“We Americans,” he said, “like change. It is at once our weakness and our strength.” – W. Somerset Maugham
I am reading too many books right now. I generally only read one book at a time. Well, amend that. I am more comfortable only reading one book at a time.
When I was younger and had leisure time and my only responsibilities were to study and go to school, I was book monogamous. Once my schoolwork was done, I’d tear into fiction, the sole book I was committed to at the time, and I’d read for hours on end. I did not start a new book until I finished the first one.
In my 20s I discovered creative nonfiction (though I didn’t know it was called that at the time). I think the game-changer for me was The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman, and so I added nonfiction to my reading repertoire. By then I had a job and could not read during the day, so any nonfiction I picked up had to be reading-in-bed worthy. It had to read like fiction. And still, I read one book at a time.
Then somewhere in my 30s I started exploring other nonfiction. I picked up works that were still interesting, but maybe not as page-turning as a well-written biography or Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef. I started reading writing books, and nonfiction about introverts, and I Thought My Father Was God, a book of essays from NPR’s National Story Project. As an at-home mom, nonfiction lent itself well to my new role. Because I’m not going to sit down and read a writing book or a compilation of essays cover-to-cover, I’d read my nonfiction in small pieces, during the day. During work hours. I craved injections of knowledge in my cloistered at-home life, and as an at-home mother I had small pockets of time during the day to read, while I nursed a baby in the early days, or at lunch now. Reading fiction at home while everyone else was at work seemed decadent, like eating bonbons, and nonfiction allowed me to read during the day without feeling guilty. iction remained my special treat, not to be consumed til after 5 o’clock, like a well poured cocktail. It was my prize at the end of the day.
Consequently, over time, I found myself not reading one, but two books at a time. This was fine, kind of. It made me a little uncomfortable, dividing my attention like that. But, since I separated the types, and kept it to one book of each – a nonfiction title for daytime and a fiction title for night – the dual reading became manageable. I began to be able to handle it. I thought of the nonfiction as being educational, as if I were at work, and the fiction as it always has been, as my pleasure.
But I have found that this reading two books at a time is a slippery slope. A gateway to rampant reading polygamy. Before I knew it, in addition to a daytime nonfiction title and a nighttime fiction title, I also had a book of short stories going. And in addition to my writing book, maybe I picked up a memoir as well. Next thing you know, I’m reading short stories during the day (I know! I may as well paint my nails while I watch soaps!), and I’ve even got an audiobook as backup for those occasions when I’ve listened to all my favorite podcasts.
Now? There are 8 books on my currently-reading list. As a result, I feel scattered, like I can’t commit. It’s hard for me to get into any one story when I’ve got so many going at once. I get distracted by my options, all these starts that need to be finished, and rather than being eager to dive into a single work for the simple pleasure of consuming its words, these books have been reduced to loose ends I must scramble to tie before my reading life unravels.
I don’t want my reading life to unravel.
I’ve got a plan. Book club is next week, and so our group pick, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, has become my number one priority, even though I was really, REALLY enjoying reading Little Miss Strange (a coming of age novel set in 1970s hippie love culture – for night reading) in tandem with Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, (poignant essays of the same era – for day reading), when The Razor’s Edge finally became available at the library. Once I finish Maugham, which I’m pretty sure I’m going to need to read during every available reading minute (including daylight hours) in order to finish in time for book club, I’ll return to Didion and Little Miss Strange. After that, I’ll finish the very excellent Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, the first writing book since Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird that I could conceivably read cover to cover. It may even be reading-in-bed worthy.
And then? Then I will become a monogamist again. I can’t handle the stress of all this juggling. All this infidelity.
Except, what will I read during the day? Maybe I can read two works at a time. I’ll separate the types, and keep it to one book of each – a nonfiction title for daytime and a fiction title for night. That will be manageable. I think I can handle that.
Four books I’m currently reading:
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham: This is our book club pick for October, and now that I’ve put all other books aside to concentrate on it, I’m turning pages like nobody’s business. Americans in postwar Paris, a society snob, a war vet trying to find God? Yes please.
