I love poly-reading. For those unfamiliar, poly-reading means you read multiple books at a time. Not everybody reads like this. My mother, for example, is a pretty devout book-monogamist. She reads one at a time, and reads a lot, so we end up reading nearly the same number of books a year.
But if you’re a poly-reader like me, you enjoy switching between books. For me, poly-reading allows me the freedom to choose what I read depending on my mood. Feeling down? Maybe pick up that book on comedy writing tonight. Feeling tired? A nice easy Rex Stout mystery might be in order. Amped up and need to cool off? Time to break out the big, thoughtful biography. Life feeling a bit dull? Time for that mountaineering book!
Sometimes I just don’t feel like reading a downer novel. Sometimes I do. When I mono-read, I end up not reading as much, because if my mood doesn’t fit the book I’ve got, I won’t pick it up at all. Poly-reading allows me to read a lot, every day, regardless of my mood. And I love that.
As a writer, I also enjoy the benefit of mixing completely unrelated subject matters (George Washington’s biography plus cave-diving plus necromancer fantasy? That’s gonna give you some WEIRD dreams). Sometimes ideas I never would have thought about come to me precisely because I’m mixing books like a drunken alchemist.
But while there are many benefits to reading multiple books at once, there is one major pitfall: you can wrack up a huge “currently reading” pile that never gets finished. My goal is to read 52 books this year, which means I actually do need to finish books.
I’ve also encountered numerous people who poly-read but struggle to finish anything. (Poly-reading is a blessing and a curse.) I used to be that person. But I’ve picked up on three common mistakes I’ve made and others make that can bloat the pile and lead to too many unfinished reads. Watch out for these three things, and you will definitely be finishing books!
1. You’re reading too many books.
I know! I know! I hear you saying, “But isn’t the definition of poly-reading that I read a bunch of books at once?” Well, yes. The bliss of poly-reading is that you get to read a bunch at once. The pitfall of poly-reading is that it’s easy to start too many.
Almost every time I stop finishing books, the FIRST problem I run into is that I’ve overloaded my “currently-reading” pile. For non-poly-readers, this might be trying to tackle two books at a time. For you, it may be six. It may be nine. Or fifteen. For me, it’s twelve.
A dozen books sounds like a lot, and it is. Twelve is my max. The moment I have thirteen books on my “currently reading” pile, it’s a sign that I’m deliberately avoiding some of the books already on my list. What’s important is determining how many books you can reasonably cycle-through, while still finishing books now and then.
Why might you be avoiding books on your list?
2. You’re reading too many similar books.
This is the second reason my “currently reading” pile gets out of hand. One of the reasons I poly-read is because I like to have some options of what to read, depending on my mood. Sometimes I don’t want a really heavy read, or a humorous read, or a biography.
The problem occurs when I have two or three books that scratch the same itch. If I’ve got three books that are non-fiction pop science, when I’m in the mood for that kind of read, I now have to split my attention between the three. Same deal if I’ve got two similar-tone fantasies, or four writing-related books.
Splitting my choices means I don’t make nearly as much progress in any of them, which leads to books lingering far too long in my pile. When they linger, it’s more likely I’ll start losing interest in them, and if that happens, the pile grows out of control, unless I avoid Mistake #3. 2
3. You don’t cull your pile.
“But I should finish the books I start!” I know. I know. I feel you. But after years and years of poly-reading, I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes you just have to cut a dragging book loose.
For one thing, holding onto a book you no longer feel motivated to read weighs down your pile. Every time I see a neglected book on my list, it makes me feel guilty. Feeling guilty sometimes means I avoid my pile all together. Or start committing Mistake #1 again, by picking up new books in order to avoid looking at my disappointing pile.
For another thing, once excitement about a read is gone, it may not come back. I’ve held onto books I’d lost interest in for YEARS, and there rarely comes a point when I suddenly find myself excited about it again. And each year that passes without finishing a neglected book feeds the guilt, and that feeds the avoidance, and that’s a recipe for an overloaded pile.
Books you’re no longer interested in can be anchors on your reading motivation, and I’ve come to believe there’s some kernel of truth in what Marie Kondo1 says about unread books: “The moment you first encounter a book is the right time to read it.” Sometimes, you’ve just lost that lovin’ feeling. And that’s okay, too.
Now, sometimes you just haven’t been in the right mood for a certain book. (Especially true during a pandemic!) Super-depressing books just haven’t been appealing to me lately. Does that mean I need to ditch the heavy classic I’m half-way through because I haven’t been in the mood recently? Not necessarily.
I review my “currently reading” pile once a year, around New Year’s. I look over my list, evaluate how interested I am in continuing to read each book, and make decisions accordingly. Some books stay on my list for years. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony was one of these; it stayed on my list for FOUR YEARS, because I loved it, I just didn’t want to rush through it. But other books, I just don’t care about anymore, so I dropped them from the list.
This also allows me to do the thing I love most about poly-reading: add more books to my list that I AM excited about!
BONUS TIP: Monthly Finishing Goals
Keeping an eye out for these three mistakes will help keep your reading pile reasonable. But what if you want to finish more of your in-progress books? For me, the thing that helps the most is setting a monthly finishing goal. Right now, my goal is four books a month. If I want to reach my reading goal for year (which is currently 52), I need to finish at least four a month.
Setting a goal like this helps me to look at my pile and evaluate how much time I’ll need on each book to finish it (some I can breeze through; some I like to linger on). It helps me pick which books are closest to finishing, and allows me prioritize them. Usually my mood dictates what kind of book I want to read; sometimes the book I need to read dictate my mood.
Ultimately, though, you need to do what makes you happy. If having a pile of twenty or thirty books in-progress is what makes you smile and they don’t weigh you down: that’s great! You do you. But if you’d like to finish a few more books this year, keep an eye out for these three mistakes and think about setting a monthly reading goal. You may find it helps!
1 I know a lot of people have a knee-jerk freakout reaction to Marie Kondo’s book opinions, but having read her books AND seen the show, I think a lot of that freakout is misguided. She doesn’t say get rid of all your books. In fact, in the book, she specifically states that the “right” amount of books will vary from person to person, and that some people find great joy in having their home filled with books, and THAT’S OKAY.
Just as some people are happier with closets-full of shoes, some of us are happier with piles of books. BUT. Sometimes we hold onto books that truly DO drag us down, and THOSE we need to be willing to let go of.
I love having a house jam-packed with books, even books I haven’t read yet, but sometimes seeing those unread titles year after year (and move after move) can make you feel shitty that you still haven’t read them (and be honest: are you sure you still want to?). Maybe the time for that book has passed, in which case, let it go!
2 Quick note: some people love poly-reading in the same genre, and that’s okay! Do that! But if you find you start piling up a lot of unfinished books (mystery novels, for example), look and see if you have too many that hit the same tone or style. Have you started several cozy mysteries recently? Trying to tackle two separate police procedurals, while also juggling a fistful of classic noir? Diversifying the mood and style of the genre books you’re reading may help avoid the pileup.