to read it. Science fiction is seldom this serious.

And I’m listening to Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy because I was reorganizing my bookcases and it caught my eye. It was originally published in 1984, and I believe I read it back then. I’m listening because when I found the old paperback I checked to see if there was an Audible edition and discovered I already owned 25th anniversary edition on Audible. My two favorite subcultures grew out of science fiction and computers, and I’ve always loved reading history books about their early pioneers. For years I’ve been wanting to do a blog post that covered all my favorite computer history books in a useful timeline.

I’m reading The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction Third Series edited by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas because I’ve been collecting old copies of F&SF and have been feeling very nostalgic about them. My online friend George Kelley plans to read and review the entire F&SF annual anthology series this year starting this month. Unfortunately I don’t have the first and second series. They are very rare and when they do come up for sale very expensive. However, I do have all the original issues from the early years those first two anthologies cover.

I’m reading Year’s Best SF edited by David G. Hartwell because I’m leading an online discussion of it on Facebook. That group keeps me busy because we keep two anthologies under concurrent discussion. We just finished 50 Short Science Fiction Tales edited by Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin, and are about to start Orbit 1 edited by Damon Knight. I’m having big reading fun gorging on old science fiction short stories, but it takes up a lot of reading time.

I need to get back to my Best American Short Stories 2020 project (BASS 2020). I’m on story #9 of 20. This reading is taking me out of my science fiction obsession and reminding me what the literary world is writing.

A couple weeks ago I was at the used bookstore and spoted Is That All There Is: The Strange Life of Peggy Lee by James Gavin. I’ve been listening to Peggy Lee and other female vocalists from the 1950s so I grabbed it up. I was reading on it hot and heavy when I decided I need to finish War and Peace before 2020 ended. Now I’m anxious to get back to it.

Finally, a guilty pleasure, The Deviates by Raymond F. Jones. I started reading it because of the lurid cover. I read two of Jones’ Winston Science Fiction juveniles last year. He also wrote This Island Earth which was made into a fabulous 1950s Sci-Fi flick. Jones is not a well-remembered science fiction writer, but his books dwells in that territory that sets off my 1950s science fiction nostalgia.

As you can see, my mind is not focused. I actually have a few more books lying around with bookmarks in them, and my iPhone has some more titles loaded that I’ve started but not finished, and my Kindle has several books that when you click on them take you to the middle of things. And my Scribd has some audiobooks and ebooks I haven’t finished yet either. But I didn’t want to list all of those books I’m trying to read because I don’t want to come across as completely scatterbrained.

I’m just wondering how many bookworms are like me, and how many of you are more focused?


16 thoughts on “Do You Read Just One Book at a Time?”

  1. I read/listen to multiple books. It’s not so much a plan as that I keep starting new ones before I finish the old ones.

    When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, our local library had a pretty poor selection of science fiction. But they did have ‘The Best from F&SF” going way back, God bless’em. I chewed through those repeatedly with no idea what was good and what was bad.

  2. I used to read like 5 books at the time. One for in bed, one for on the train, one for tea time, one at my parent’s place when I visited… but I can’t do that anymore. The more books, the longer it takes me for actually finishing anything. Now I do one or two at the time.

    1. I’ve wondered if I only read one book at a time if I would get more books read? For the first half of my life that is how I read, and I indeed read more books per year. But I don’t think I thought about them as much. I read to occupy my mind. Now I read to process ideas, so that act of reading makes me want to go read other books to explore ideas I was just reading about.

  3. I read one history monograph at time and one SF book. I often put SF down for months at a time before I pick them back up, but I don’t consider that reading at the same time.

  4. I usually have 4 or 5 books going at one time:
    One fiction–either print or on my Kindle–for pleasure reading and before sleep
    One audiobook–usually a mystery–for my daily walks
    One or two nonfiction books–on whatever topics currently interest me
    One book on the craft of writing (from the two shelves of writing books I’ve collected over the years).
    There are always more in the wings and more on the way from the library. It’s not hoarding if it’s books….

  5. I usually read one novel at the time, and that gets my focus, but I always at the same time read 2 of 3 art books and a non-fiction book for if I’m not in the mood for fiction.

  6. I know how it is to have too many books started at once, but I try to limit myself to the following:
    – one audiobook,
    – one fiction ebook,
    – one non-fiction ebook,
    – one spiritual/philosophical ebook.
    Sometimes I throw in a physical book into the mix as well. This works for me as long as all books are distinctly different. Otherwise they begin to mix in my head.

    BTW I have a question regarding The Ministry of the Future: do you think it works well as an audiobook (given its narration style)?

    1. Well, I’m always partial to audiobooks. In this case, they got many different readers to do the book. I don’t know if they got people with original accents, but they have accents for the different characters. But in one case it sounded like a person from India trying to do an Irish accent or vice versa. I find audiobooks better for the monologue and dialogue infodumps.

      I’m only several chapters into the book, but I’m not sure if all the authorial lecturing is needed. Some of the dramatic scenes make us far more worried about climate change. My friend Linda gave up on the book, but I’ve been trying to get her to go back. Since Barrack Obama said it was one of his favorite books last year I thought that might convince her to try again. It’s a shame KSR couldn’t have pulled it off dramatically without resorting to so much preaching. But like I said, the combination reminds me of Stand on Zanzibar. So far, KSR hasn’t tried to create radio, television, and other pop-cultural artifacts from the future.

  7. It’s usually 2 books at the most for me. One fiction and one non-fiction. That does not always work out and one of them suffers. I want to read 10-15 mins in bed before going to sleep but i don’t want to do that with non-fiction books. Therefore if i am reading 2 books that means the non-fiction is in the morning/afternoon and the fiction one in the afternoon/at night.

  8. Interesting how many people read multiples at a time. When I’m blogging BASS or Pushcart, I usually have 2 or 3 pieces “in process” at any one time – first read, pull-quote read, research, draft post, finish post – but that’s because I like to have some “percolation time” between each step. I occasionally have a “bus read” – a book of short, self-contained articles or stories that take <15 minutes to read, such as history of philosophy or women artists from recent reads. But I've never read two novels, story collections, or nonfiction books at the same time (except in academic subjects where multiple sources are assigned).

  9. One book at a time is my preferred mode of reading. I do carry short story collections in my vehicle in case I need a quick reading fix while my wife is shopping in a store or something. But they are emergency reading only.

  10. I cannot just read one book at a time. I’ll be reading some book in morning and then another one at night. mostly one chapter from each or more. sometimes i continuously read two or three books, rading a few more pages in all of them in, say two hours..

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