Whenever someone says they like to read several books at once, my brain insists on picturing them with too many arms, extra hands grappling with slippery paperbacks, eyes racing from book to book to book. It’s not what we mean when we say that we’ve got multiple books going, though it can be what it feels like. Sometimes the gears shift easily: a chapter from a nonfiction book, a magazine or essay that catches your eye, a long dive into a novel when you have time to sit and luxuriate in it.
And sometimes the gears grind and stick and I ask, not for the first time: Is this any way to read? Why don’t I just pick a book and stick with it?
The answer is not that I’m struggling with a disappointing book and need to break up the monotony. We’re adults here, right? We do what we want. We don’t have to finish every book we start. There is great joy to be found in book abandonment: the sense of freedom, the clean slate, the pleasure of picking something new, something that promises it won’t let you down like whatever book you didn’t get through. Learning to say no is a skill, and learning to say no to a book is part of that skillset.
It’s also not that I’m trying to read faster, or get through my TBR pile with some sort of speed-reading book-switching trick. Reading isn’t a race or a contest. You read as many books as you read and you read them as fast as you read them. I’m a fast reader except when I’m not. And when I am fast, sometimes I don’t remember as much as I’d like.
So I slow down.
Sometimes with other books.
Sometimes you just can’t do this. I couldn’t read anything else while I read Appleseed, which has three storylines and is kind of like reading multiple interconnected books all in one. I refused to put down Leviathan Falls until I was done. It’s possible I refused to speak to people when I was finishing The Stone Sky. But this isn’t a judgment on my multiple-book choices as less gripping. There are as many ways to be gripped as there are stories to read.
At present I have bookmarks in Goliath, The Birthday of the World, The Bone Orchard, and a writing book I avoid talking about. (People have a lot of opinions about writing books, especially well-known old ones with slightly woo-woo vibes.) This pile of active reads is tipped too far toward fiction; one of them should be some kind of nonfiction, inasmuch as there is any kind of “should” when you’re trying to keep books from toppling off your nightstand. But I keep having to stop myself from going to Powell’s in search of the entire Long Price Quartet. I read The Atlas Six and therefore, according to my mental logic, I need to read Ninth House. The weather inches toward spring and I want to start books about the world: Arctic Dreams, The Idea of North, Finding the Mother Tree. The pile wants to grow.
The arguments for reading multiple books at once can feel a little prescriptive. It’s good for you! It gives you different feelings and lets you read multiple genres at once! Maybe it helps you retain more information when you take longer with a story! (I am still grumpy about this. I like to go fast.) It all feels very read everything you must be always reading!, which, if you were in fact the kind of kid who read the back of the cereal box, you know: always reading is not always helpful. Sometimes you wind up reading things you didn’t want to read. I can hardly seem to stop myself: If there are words in front of me, I will read them. At times it feels like word clutter. Is there a special dustrag for cleaning a few of these sentences out of my mind?
“Serial reading—the act of plowing through a single book without pausing to read anything else—seems quaint these days, and maybe impossible,” Julia Keller wrote in the Chicago Tribune in 2010. “We exist amid an extraordinary cultural cornucopia. We live in a world of joyful multitasking. There is more great literature being produced in the world today than at any other moment in history.”
I cannot get on board with “joyful” multitasking. Please, I would like to get off the multitasking merry-go-round, though I think it is too late for me. But Keller also writes about the “literary synergy … created by the accidental juxtaposition of reading materials.” Sometimes it’s not accidental; sometimes you purposefully pick up a book because it seems in conversation or contradiction with what you’re reading. A fairy tale to balance a hard science fiction novel, or a memoir for a break from fantasy. A work of classic SFF and a new book that challenges the norms once taken for granted.
Does this sound like work, that planning of reading? Maybe. If you put too much thought into it. But I would like to propose another reason for multi-book reading: It can introduce a delicious kind of yearning. I know it’s time to switch books when I start daydreaming about the one that’s not in my hands. When I’m reading a novel and look over and just have to try one short story—just one!—from the collection I started a few days ago. When I can’t stop thinking about where I’ve left a character.
The whys and wherefores of this are impossible to quantify. It has nothing to do with liking one better than the other and everything to do with that specific and indescribable feeling of itching to get back to a story, to pick up a thread, to have a sense of continuation, returning, movement. Maybe it’s a kind of ritual. I have definitely done a lot more multi-book reading in the last two years. Is it for the novelty? A self-inflicted form of spontaneity? A little.
But there is something to be said for the simple joy of giving yourself something to look forward to. That thing can be a new book, but it can also be the smaller pleasure of the place you left off in the other book you’re reading—a cliffhanging chapter sitting facedown on the desk, or a scrap of paper marking the moment an emotional scene was just too much to take in without fortification (chocolate, whiskey, more blankets, whatever works for you). Sometimes I catch myself reading a book like it’s homework (“I must finish three more chapters today before bed”) and set it aside until I can read it without giving myself an assignment.
More often than not, though, switching between books is a little bit like watching different TV series on different days. I’m not going to mix up what’s happening on Discovery with what’s happening on Severance with what’s happening on The Great. But each one informs how I see the others, even in the smallest ways, and books do that, too. The distant culture of a science fiction short story and the customs of a second-world fantasy can resonate with each other. You can trace the lineage of generation ship stories from one novel to a classic written long ago, seeing how the ideas expand and change. If one book is focused on a city’s street rats and another on its royalty, what is each author not telling you?
All of this is part of reading, whether one book or five. But reading a pile of books at once, letting the stories brush up against each other in my mind—and letting myself move from one to another on whim and habit and instinct—it’s a good change from falling headlong into one single story. It’s kind of like walking a new route through a familiar city: you know where you’re going, but the different scenery sparks a different train of thought. There’s no wrong way to read, but why not try a different path sometimes?