Is there such a thing as too much reading?

According to Goodreads, I’ve read 140 books thus far in 2012 — although to look at the stacks, piles, and bags of unread books sitting around my house, you might reasonably assume that I’ve done nothing all year but twiddle my thumbs. Occasionally, I feel like this:

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Side note: If you Google “drowning in books”, you get a few images like the one above, and then lots and lots of references to books in which there is a drowning. Sometimes, I feel like Google just doesn’t get me.

So returning to my 140 books… let’s bear in mind that you might not consider all of these “real” books. I upped my goal for the year pretty drastically once I realized how many graphic novels I’ve been consuming. So far in 2012, I’ve read all of Buffy season 8, all of the Fables volumes to date plus some of the one-offs, the Jack of Fables series, some of the Locke & Key series, and a bunch of stand-alones. Roughly put, I’d say about 40 – 50 total. Now subtract from my total the kids’ books that I’ve read aloud to my son, and I’d put my “real” total somewhere around 70 or 80.

Why ask if it’s possible to read too much? Several reasons. First and foremost, I wonder if it’s possible to retain that much material, when there’s so much new data entering my reading brain on a daily basis. The answer, I think, is probably not. Sure, I could give you a description a sentence or two in length about just about anything I’ve read in the last few years. But ask me about plot details, chronology, character names, or other nuances, and I’ll probably draw a blank. This actually comes up quite a bit in my house. My husband will end up reading a book that I read six months or a year earlier and will expect me to be able to discuss details with him. When I give him a vacant stare or shrug my shoulders, he’ll usually respond with a snide (but deep down, kind of loving, I’m sure) comment about me losing my memory faster than he is. (Only funny if you’re aware of the fact that he’s 20 years older than I am. Sorry, off-topic and a bit TMI). What I keep reminding dear husband is that in the six months or year since I read the book, I’VE READ 50 MORE BOOKS! That’s hundreds of characters, plot points, funny quotes, and unusual locations to keep track of!

This probably has a lot to do with my reluctance to get involved in series or trilogies, especially if they’re currently unfinished. I loved reading the Codex Alera series by Jim Butcher, which I picked up after the sixth and final book was published and read straight through, beginning to end. Likewise, with A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, I read books 1 – 5 pretty much without stopping. That’s the way to do it! No lapses, no time in between books for facts and figures to be overwritten by extraneous information from bunches of other books! When I read a book, no matter how great, and then have to wait a year or more for the sequel, chances are I won’t remember it as well as I’d like, in which case I can either a) re-read the first book (as I did with A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night this past summer), b) wing it and figure enough will come back to me as I read the new book (which tends to be my approach with certain ongoing series like the Sookie Stackhouse books or the Dresden Files, or c) realize that the details aren’t sharp enough for me to truly care what happens next, shrug my shoulders, and decide to skip it (as was the case for me with the sequels to The Strain — that book scared the bejesus out of me, but by the time book two rolled around, I was over it and didn’t bother reading any further).

My second reason for asking if it’s possible to read too much? Well, I suppose it’s just a “stop and smell the roses” sort of thing. Am I reading so much, so fast, trying to get through so many books, old and new, that I rush instead of savoring? Am I really tasting each bite before I swallow? (Is that kind of a gross metaphor?) Perhaps I should take more time, read more carefully, wallow in the sensations, admire the deft turns of phrase. I think I enjoy the books I read. I think I get quite a lot out of my process of reading. I can’t really imagine slowing down. But I do wonder if I’m denying myself the pleasure of a slow read in favor of reading everything in sight. We shouldn’t gobble our food; is it a good idea to gobble up our books?

The final reason for my question gets back to Goodreads and all the various reading challenges that seem to have proliferated in recent years. In this age of reading as social media event, has reading become a competitive sport? Read a title for each letter of the alphabet, read an author for every letter, read every book on a Great Books list… the number and variety of challenges out there in the blogosphere are seemingly infinite. When did we start worrying so much about meeting goals? Is this a form of peer pressure? Keeping up with the Joneses? In one of my online book groups, there was a debate about whether certain types of reading “counted” toward an annual total. Counted as what? Real books? If I can hold it in my hands and turn the pages, it feels pretty real to me (and okay, yes, I acknowledge that e-books are real too; not completely dissing technology over here). But isn’t it a bit weird to stop and think about goals and totals before deciding to read a book? If I want to re-read a 1,000 page book, shouldn’t I just go ahead and do it, without worrying about scores or keeping up? Granted, this is partially just my own dormant competitive streak coming to the surface — I’ve never been the slightest bit athletic, never felt compelled to run races or set swimming records, but reading is something I’m actually good at! Can I get a gold medal in fiction reading? Please?

So here I am again, back where I started, wondering if I do, in fact, read too much for my own good. I don’t have any answers. I know that reading brings me joy and satisfies my intellect, emotions, and curiosity in ways that nothing else does. But would I enjoy more if I read less? I’m not sure that I actually want to find out.