My Life as a Literary Polygamist

Mark O’Connell’s column in the New Yorker wherein he admits to “literary promiscuity” — that is, he often starts books and then, in the middle of them, abandons it the moment another interesting book temptingly sashays by — struck me because I am much the same way.

On my bedside table, there’s a precarious column of half-read paperbacks that taunts me with the evidence of my own readerly promiscuity. The reason I don’t finish books is not that I don’t like reading enough; it’s that I like reading too much. I can’t say no. I’ll be reading a novel and thoroughly enjoying it. Then I’ll be in a bookshop and I’ll see something I’ve been anticipating, and I’ll buy it. I’ll start reading the new book on the bus home that evening, and that will be the end of the original affair. I’m certainly invested in the relationship with the book that I’m currently reading, but I can’t help myself from pursuing whatever new interest happens to turn my head. Perhaps that’s just a tortuous way of admitting to being a pathetic serial book-adulterer who’ll chase after anything in a dust jacket…

So it worries me, this promiscuity; I often feel as though I’m a bad reader, an unfaithful reader, a reckless literary philanderer. But I can usually assuage this guilt by reminding myself that if I were to impose some sort of embargo on starting a new book before finishing a current one, I would end up reading fewer books. I would be a more methodical and orderly reader, certainly, but a less varied and prolific one. There’s a bit in Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson”—a book that I started but never finished—where Johnson gives amusingly short shrift to the notion that you should finish reading any book you start. “This,” he says, “is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?” Well, when you put it like that, then no. It’s always reassuring to have Dr. Johnson on your side, and he makes an excellent point—that we don’t necessarily have to think of books we are reading as relationships, that they can just as well be casual acquaintanceships—but I’m still only ever half convinced of the virtue of my ways.

This is me to the third power. At any given moment, I am in the process of reading as many as a dozen books. Some are in the traditional book form, others are on the Kindle app on my tablet. I read them in the bathroom, in bed before I go to sleep, while dining alone (something I do often), on airplanes. I do finish many of them, of course, but it will generally take a while. If I read a book from beginning to end without cheating on it with another book during that time period, it is one that I really, really like or one that I have some obligation to read (like writing a review of it, or using it for research for a project that has a time limit).

I should make clear, however, that I’m always honest with my books up front. I tell them upon purchase that I am polyamorous in my literary life, so they cannot demand fidelity, much less chastity, on my part.

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