A couple of years ago, around the time that I was heading to the NonfictioNOW conference in Flagstaff Arizona, I realized — for the first time — that my reading practices were a bit strange. At least, that’s when I first had the impression.
It had to do with how many books I was reading at a single time.
I’d had a discussion with one of my classmates about it, or at least I thought I had, until I went to write about it. But as I try to think of the conversation now, I don’t recall any the details, or even, I realize, if it happened at all. It’s just a hazy impression, the shadow of a memory. Perhaps that’s all it was.
I do, however, remember the trip to Flagstaff with my fellow MFA candidates and our professors as a fun ride in the 12-seater university van, which reminded me of road trips I’d taken with my family growing up.
I recalled those family trips and how I sat in my usual spot in our second-hand minivan: the back seat to the far right, close to the sliding door but still with a good vantage point to know with a glance what was happening around me as I read. This seat also happened to have a handy place over the wheel-well where I could store my books that I’d brought to read, four or five at a time.
It didn’t really matter if we were going half-way across the country, or just into town — the number of books I brought with me, all on the go, remained the same. I never knew what I would be in the mood to read, I reasoned. I wanted the variety.
My mom recently reminded me that I’d spent so much time reading while in the van that when I got my license, I had some trouble knowing how to get anywhere.
Back in the university van, one of my MFA friends was in the back corner reading a thick hardback copy of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. (This also reminded me of how I’d missed out on getting a copy signed by him when I went to a reading several months before he’d been awarded the prize. But that’s another essay.)
Now, I’m not a very fast reader — over the years I have finished, on average, four books a month. I was amazed as I noted over the course of our 12 hour drive to the conference and the 12 hours back, that my friend quietly put away a few hundred pages, all from this single book, as the landscape quietly passed by.
I knew that All the Light We Cannot See was not required reading for class, and I thought about my own store of non-required books I’d brought on that trip — my standard number of four or five — and the space I’d reserved for the books I would purchase at the bookfair when we got there.
Somewhere in the Arizona desert, I decided that I was reading too many books at once.
What prompted the following change in my reading practices? Was it the now unremembered conversation I had with one of my classmates? Or the conversation I had with a friend of mine, a librarian, who was skeptical at my being able to remember anything by reading several books at a time instead of one after the other? (Coincidentally, she was also originally from Arizona.) Or, was it just the silent example of my classmate who steadily worked her way through a single book on the total 24 hour drive?
Out of the classroom, I saw her in new circumstances, a different light. I realized that it was possible — at least in theory — for me to start and finish a single book before dipping into another. I decided to implement a new rule for myself: I would finish two books before I could start another.
The conference was in October, 2015. In November, I finished ten books (two and a half times my normal average, amidst my studies no less). This is documented in the reading log I created called “Books Read Since Beginning MFA.”
I didn’t finish another book until mid-January.
The conference — like so many others — came and went, and I have lots of notes of good ideas to prove it. But one of the most lasting practices that came out of it was noting my friend read, and then my being changed by it.
Why do I write this post now? Judging from the teetering tower beside my bed, I’m thinking I need to reimplement this rule, at least temporarily.
Question: How many books do your read at a time, and why?