Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

WHY I READ FIVE BOOKS AT ONCE

If you’ve been following my blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, or have “friended” me on GoodReads, you’ll have heard me talk about reading five books at once. That may conjure up visions of me sitting in front of five books, open on a desk in font of me as I read them all simultaneously, but of course that’s not how it works. It’s probably more accurately stated that at any given time I am alternating between five different books. Does that make more sense?

For most of my life I was a one-book-at-a-time kinda guy. The act of reading a book had an almost religious significance to me, and the thought of diverting my attention from The Book I’m Reading seemed somehow blasphemous.

I still do have an almost religious view when it comes to books, but in the last few years I’ve also come to grips with the fact that I wasn’t reading as much as I’d like to.

Inspired by my former Wizards of the Coast co-worker Dave Gross, who mentioned he was keeping a Movie Journal at the time, I bought a cheap little blank book and started keeping a Book Journal. I know some people write detailed reviews in these, but mine has turned out to mostly just be an ongoing list of books I’ve read with the date I started reading it and the date I either finished reading it or gave up on it. I do sometimes give up on books a third of the way through or so if they aren’t doing it for me. Sometimes I write little notes in the journal like: “Brilliant!” “OUT THERE!” or “Another crappy book. Instantly hated it—gave up on first page of chapter two.” Ouch.

On December 29, 2006, at the end of the second year after I started keeping the Book Journal, I counted all the books I own but have not yet read. The figure I came up with was 749. According to my journal, not including the numerous books I read as part of my job as an editor for WotC, I had read 27 books in 2005 (the first year I kept the journal) and only 19 in 2006, averaging 23 books per year. At that rate it would take me 32.5 years to read all 749 books that my obsessive book buying had brought me, and that’s assuming I somehow got myself to stop buying any more books at all until midway through 2038.

I felt like I had to do something about that, and since I was and remain unprepared to stop buying books and I sure as hell wasn’t going to throw out my 749 books and start over, I figured I’d better get reading faster. Hardly a chore, since reading is one of the central joys of my life, and always has been.

But then I do have an unhealthy tendency to transform my joys into chores, so first thing I did was to get organized. You can’t just, y’know, read books all willy nilly. Honestly.

Inspired by Netflix, in which I was heavily invested at the time, I set aside a shelf on one of the bookcases upstairs as my “reading queue.” Here I lined up the books I would read next. This way I wouldn’t experience the horror of having finished a book only to find myself overwhelmed by my own library. But I also wanted to stop myself from getting into those cycles I’ve dropped into from time to time where I discover an author then just start burying myself in his or her catalog. I went through an Iain Banks Period, the Time of Chuck Palahniuk, the J.G. Ballard Years, the Era of Octavia Butler . . . There are worse fates, but then it gets harder to discover new authors, which I particularly enjoy. And not only that but I wanted to make sure that I read some series mixed in there, too, and I have this huge collection of classic Ace Doubles and I eventually want to read them all, so I have to make sure I avoid reading too much of the same thing while also making sure I occasionally do read some of the same thing.

If you’ve happened upon the idea that I obsessive-compulsively battle my own obsessive-compulsiveness, you have uncovered one of the many eternal mysteries that is Phil.

Still reading only one book at a time, I created a plan for my “to read” shelf in which I would alternate based on subject. I still have the first OCD-driven plan written down in the inside front cover of my Book Journal. I would read books in this order: Series, SF/H/Graphic novel, Ace Double, Philosophy, etc./Science, Series, Literary Fiction, Ace Double, General non-fiction/History. When I was reading one book at a time and only averaging 15 books a year, though, this list meant I wouldn’t even complete one full cycle in a year, and it could take me a year and a half to read a 6-book series. I don’t know . . . this wasn’t working.

So (as noted in my journal) I revised this plan on December 21, 2005 as part of my year-end review/OCD-fest: Series, Non-SF fiction, SF, Non-fiction, and with series books mixed in every fourth book.

If this sounds insane to you it’s only because it is insane, but this is how my brain works.

And this is why reading five books at once finally came to the rescue. But then of course there’s still a plan to it, but this time a plan I think makes enough sense to recommend.

Having this read-this-then-that-then-that plan didn’t actually get me reading any more books. I have at least one friend who alternates between several books at once, and though when he first told me that I thought he was insane, I finally started to think maybe he was on to something.

First I started to experiment with alternating between a couple books so that I didn’t get into a situation where maybe I wasn’t in the mood for the big complex nonfiction work or literary novel I was into at the moment so I’d just watch TV instead. If there was a lighter choice at hand, I might read that, and when my ever-changing mood swung back to the other book, it was still there. Part of this thinking came when I realized that I was reading a primary book and scattered various graphic novels at the same time. If I could do that, why not add another book, book?