Little Miss Strange by Joanna Rose: Set in 1970s Denver, this coming-of-age novel about Sarajean, a child of love children, throws you into the center of the free-love hippie culture. Pre-adolescent children wander the streets while their parents are thrown in jail for drugs, or are shooting heroin, or are taking lovers. It’s an intimate immersion in that world, and I am fascinated by it.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion: In my studies of creative nonfiction, Joan Didion’s is a name I come across over and over again as a pioneer of the New Journalism, of weaving literary techniques into news reporting, of writing prose that makes fact read like fiction. Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her essays of the same era as Little Miss Strange, is mesmerizing on its own, but is also a fascinating companion piece, daytime nonfiction to pair with Rose’s nighttime fiction.
The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers edited by Dinty W. Moore: This is one of the most readable writing books I’ve come across. Divided into a series of issues relevant to writing flash nonfiction, or any kind of writing, really, this field guide provides micro-essays on various topics (voice, place, objects, memory), a writing prompt for each topic (prompts I actually use rather than just looking at and saying, that’s a good idea), and then an example essay. When I’m stuck in my practice, I open this book and get started.
What about you? Are you a one-at-a-time reader, or do you read several books at once?
13 thoughts on “But I’m a monogamist!”
I do both. Sometimes a book will strike me and I spend all my time just reading that one till I finish it. Other times I’ll have several books I’m reading at the same time. I’ll read a little bit here and there. I’ve got one book I’ve been working on for about a month now. I want to finish it, but it has so many historical details that it’s a bit overwhelming. The last two books you’ve got listed are two on my to-read list. They both look good.
That’s a great point, that sometimes a book can be overwhelming to take in all at once, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading at all. And other times you luck out and find that right book at the right time, and everything else goes on hold until you’re done with it. I’m trying to learn flexibility, that all books don’t have to be read the same way. Thanks for the inspiration 🙂
Lovely thoughts as always. You had me when you mentioned I Thought My Father Was God. I read those stories every now and then. Some I love more than others, especially the short one-pagers. Many of them are quite emotional — it’s such a wonderful collection.
Thank you, Cheri. I want to revisit that book now that I write my own stories. I remember being struck by the title – I Thought My Father Was God (!!!) – and it still gets me every time I see the spine on our bookshelf.
If you love well told personal stories (as I know you do) and you listen to podcasts, give The Moth: True Stories Told Live (http://themoth.org/) and The Truth: Movies for your Ears (http://www.thetruthapm.com) a listen. A Twitter friend recommended them recently, and after one episode of The Moth I went back and downloaded all the previous episodes. I love the injection of performance art into the act of personal storytelling. After listening to Moth stories, I stopped in the middle of mopping the floor, pulled out my phone, and recorded a 15 minutes story on my voice memo. I was a little inspired.
You are so right about book monogamy. Our social media-driven lives are so fragmented that reading needs to stay focused. I try to be a one-book woman, as far as my recreational reading of fiction goes (in bed, always in bed!). Sometimes I slip up, but usually only because a book overwhelms or disappoints, so I take a break. Love your reading list. ‘Bird by bird’ was game-changer in leading me to the idea that I could actually write fiction…and I love Somerset Maugham. Will check out your other books. Cheers!
Fragmented!!! That is the perfect word for the way I feel with all these unfinished books. Also, very interesting that Bird by Bird convinced you you could write fiction. That’s awesome. I’m not there yet – maybe I should give it another read.
I guess I’m a bigamist then. Usually have fiction and non-fiction going at the same time. FYI, Bird by Bird is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it at least twice a year.
I love that you have a fiction and a nonfiction going at once. I knew someone else would read that way 🙂
I’m a monogamist too. I don’t think I can start a new book without finishing the previous one (or at least discarding it, if it is too awful to finish). Or else I’d probably mix all the plots together and no longer understand anything!
Yes, that’s why I could definitely not read more than one fiction piece at a time – it would get way too confusing.
I’m excited because your post reminded me to read Maugham. When I lived in Great Barrington, MA I remember getting The Moon and Sixpence from the library, because of the title. Lovely post.
I’m loving Maugham!! I’ve never read him before. Thank goodness for book club to introduce new authors.
If you like Maugham read Of Human Bondage, I think that’s his best.
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