My Life as a Literary Polygamist

My Life as a Literary Polygamist September 5, 2012

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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  • Randomfactor

    Same here, except that I do EVENTUALLY seem to finish them. May be years later, but I hate leaving one unfinished.

  • iangould

    Personally I will admit to lusting in my heart after other books.

  • Aliasalpha

    Suppose this is the benefit of having limited interests and way too much time, I’ve got very few books I’ve not finished and those are generally because they’re awful.

  • eric

    I tend to read a fiction and non-fiction book at the same time, but not a lot more parallel than that.

    When I am literarily promiscuous, it tends to be for the exact opposite reason that O’Connell states – when I’m thoroughly enjoying a book, it makes me want to read that book more, not other books more. Its when I’m not enjoying a book that other books look exciting and interesting.

    Rather than have a book in every room, I tend to carry one around with me. I even chose clothes (jackets, coats, and shorts mostly) based on the criteria that the pocket must be able to fit a paperback/kindle.

  • d cwilson

    I usually have one novel and at least two non-fiction books I’m working my way through. I almost always finish what I start eventually, unless it’s really gawdawful.

  • Chiroptera

    Heh. I’m the opposite. When I start a book, I will finish it, no matter how awful it is.

    I think there have only been two books in my entire life that I started but were so bad I just could not force myself to finish them.

  • lofgren

    Life is too short to force yourself to finish bad books.

    Usually if a book has failed to grab me in the first 50-80 pages, I figure it is not going to get much better.

    There has been once or twice when I stuck with a book longer than usual, and it turned out that the second half was way cool while the first half was dull.

    I tend to read one book at a time, alternating fiction and non-fiction. Recently there has been a traffic jam, though, and I am currently in the middle of four fiction books. I want to start a non-fiction because too much fiction makes me feel like I am neglecting the real world, but I feel like I need to finish one of these four before I move on.

  • lofgren

    Rather than have a book in every room, I tend to carry one around with me. I even chose clothes (jackets, coats, and shorts mostly) based on the criteria that the pocket must be able to fit a paperback/kindle.

    I totally do this, too. In high school I sewed an oversized pocket into the inside of my jacket so that I could walk home from the comic book store in the rain without carrying an extra bag with me.

  • Scott Hanley

    Are your books also free to pursue other readers, or do you demand that they stay on the shelf waiting only for you?

  • mildlymagnificent

    chiroptera, me too.

    I blame it on starting life with an incredible reading speed so the idea of not finishing a book never occurred to me. I always finished a book the same day I started reading it.

    Only a couple of “failures” on finishing books. Catch 22 took me several run-ups to get past the first 30ish pages. And I never, ever finished Patrick White’s Voss. It’s supposed to be one of _the_ great Australian novels. Pishposh.

  • Michael Heath

    From the 1970s through the 1990s I was a monogamist, in spite of pretty much abandoning fiction for non-fiction back in the mid-1980s. The non-fiction I increasingly selected over the years was also drier and denser though more authoritative reads. So I began to read two to three books at a time in order to keep it more fresh. In the mid-2000s I was up to reading five-six books at a time, where I began to never finish some, something I’d never done until then period.

    I started to suspect my promiscuity was due to my increasing the amount of time reading webpages – that my attention span was going down; then we began to see articles about the googlization of the mind. That thesis was that we’re becoming increasingly incapable of focusing our attention on longer reads. I saw this as a bug, not a feature. Since those articles were published I’ve been working on attempting to keep my after-dinner reading focused on books beyond scanning this forum’s comments; and keeping my stack to no more than 3 books. I feel better for having done so.

  • martinc

    mildlymagnificent @ 10 said:

    And I never, ever finished Patrick White’s Voss. It’s supposed to be one of _the_ great Australian novels.

    Fred Dagg came up with the quintessential coverage of The Great Australian Novel:

    “If you’ve got any interesting characters, drop them immediately or you’ll ruin everything.”

  • I have some books I am enjoying so much that I put them down, forget where I am, and get to start all over!

  • martinc

    I’m a slutty reader too. I sometimes have one book for reading at lunchtimes at work, and one for reading in the evening at home.

    I note that Charles Darwin actually did this with writing books. He took an occasional year off from writing Origin Of Species to whip up a bestselling treatise on barnacles or earthworms, then back to Old Faithful. It took him a couple of decades to get the job done, and he nearly got beaten to the punch by Wallace, but it all turned out all right in the end for him, didn’t it?

  • Pierce R. Butler

    There’s nothing like a three-way: me, a serious book to dig into until my eyelids start to droop, and a fun book for dessert. The other two (so far) have shown no objections to lying in a pile on top of each other once my stamina goes.

  • Dennis N

    I’m fully willing to drop a book I’m not enjoying, but if I like them, I will try to keep it to 3 or 4 at any given time. I tend to mix it up with other mediums: books, comic books, short story collections, news articles. So I get around.

  • typecaster

    It’s no doubt due to my triflin’ ways, but I’ve never understood those who could be happy with only one book at a time. (Much less those who, like our evangelical friends, swear eternal allegiance to only one book, ever. (And then don’t read it.) Ick.) I do generally finish them, since only a cad would leave a book…unfulfilled. But there are just so many fascinating topics, in such alluring covers. Like Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything except temptation.

  • I’ve sometimes had to abandon books partway through because they were of such low quality. My life is only so long and I only have time for so many books, and I’m not going to bother finishing a book whose author thinks 747s hit the World Trade Center, and that the widely quoted fake Nostradamus prophecy about 9/11 is real.

  • Michael Heath

    The quality of my book reading has gone up considerably since the advent of the personal computer and Internet, largely due to three reasons:

    1) It’s a lot easier for experts to do the research necessary to write books and edit them given the invention of word processors and the Internet. Our collective perspective is so much broader and deeper, including the authors we read. So books by experts are just plain better than they used to be, especially since they frame their arguments in a way that preemptively answers the obvious questions readers would have on the covered topics. I especially appreciate this when it comes to books written about evolution or climate science where scientists are now far better informed regarding denialist arguments and rhetorical tactics.

    2) The Internet provides a wealth of opinions, that’s resulted in honing my own thinking skills (where Ed’s been a big influence), allows me to far better informed, and provides a humongous increase in access to criticism about books by people who are experts or literate in the field being written about. However I’ve struggled to find authoritative go-to books on providing a broad overview of the root causes of the 2008 financial crisis. I’m thinking that book hasn’t been written yet and perhaps can’t be due to our proximity to that time.

    3) Amazon reader reviews though this resource is decreasing in importance as # 2 resources continues to improve. However there was a time early in the life of the Internet, prior to blogging or newspapers having all their content on-line, where Amazon reader reviews were the floor to earning my consideration.

  • I tend to stick it out with the book I’m reading–but while I do I’m always wondering about some other book–would it be more interesting?

    I guess I’m committing adultery in my heart.

  • Oh, I read more than one book at a time, but other than some non fiction titles that technically still in progress, either on the bookshelf taken down from time to time or on kindle on my phone, I finish everything. Usually I finish them quickly because I have trouble keeping myself in reading material. I get excited when I’m out of books and find something I started and lost behind the bed.

    There was one novel my mother stopped me reading when I was a preteen that wasn’t overly interesting, but because she stopped me it haunts me. I have no idea what it was called or who it was by, only that it was about the illegitimate daughter of a woman who died in childbirth and she had just met a man who liked her fresh un made up face, and she was worrying about not having buffed her nails…which I didn’t understand at the time.