Some book lovers are monogamous: they read one book at a time, and finish it before picking up the next. Others are what we might call polybiblious: We like to read more than one book at the same time.
I suspect it’s a habit I developed in college, when every day I had to read different books for different classes. Some were history, some were historical novels, some were critical analyses of poetry and fiction.
Today, more than 30 years out of school, I still prefer to read two (or three, or four) books simultaneously. This morning, for instance, I read 15 or 20 pages of the third (translated) installment of a wonderfully dark series of police procedurals set in Iceland, by Arnaldur Indriðason, titled The Draining Lake. Once I’d arrived at the coffee shop where I could relax and spread out before a video shoot, I put that one in my bag and returned to about page 320 of Believing the Lie, the seventeenth and latest Inspector Lynley mystery by Elizabeth George.
Sometimes, you’re forced by external circumstances to read more than one book at a time. There’s the book you most want to read, and the book or two that you have to read … because the book group is meeting to discuss it in a few days, because it’s due at the library and someone else has placed a reserve request on it, or because (occasionally, in my case) you’ve promised to review it for someone. But I also like to read two or three books at once, most of the time. Rather than grind away at one to the finish before turning to another, my mind likes a change of pace, scene, or style after an hour or two, and most books take longer than that.
Usually, the best combination is a nonfiction book and a novel. Here’s why. Say you get engrossed in the fiction and feel compelled to finish the story. If the other one you’re reading is biography, history, or science, that’s easier to put aside and come back to after a week -- even a month or more -- and not feel the story’s gone cold. That doesn’t work so well with literature or a thriller, where you strain to recall who’s who and what was happening when you put it down.
As fascinating as it can be, nonfiction doesn’t often zing and zip as often as a good thriller, so whether the nonfiction I’m currently enjoying is a fat or thin tome, I often get through two, three, or more novels before I finish the nonfiction alternative. More than a decade ago, I steadily renewed a library copy of Norman Davies’s Europe: A History -- a rich 1,365 pages -- for almost a year, leaving it fallow for months on end before finally reaching the final page. It’s a wonderful book, but still a bit of a slog.
I must have started and finished dozens of other books before completing the Davies and returning it to the Multnomah County Library. I don’t know whether to be pleased that I got to keep it that long or saddened that apparently no one else was interested in it.
Which is not to say I never read two or three novels at once. Over the past year, my growing thirst for mysteries and police procedurals has had me simultaneously enjoying tales from different continents (Henning Mankell’s Swedish mysteries; or Colin Cotterill’s adventures of Dr. Siri, a septuagenarian coroner in Laos) and time periods (Bruce Alexander’s 17th-century London magistrate, Sir John Fielding, and Philip Kerr’s hard-boiled private eye in Nazi Berlin and post-war Argentina, Bernie Gunther). Witness this morning’s adventures of Iceland and Scotland Yard detectives.
When you’re dependent on the library for most of your reading material, there is an element of gambling to this process. Every once in a while, a request from another reader catches you in the middle of a book you’re really enjoying. Then you’re faced with a rock-versus-hard-place choice: put the others aside and finish the book, with a risk of going overdue and having to pay the fine, or return it half finished.
I think I have done the latter once or twice, and immediately entered another loan request to get the book back as soon as possible, but that’s so unpleasant that I usually choose to keep reading and pay the fine.