How Many Books Is Too Many? (to be reading at once)

You can never have too many books. But it’s entirely possible to have too many on the go at one time, or too many on the physical to-read pile (as opposed to the virtual to-read list; mine currently numbers in the thousands over at Goodreads). I was prompted to think about this at the end of 2014, when I went around our flat and counted all my owned but unread books that I still wanted to read. At that point I counted 155.

One of my reading goals for 2015 was born: I would attempt to read more of the books I actually own – at least enough to keep pace with my secondhand book buying habit. So yesterday afternoon, expecting to be heartened by my progress, I did a recount. Result? 180.

WHAT?! The number went up! Gah!

It must be that all-paperbacks-for-£1 shopping spree we did at the bookshop in Henley-on-Thames…and then I brought some books back in my suitcase on our last trip to America…plus a few more review copies have arrived.

There are books all over the flat: in the spare room, on the bedroom bookcase, on the bedside tables, on the hallway bookcase, on a big four-shelf case in the lounge, on desk shelves, even in an overflow area on the shelving unit of board games, jigsaw puzzles, CDs and DVDs.

And that’s not counting the dozens of approved e-books awaiting download on NetGalley and Edelweiss, and the others already on my Nook and Kindle e-readers. It’s nigh on impossible to say no to free books, after all.

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Okay, so I’ve established that I have a book hoarding obsession that extends into both the print and electronic realms. (It’s no surprise I worked for a website called Bookkaholic for two years, is it?) But is this really such a problem? It’s somehow comforting to know that I’ll never run out of reading material.

A related concern, though, is this: Am I reading too many books at once? I have 13 on the go at the moment (8 print and 5 electronic). Especially since I got my Nook, I find that I’ve developed a kind of ADHD when it comes to books. It’s so easy to click from one book to another that I sometimes don’t stick with one for more than a chapter at a time. Sometimes, if I’m in a rut, I’ll read the first few pages of 10 or more books before I manage to settle on one.

Up until college, I was the kind of person who faithfully read just one book at a time. Since then, though, I’ve become convinced of the merit of having two or more on the go at a time: at least one novel and at least one work of nonfiction, maybe with some poetry thrown in. If you have nonfiction from very different genres – for instance, a spiritual autobiography and a nature book; or a travel book and a foodie memoir – you could read multiple nonfiction books at the same time.

The benefits are multiple.

  • If you’re bored with one book, spend time with another one. You can always go back.
  • Sometimes a pairing is fortuitous – what you’re learning in one book will have bearing on another, or the same historical figure will turn up in both.
  • The psychological burden of having a tall stack of books staring you down may encourage you to read more.

Yet there are disadvantages.

  • With novels and short story collections, you may get characters and storylines mixed up if you have too many in your head at once.
  • You’ll make progress in all the books more slowly.
  • If you get gripped by one, you might abandon the others temporarily.

Your turn:

How many books do you read at once?

What do you think is an ideal number?

How do you manage your (physical or virtual) to-read shelf?


29 thoughts on “How Many Books Is Too Many? (to be reading at once)

  1. Until graduate school, I could only do one at a time. But the degree forced me out of that habit — I was reading seven hours a day every day one semester. Upon graduating, I slipped easily back into a book at a time. Over the last year, I find myself attempting to give two or three a go at once, but I tend to abandon all but the one I find most riveting. So I suppose my default setting is one.


    1. You definitely strike me as the single-minded type 😉 I agree there’s something lovely about getting lost in one great book. I think knowing that I have books to review for deadlines has made my approach more scattered; I feel like there are so many books that need my attention at once, and I can at least fool myself into thinking I’m making progress with each of them by reading multiple books at once.


  2. Strictly one at a time. I cannot even imagine reading two at a time.
    My to read shelf is crazy but somehow comforting. I know I won’t get round to them all, but somehow that doesn’t really matter.


  3. I used to only read one book at a time, then my husband bought me a Kindle and I’d always have two books on the go as I’d take the Kindle with me if I was going out rather than taking the physical book I was reading with me. Now I’m studying for a PhD, I can easily have six on the go and switch between them. I try and divide the day up into work time and leisure time so I’ll read different things at different times of the day. I’ve no idea what an ideal number is, I suppose it depends how much you’re enjoying what you’re reading/how intense a book is. Sometimes I’ll abandon others for the time being to finish one if I’m particularly engaged by it or it demands sustained concentration. I don’t manage either my physical or virtual TBR, I mostly try not to think about it! I have a spreadsheet with publication dates on for proof copies and I work out a rough schedule but I don’t always stick to it, sometimes you just need to pull something at random off the shelf and see what it’s got for you!


