Five Reasons to Be a Promiscuous, Polygamous Reader
How lovely to read such a defense of this way of reading. I've often been called scatter-brained or a slow reader, but I've always read multiple books at once! At the moment I have a book on ancient Chinese spycraft as well as Machiavelli (which feed each other very well), an intensive biography of Vlad Dracul, and an English soldier's account of hiding from the Nazis in a Dutch farm house. And on the fiction side, there's Tolkien's Silmarillion, Vodalazhkin's A History of the Island, and T.H. White's The Once and Future King. It takes a lot longer to get through everything but for a lot of the reasons you mentioned, this is the only way I could ever read. Virginia Woolf had a lovely way of putting it: "I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time."
I used to be a firm believer in one book at a time, but as I got older I came to see the benefits of a varied reading diet. Right now I have 3 going: a new read, a reread, and a religious text. It’s saved me a lot of anxiety about picking the “next book” because I don’t feel bad about rereading an on book when I have so many unread ones, or reading a fiction book when I “should” be reading a theological text.
I always have multiple books going on simultaneously too. Curse of a curious mind I suppose. Current reads: a popular novel for our book club, books on cultural upheaval to understand our time, spiritual reading to ground me, a middle grade graphic novel, and we're listening to Kidnapped in the car.
I am grateful for my liberal arts education. I'm studying Latin for the first time at 58. My high school daughter thinks I'm crazy and my husband is used to it. I just read Kristin Lavransdatter earlier this year. I hope you write about it!
Here's to living bookish lives that transform us.
Sounds like we have very similar approaches. One other thing I work into my reading rotation is poetry. I just read one poem a night, Donne, Herbert, Scott, or Q. And of course, I always read through the Bible every year.
I used to be a one at a time reader, but probably post-college started to read multiple at a time and haven't looked back since! That's also when I started DNFing books, which really helps my momentum. I tend to have at least one non-fiction and one fiction going. Sometimes a couple non-fiction simultaneously, for instance a memoir and a slightly more academic text. I do find it difficult to read multiple novels at the same time but since I'm in two book clubs, sometimes needs must.
It seems like your crowd here is polygamous in their reading habits as am I. Life is far too short for only one book at a time. Thankfully I am a very fast reader which helps me get through a lot of material.
I always have a nonfiction book for my morning read because that's when I will absorb new ideas easier and a novel for the evening. My fiction books fluctuate between more serious literature and easy, light reading. As the world has seemed to get more challenging and heavier I find myself needing a bit of a fluffy read, as in nothing bad can happen, as a distraction or for pure entertainment. However, then I give myself a shake, remind myself I am an intelligent adult who deserves more than fluff, and reach for some depth. I also often have random other books on the go at the same time but always those two for sure.
I am so glad to read such praise for having multiple books on the go at once. I got into the habit of bouncing between several books since I learned to read and got access to the wonderful world of libraries, but I quickly realised that other readers around me thought it strange. You've put into words all the reasons I've stuck with this habit over the years and I especially love the idea of being a polygamous reader!
I wouldn’t have it any other way. Crop rotation!
I didn't think there was another to read. Indeed, reading several things at a time inoculates one against "finish guilt."
A great post, Joel. Life's too short to read one book at a time. I like to read according to my mood, and interest at the time. At the moment I'm reading "How Words Get Good", The Anomaly, a Fran Leibowitz reader, plus books of Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Australian short stories -- and soon I will be receiving a survey of fiction books and writers called Retroland. I mean that's what the book is called, not the writers.
Very aptly put out. I normally read multiple books across genres and across devices. Sharing with my book club team. Thanks.
I’m always reading more than one book at a time. People don’t watch only one television series until it’s complete: why should that apply to reading books?
Thanks for this! I’ve often felt a weird sense of guilt for juggling multiple books based on people who say that’s the “wrong way” to read. I tend to balance several non fiction books on specific technical topics with one novel (it does take my mind more effort to remember plots and character details than hard facts).
The fracturing of attention argument has been all but blown to bits by the era of perpetual phone use and social media. Reading a few long form books is still 100x the focus of alternative media diets.
I read exactly the same way you do, for all my life, for all the reasons you stated.
Unless I was doing research for my studies, I read as my mood strikes, and most importantly, I read for JOY!
Love this! I almost always have one fiction, one non-fic, and one audio going at a time. Keeps my reading brain nimble. :)
I’ve done some experimenting with this this year. I had six books going at once at one point. I found that the snails-pace it brought me to in each book was demotivating, along with the nearly overwhelming impulse each time I picked up a book up - didn’t matter which - to put it down and pick up one of the others that also needed some pages turned.
In the end I think the multi-book approach has been good for many of the reasons you’ve mentioned above (two books in particular, by different authors and a decade between publishing, now have marginalia referring to the other throughout), I just know now that my threshold is lower than six. And I also need the little “wins” (where “win” is defined as “finishing a book”) to keep me moving forward. It had taken me four months to get through 95 pages of a book, but in nine days I got through the remaining 160, and now I feel a burst of enthusiasm to read some others.