Whenever someone says they like to read several books at once, my brain insists on imagining them with too many arms, extra hands struggling with slippery paperbacks, eyes darting from book to book to book. This is not what we mean when we say we have several books, although it may be. Sometimes it’s easy to shift gears: a chapter in a nonfiction book, a magazine or essay that grabs your attention, a long dive into a novel when you have time to sit and enjoy it.
And sometimes the gears grind and stick and I ask, not for the first time: Is there any way to read it? Why don’t I just pick a book and stick with it?
The answer isn’t that I’m struggling with a book that disappointed me and I 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 in leaving a book: a sense of freedom, a clean slate, the pleasure of having something to choose from New, something that promises not to disappoint you like any book you haven’t gone through. Learning to say no is a skill, and learning to say no to a book is part of that skill set.
It’s also not like I’m trying to read faster or work my way through my TBR pile with some speed-reading and book-switching trick. Reading is not a race or a competition. 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’m 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 it. I couldn’t read anything else while I was reading Apple seed, which has three storylines and is kind of like reading multiple interconnected books in one. I refused to lay down Leviathan Falls until i finished It’s possible that I refused to talk to people when I finished Stone sky. But that is not a judgment of my selections from more books as less engaging. There are as many ways to grasp them as there are stories to read.
I currently have bookmarks in Goliath, Birthday of the world, Bone setand writing a book I avoid talking about. (People have many opinions about writing books, especially well-known ones that have slightly woo-woo vibes.) This pile of active reading leans too far toward fiction; one of them should be some kind of nonfiction because there are any kind of “shoulds” when you’re trying to keep books from falling off your nightstand. But I still have to resist going to Powell’s to look for the whole thing Long Price Quartet. I’m reading Atlas Six and therefore according to my mental logic I need to read The ninth house. The weather is approaching spring and I want to start books about the world: Arctic dreams, The idea of the north, Searching for the mother tree. The crowd wants to grow.
Arguments for reading multiple books at once can seem a bit prescriptive. It’s good for you! It gives you different feelings and allows you to read multiple genres at once! It might help you retain more information as you engage with the story longer! (I’m still grumpy about it. I as go fast.) It is all very felt read everything you always have to read!, which, if you were actually that kid who reads the back of the cereal box, you know: reading isn’t always helpful. Sometimes you read things you didn’t mean to read. I can hardly stop myself: If there are words in front of me, I will read them. Sometimes it feels like a jumble of words. Is there a special duster to remove a few of these sentences from my mind?
“Serial reading—the act of plowing through a single book without stopping to read anything else—seems quaint and perhaps impossible these days,” wrote Julia Keller. Chicago Tribune in 2010. “We exist in the midst of extraordinary cultural abundance. We live in a world of joyful multitasking. More great literature is being produced in the world today than at any other time in history.”
I can’t get on board with “joyful” multitasking. Please, I would like to get off the multitasking merry-go-round, although I think it is too late for me. But Keller also writes of a “literary synergy… created by the accidental juxtaposition of reading materials.” Sometimes it’s not accidental; sometimes you deliberately pick up a book because it seems in conversation or at odds with what you are reading. A fairy tale to balance out a hard sci-fi novel or a memoir for a break from fantasy. A work of classic SFF and a new book that challenges norms once taken for granted.
Does that sound like work, that reading schedule? Maybe. If you think about it too much. But I’d like to suggest another reason for reading from multiple books: It can introduce a delicious kind of longing. I know it’s time to change books when I start dreaming about the one I don’t have in my hands. When I read a novel and I look at it and I just have to try one story – just one! – from a collection I started a few days ago. When I can’t stop thinking about where I left the character.
The reasons and why are impossible to quantify. It has nothing to do with liking one more than the other, but everything to do with that specific and indescribable feeling of itching to return to the story, to pick up the thread, to have a sense of continuation, return, movement. Maybe it’s a kind of ritual. I’ve definitely read a lot more more books in the last two years. Is it for novelty? An arbitrary form of spontaneity? A little.
But there’s 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 a minor pleasure from where you left off in another book you’re currently reading—a hanging chapter sitting face down on your desk, or a scrap of paper marking a moment when an emotional scene was too big to handle without fortification (chocolate, whiskey, more blankets, whatever works for you). Sometimes I find myself reading a book as homework (“I have to finish three more chapters before bed tonight”) and put it aside until I can read it without giving myself homework.
But more often than not, switching between books is a bit like watching different TV series on different days. I won’t mix up what’s going on Discovery with what’s going on Severance pay with what’s going on Big. But each one informs how I see the others, even in the smallest of ways, and books do that, too. The distant culture of a sci-fi story and otherworldly customs of fantasy can resonate together. You can trace the lineage of generational ship stories from one novel to a classic written long ago and see how ideas expand and change. If one book focuses on urban street rats and the other on their royal family, what isn’t each author telling you?
It’s all part of reading, whether it’s one book or five. But reading a bunch of books at once, letting the stories rub against each other in my mind—and let myself drift from one to another according to whim, habit, and instinct—is a good change from throwing myself headlong into a single story. It’s like walking a new route through a familiar city: you know where you’re going, but different scenery prompts a different train of thought. There is no wrong way to read, but why not try a different path sometimes?
Originally published in March 2022.