How Many Books Can You Read at the Same Time?

One of the common questions I hear is how many books can a person read at the same time. While an obvious answer is “As many as you want,” does that really answer the question? I’d say no, because that answer is missing the point of this question. This isn’t about sheer numbers, but it is about how many books can a person juggle at the same time and still retain the information, story, and knowledge that they’re taking in?

That’s a much more interesting question that deserves a good answer. There hasn’t been a lot of science studying this question, but there are certain factors that we know can affect this question and help individuals figure out how to focus in on the number that works best for them.

So let’s look at the question of how many books a person can (effectively) read at the same time.

Let’s dive in!

Many books in student library
As much as I love reading – probably can’t read this many books at once. Probably.

Fiction Vs Non-Fiction

This can make a huge difference in how many books can be juggled at any given time. I can personally juggle 2-3 books of fiction comfortably as long as they are all of very different genres. In other words I might read one Ernest Hemingway classic, a science fiction novel, and a Stephen King and there won’t be any problem keeping track of everything going on in the books.

I can go up to 4-5, though I have to be careful not to mix up some details. The more different the writing styles, the better, as that makes story and characters easier to remember clearly and less likely to mess up the details.

On top of that, when things go academic you can juggle even more just because there’s no mistaking a chemistry book for a history book for a math book for To Kill a Mockingbird. Considering I used to read 2-3 books outside of school with 7 classes going, that means that I read over 10 books at once, as many students have at one time or another.

So that further opens up the question of: what types of books are you talking about when it comes to trying to figure out how many books you can read at once. At least how many can be read effectively.

The Genres of the Books Matter

Reading multiple non-fiction books at once can be oaky if the subjects are wildly different. However, for most people reading informational non-fiction that has any overlap, it all starts blending together. Instead of working as a growing body of workable knowledge and having the books reinforce shared information, some early studies seem to indicate that most people retain less.

On the other hand, since fiction is generally read for enjoyment, reading multiple stories, especially in different genres, can allow a person to read multiple books at once.

There have been many times when I’ve read multiple fiction books at once, but I tend to keep genres very separate unless it’s something like a short story with one author and a novel with a very different style.

The Styles of the Books Matter

No one is going to mistake Orson Scott Card for Ernest Hemingway, nor either of them for Terry Hatchett or Hunter S. Thompson. Huge differences in writing style makes it easier to associated the right characters, plot lines, and situations with the stories they actually belong to.

On the other hand, reading a John Saul, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King can start mixing things (and yes, as a huge horror fan, I understand they have very different writing styles if you’re a fan of the genre), up because all three are primarily horror, all three can go to the darker side of horror, and there can be overlapping themes depending on which books you’re reading from each one.

If you’re trying to read novels of the same author, that makes things much harder, especially if they have a recurring style or format. Look, I love Clive Cussler, but good luck reading 4 Clive Cussler novels at once and keeping every detail straight.

The styles of the books being balanced matter when it comes to seeing how many you can read at once. The more different the styles, the more books you can generally successfully read at the same time. The more similar they are, the lower that number gets.

Remember School?

I mean we all took multiple classes because we had to and certainly Spanish, World History, English, Chemistry, Business Law, and Accounting were all plenty different and yet they all had books. And I was a voracious reader who still would burn through fiction I wanted to read, and occasionally look at non-fiction books on World War II, various hobbies, or odd & end interests, as well.

In other words, I was juggling many, many books in my youth because if I wanted to keep reading non-fiction or fiction that interested me while in school, I had to. And being a voracious reader, the idea of reading less wasn’t going to cut it. So learning how to read and balance multiple books was an absolute necessity to feed that solid reading habit.

pile text books on desk
And that’s for one college class. As for the others…

Some General Experiences

Well starting with myself, I know I can balance a dozen plus books at once based on past classes, graduate school, free reading and studying at the same time, etc. While there isn’t a scientific consensus on what the answer to this is, there are many people who have been very open about their multiple book reading habit, and how many books they generally tend to read at once.

  • In The 4 Hour Work Week, Timothy Ferriss is big on the belief that reading more than one non-fiction book at once doesn’t make sense. There is some potential to this, but it’s also important to note that in-context that is talking about non-fiction that is business/fact focused or multiple books on the same general topic.
  • Victoria Coren Mitchell once stated on an episode of Would I Lie To You? that she reads 6-7 books at a time on a fairly consistent basis.
  • If there are enough differences in genre, style, and formats of books I’ve often times read about a dozen at once, or roughly 5-6 when no academic books are involved.
  • This Bustle article comes from the perspective of a reader who mentions the many benefits to reading multiple books at once
  • The average college student is juggling 4-6 books at a time in addition to doing research for various papers and the number goes way up if you’re an MA in English
  • Julia Keller, the cultural critic of The Chicago Tribune, consistently juggles 4-6 books at a time, she once revealed in an NPR interview.

Would OCD or ADD Affect This Answer?

Almost certainly! Individuals who have either one of these conditions have minds that work a little differently and that means some people will be really good at balancing multiple books at the same time while others need to really focus on one text at a time to learn, retain, and store away that information in a way that their brain can understand.

So obviously both ADD and OCD are going to affect how many books you can effectively read at once and that even goes without jumping into dyslexia and how that would obviously affect your ability to read a lot of books at once.

Those are ll factors for individual situations, and it would be fair to keep these out of the general average answer.

In Conclusion

The number of books a person can read at once and still retain everything and keep the information will vary from person to person, and it’s harder to answer because despite doing extensive research, there haven’t been any scientific studies specifically on this topic. There have been some anecdotal surveys or other mini-studies looking at people reading a lot of books at once, but there haven’t been any scientific studies on the subject.

This was a bit surprising at first, but I suppose there are few reasons for trying to nail this number down, especially considering the many different

But this Scientific American article confirms that there is still a major benefit to reading on paper copies versus digital, and it’s fair to say that ebooks and audiobooks are more likely to blend together, making it less efficient to listen to multiple audiobooks at once versus reading actual books. Beyond that, the answer to how many books you can efficiently read at once is likely between 5-12 depending on a variety of factors.

Some will be able to effectively read more, some less, but the 5-12 number is a good estimate to the number of books most average readers will be able juggle at one time more or less successfully.

Other Articles You May Enjoy