The debate: how many books should you have on the go at once?

Should you stick to reading one book at a time, or flit between several? Two writers hash it out over email.


From: Sam Parker
To: Alice Vincent

Subject: How many books to read at once

Dear Alice,

The look on your face last month when I mentioned that I only ever read one book at a time has been haunting me ever since. And there really was no reason to drop your glass of wine quite so dramatically (though I accept the waiter stumbling into your chair may have played his part). In any case, the conversation moved on rather too quickly for me to mount an adequate defence of my position, so I thought I’d email you so as not to let the matter fester. Also: I'm a little bored self-isolating.

Anyway, my central argument is thus. To produce a book, a writer must – to paraphrase one rather unfashionable novelist from the 1960s whom you no doubt hate – sit down at a typewriter and bleed. Despite never having written a (*cough* published *cough*) novel myself, I rather subscribe to this idea.

Therefore I think it's important to give any author my undivided attention. Anything else would be rather like listening to someone confide their hopes, dreams and innermost fears to you, then stopped them mid sentence to chat with someone else. In other words: rather rude.

Yours singularly,


From: Alice Vincent
To: Sam Parker

Subject: Re: How many books to read at once


So nice to see you, I do hope the wine came out of your shirt? It was definitely the waiter’s fault.

I was just surprised, is all. Life is short, and busy, and full of many things we juggle simultaneously: several Netflix series, for instance, or sending a Tweet in the bath. I started reading multiple books at once out of sheer practicality. At university, I had about three on the go per week, and was always leaving a different paperback in some other handbag (you’ll remember, of course, what an snappy dresser I was).

'Reading shouldn't be like swiping between lonely strangers on Hinge'

Sure, it’s a balancing act. One must learn how to fall into different worlds without losing your way (scribbling crib notes inside front covers helps considerably – in pencil, of course), but I disagree that to divide your attention is to lessen it.

If anything, I started to realise the joys and benefits of reading several books at once. How you can build perspectives by, say, reading Virginia Woolf’s diaries at the same time as the fiction she wrote, or two books that bounce off one another, like EM Forster’s Howard’s End and On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s riff on it.

I’m yet to be convinced by all this bleeding typewriter guff. What does it bring you? And what if you’re terribly bored of a book you were determined to plod through without distraction?

Always multi-facetedly,


From: Sam Parker
To: Alice Vincent

Subject: Re: re: How many books to read at once

Hello Alice,

In time-honoured internet debating tradition, I’m going to completely ignore the many salient points you've just made and focus instead on one small part I disagree with. Wow – this is so much more fun than talking to each another in a pub or a sunny park, isn't it?!

‘What if you’re terribly bored of a book?’, you ask. There, for me, is the rub. As we both know, sometimes the novels most worth reading are a hard slog. For every sea-soaked adventure with Ishmael and his giant Dick, we must endure pages on the finer details of mid 19th Century whaling techniques (and so forth).

Leaving books open to the paralysis of choice that now afflicts every other area of life (have you tried even choosing a bottle of shampoo lately?) simply makes it more likely we’ll throw the towel in on any read that challenges us. Reading shouldn't be like skipping through pop tracks on Spotify or the faces of sad, lonely strangers on Hinge. It should be something more like going for long, slow walk in a forest, or something. Without your phone on you.

What does my strict one in / one out bedside policy bring me? Calmness. Can’t we keep just one area of life simple?

Yours whimsically


From: Alice Vincent
To: Sam Parker

Subject: Re: re: re: How many books to read

Whimsical Sam,

How funny that you should choose that Old White Whale for this conversation. I both relished and hated that book, but only survived Melville’s mission to demonstrate his cetology because I was balancing it with Jilly Cooper tomes for light relief.

Yes, in these frantically scattered days of information overload it is nice to bask in just the one creative effort, but it would be quite peculiar to apply it to, say, only watching one television series at a time.

Curious, also, that you cite Ahab’s hunt for a murderous mammal. After all, monomania hardly got that old seadog anywhere, did it?

Perhaps the only solution to this is to both try the other’s way of reading? I’ll give up my current pile (If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, a 1984 edition of Hortus journal and Anne Enright’s Actress – I’m still working out the connections between them, which is part of the fun) for one singular, new read of your choice, and I’ll throw some your way?

I look forward to witnessing your conversion!


From: Sam Parker
To: Alice Vincent

Subject: Re: re: re: re: How many books to read

Dear Alice,

Challenge accepted. Tonight I shall remove the single, pristine, copy of Kafka’s Contemplation that is currently by my reading chair, toss an armful of random books all over it. Then I'll sit and gorge, page to page, line to line, like a dog sniffing around a rubbish tip, or a pig dippling for truffles. Let’s see if I emerge more enlightened.

Alternatively, we could ask people reading this to vote. Do they read one book at a time, or have several on the go at once?

They are reading this, right?

How many books do you have on the go at once? Let us know by emailing editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

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