Anyway, I tried it and it was a godsend. I immediately started reading more, and reading more often. But then I do have this tendency toward obsessive-compulsive behavior, so I couldn’t just randomly choose a couple books. I had to have a plan.

What I’ve come up with are these five categories:

1. The Primary Book

This is the king of the books I’m reading at any given time, chosen for no other strategic reason than that I want to read it. These books come to me in every way that books come to people, through the recommendation of friends, somehow discovered on the internet, pimped on TV, and so on. My current Primary Book is Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris. Why? I saw him on The Daily Show and had already read and enjoyed When You Are Engulfed in Flames. It sounded fun, and I put it on my Christmas list. It is fun, by the way, and also sad and weird and everything you expect from David Sedaris but with talking animals.

I have to admit, too, that I still draw my Primary Book from the same “to read” shelf, which is stacked in such a way that every third book at least is science fiction or fantasy. But I’m happy to report that I’m almost continuously shuffling that shelf around as I buy books so even though I’m determined to eventually get to those Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) I picked up at Book Expo America (BEA) in 2006 I’m also not waiting five years to read Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt.

I do have the ability to break my own rules.

2. The Next Book in One of Two Series

This scheme helps me get through series faster while at the same time preventing me from getting bored reading too many similar books back-to-back. I like series fiction—I’ve written it, edited it, and I want it in my life. For the most part I’m alternating between an SF series and a fantasy series. Currently I’m reading the space opera series Isaac Asimov’s Robot City: Robots & Aliens. I’m up to the third book, Intruder by Robert Thurston. What can I say? I read the first six-book series, how do I stop now? Alternating with that is a four-book slipcased edition of the Canongate series The Myths (another Christmas present). I’ve read the first one, A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong and The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood awaits my completion of Intruder. Admittedly The Myths isn’t so much a series, and is only more or less fantasy, but back to that rules are made to be broken thing. Next up after Robots & Aliens is the extended Dune series including a re-read of the original, and the next fantasy series is Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor books. Those should keep me busy for a while.

3. A short story collection or graphic novel

I want to make sure I get my graphic novel fix in, and I like short stories and want to read more. These are especially useful for those times when I have ten or fifteen minutes to kill. Currently I’m on Haunter of the Ring and Other Tales, a Wordsworth collection of horror stories by Robert E. Howard, and I’m loving it. I read some last night over a glass of Metaxa after everyone else went to bed. Lately I’ve been thinking of maybe breaking these two off and adding a sixth category. Can I do it? Can my brain cope? There’s only one way to find out.

4. Personal/Professional Growth

Though my Primary Book slot is open to a wide rage of narrative non-fiction, I have a whole separate category for books aimed entirely at helping me be better at what I do. This is where I get financial/business advice for myself and my fledgling consulting start-up, and continue my education as a writer and editor. Right now I’m reading and studying The Art of War by Sun Tzu. This is actually more a research exercise as I’ve begun a writing project I can’t yet talk about publically but is basically a war story. Though I promise the story will not be some kind of hyper-literal translation of The Art of War, a little historical research can go a long way.

5. Crusades Research

For years now I’ve been meaning to write a historical novel set against the backdrop of the period immediately following the First Crusade. I’ve ramped up my efforts to that end, but have an awful lot of reading still ahead of me. This is much less reading in the recreational sense than it is homework, but it’s homework I love doing, so good for me. The current Crusades research book is Castles: Their Construction and History by Sidney Toy. Not a bad book for any given fantasy writer to have on his or her shelf anyway, actually.

You’ll have to come up with your own categories but I strongly suggest you make sure you’re reading for the pure joy of it (your Primary Book) and to make yourself a better whoever or whatever you are (Personal/Professional Growth). Then you can go ahead and add as many categories as you dang well please.

Though I still keep up with the little blank book, I also recommend GoodReads, which has become my online Book Journal. It’s a fun way to share the reading experience with other book people.

So what effect has this scheme had on my rate of reading? I finished 15 books in 2009, and 40 in 2010. I’m reading more, and despite all this talk of obsessive-compulsive shelving and reshelving, enjoying a greater variety of books. I think that’s worth a little planning on the front end.

—Philip Athans


Philip Athans is the founding partner of Athans & Associates Creative Consulting, and the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and ten other fantasy and horror books including the recently-released The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. Born in Rochester, New York he grew up in suburban Chicago, where he published the literary magazine Alternative Fiction & Poetry. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans. He makes his home in the foothills of the Washington Cascades, east of Seattle.