Mastering the art of polygamous reading

I believe in polygamy. Book polygamy, that is. I’m taking extreme creative license here by deciding that polygamous, for my purposes, relates to the practice of reading more than one book at once.



A few years ago, I got into the habit of keeping a list of all the books I read in a year. As someone who loves lists and who loves reading, it only seemed natural to pair the two together. Call me a nerd if you want, but I like having a record of what I’ve read – it’s fun to go back and see what I was reading on any given date (this time last year it was the YA novel Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers, the year before that was While I was Gone by Sue Miller, and the year before that I was muddling my way through Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath).

Last year I read 58 books – mostly novels, but there were a few nonfiction books and at least one audiobook thrown into the mix. I was feeling pretty good about myself – it was far better than my past yearly averages of about 35-40 – until I read that Stephen King reads at least 70-80 books a year. And then I stumbled upon a blog post in which a librarian tracked her own reading for a year and ended up with a whopping total of – dramatic pause – 164 books. Yes, you read that correctly. One hundred and sixty four. (Read the article here:

Suddenly I felt like a poser. A loser. A sad excuse for a reader. And so, even though I generally make it a rule not to make New Year’s resolutions, I promised myself to read more this year. The only way to get close to Stephen’s 70-80 books (and to even have the tiniest of chances at reaching 164) was to read several books at once. In the past, I would often balance out a novel with a memoir or diary; in my college days, there were times I was reading two or three novels in addition to volumes of poetry, criticism, and historical nonfiction. So I knew I could do it. But I also knew I was out of practice. See, for the most part, I was a book monogamist.

Three months into the new year, I think I’ve got it down. Taking advice from the above mentioned article, I decided it’s not essential to finish every single book I begin. I used to think I had to finish them all, even if I absolutely loathed what I was reading. It felt almost sacrilegious to abandon a book halfway through. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t doing myself any favors by suffering through books like this. It made reading an obligation, for one thing; for another, the time spent reading something I didn’t like cut into the time I could be reading something I did like. And when something isn’t working for you, even after you’ve given it an honest effort, you move on to the next thing that does work for you. (Good advice for books, romantic relationships, friendships gone sour, and skorts.)

Photo via Visual hunt

Photo via Visual hunt

I’ve also expanded my horizons by reading much more nonfiction than I ever used to. Fiction will always be my favorite, but there are a lot of things to love about nonfiction as well. So far this year I’ve read a book centered upon firsthand accounts of the Titanic, a collection of Chris Bohjalian’s newspaper articles about his life in a small town in Vermont, and a beautifully written book about living in the Maine woods, written by Louise Dickinson Rich.

I have also begun to appreciate the beauty of audiobooks. To think, I could have been doing household chores and reading at the same time all these years. A lot of rooms went uncleaned, a lot of dishes unwashed before I realized I didn’t have to make that choice. Now I can clean all day if I want and listen to David Sedaris’s sardonic, lilting voice in the background. (Of course, I don’t actually clean all day – if you saw my apartment, you could attest to that – but that’s beside the point.) I can also indulge in my nighttime ritual of working on a puzzle with my fella as we listen to a story. Audiobooks allow multitasking, and I am all for that.

When it comes to balancing more than one book of fiction at one time, my best advice is to choose two different genres. For example, pair a mystery with a collection of short stories or novellas. I don’t recommend two thrillers at one time – the killings and whodunit quandaries might get confused in your mind. I have found that I do best when I pair a fiction book with a nonfiction or an audiobook of a different genre.


In my case, I’m lucky because a.) I’m a fast reader, and b.) I have unlimited access to thousands of books from the library where I work. (You don’t have to work there to have that, though – just take advantage of the Interlibrary loan system!) Also, I have an inside ticket to that unique thing of beauty – the advanced readers’ copy, or galley. At the library, we often receive shipments of these galleys, and employees are allowed to borrow them from the staff room and take them home to read. The fun part about this is that these are not for sale to the general public – they are uncorrected proofs of a book sent out to select places (like libraries or booksellers) before going back for the final printing and being published. So sometimes I get to read a book months before it’s actually published. It makes me feel like some kind of literary VIP – though God knows, I’m far from it.

As of this writing, I have begun reading 23 books since starting this year’s book list (though to be fair, I did begin reading a few of those in December of last year). Three of these I have yet to finish – two of them I will, the other I may not, simply because it is quite long and my attention is beginning to wane. To put this number in perspective, by this same time last year, I had only finished four books. Proof positive that polygamous reading works.

I’ll keep you posted on the status of my reading ventures – in the meantime, I’m always looking for reading suggestions. So send some my way! I’d love to add your favorite book to this year’s list.

Can I make it to 164 books? It seems like a lofty goal. But you know what? I like lofty goals. So let’s get reading.

My reading spreadsheet so far!

My reading spreadsheet so far!

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And, for a sample of my fiction writing, follow the link to read my original short story, “Lost and Found,” recently published by the Hawaii Pacific Review:

Shannon Bowring

About Shannon Bowring

I am 26 years old. I was raised up in the County, in the tiny town of Ashland. I attended the University of Maine in Orono and graduated in 2012 with a BA in English, with a concentration in Creative Writing. Reading and writing have always been the greatest loves of my life. I am most at home in the dusty corners of used bookstores, surrounded by forgotten books. One day, inspiration struck when I decided I wanted to combine all my loves – writing, reading, traveling, exploring these beloved shops – to create an outlet in which I can share my bookish adventures with an audience of like-minded readers who could appreciate my love of words and stories.