    1. Ah, a spreadsheet! Now that’s what I need to keep all the e-ARCs straight; it’s a bit easier with print ones: I just stack those up in date order. A Goodreads friend tells me that Virginia Woolf once said six books at a time was the ideal — so there’s a good precedent for you there 🙂

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    1. That sounds like a great strategy for getting through classics. I started Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham in January but felt so daunted by the 800+ page heft that I ended up setting it aside and taking up a series of other shorter, ‘easier’ books instead. I would like to get through more classics, Trollope and the rest of Dickens in particular, so I will need to be more disciplined about it. Thanks for commenting!


      1. I’m so eager to hear your review of Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I loved it so much. I totally get being daunted by page lengths, but what I sort of have planned out for myself this year is forcing me to ignore that. It’s tough, especially right now as all the huge books are coming together at once.


  4. I usually have four or five books in progress; a serious book, a lighter book, something on the e-reader that I can read in my lunch break etc. I think the trick is not so much to fix on a number, but to have a good reason for each and to make sure they’re sufficiently different that you don’t get confused.


  5. I often actively read two books at once, one fiction and one non-fiction, although I’ve gotten up to 3 or 4 different books at a time of very different genres (I’ve tried the occasional graphic novel, for example). I do find that while I usually come back around and finish a non-fiction book after a break, once I take a break from a work of fiction I never come back to it. If I had liked it all that much I wouldn’t have stopped reading it. At this point in my life I very easily put down a book and don’t come back to it if I haven’t really been drawn in. .


    1. I agree — I’m much less patient now. I only give a book 10-20 pages to grip me, and if it doesn’t I tend to put it down. I’ve made the mistake of setting a novel aside at page 80 or 100 and then it’s such a struggle to go back to it when there are so many other seemingly more interesting ones calling to me. Which graphic novels have you tried? I made a conscious effort to get into them a few years ago. One of my favorites is Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.


  6. Great question, I usually have at least two on the go; one fiction and one non-fiction but I also often have a third title that is work related, usually a young adult title. I work in libraries so reading is also professional for me. Great blog.


  7. I read up to 3 books at the same time, alternating between them 🙂 not counting the 2 I’ve started and still have yet to finish 😉
    I think up to 5 books I’d be able to manage reading kind of at the same time, providing they are books by different authors and preferably different genres 😉


  8. Ok, well you know me, I’m addicted to books. Not quite on your level but I love them soooooo much. However I hate to read them on-screen so I steer clear of electronic copies. You’ve seen our huge ikea double-stacked bookcase that takes up an entire wall, so you know the drill! I like to usually read 1 or 2 books at a time. I used to read multiples but as I’ve gotten older I like having the focus and train of thought process with one story at a time. I also don’t read a ton of nonfiction so the whole cohesion of the story is really important to me and my speed-reading brain. Our budget for book-buying has drastically dropped since Fi appeared on the scene 3 years ago so we use our local library more than buying books outright. Still, we buy them now and again and some of the shelves are triple-stacked, not to mention all the books in storage and the growing collection of kids books we’re buying for Fi…she’s going to end up with a giant bookcase in her room before she even starts preschool at the rate we’re going!


    1. I am still surprised at how much I have taken to my Nook. I absolutely love it! I think I read faster on a screen than in print; whether that’s a good thing or not (whether I’m comprehending or retaining as much) I don’t know. Since you’re a novelist, I think it makes sense that you focus on fiction and that you try to immerse yourself in just one book at a time. The public library is an amazing resource; I wish I used mine more!


  9. Not too many for me, I usually like to keep a short story collection going and then a regular book. Depending on length maybe a couple of them. My current reading shelf grows as my interest in the books on the shelf wanes (looking at you, Ulysses…) so it can get daunting at times.

    Managing them is easy for the nonce. I just moved into a new apartment and have yet to get bookshelves, so I have huge piles on either side of my bed. One is read, the other is to read. It’s best not to think about it too much.


  10. I usually read 4 books at a time: a couple of poetry collections, an anthology or nonfiction book about poetry, and 1 work of classic fiction. If I tried to read more than one work of fiction at a time, I’d probably get very confused!


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