Once in a while, a book so grabs me that I can’t read anything else till I’ve finished it. (Also, once in a while, I have to read a book that is by its nature a struggle and if I read anything else during the effort I’ll never get through it.)
There are days I miss the ability to do multiple things at once—read, listen to the radio, watch television, carry on a conversation. I think we all remember a time when we could do this, but I also wonder if we remember how much we actually got out of it. I know that if there are voices around me now, spoken or sung, reading is impossible. I write to music—instrumental music—but that’s the limit of my cross-discipline multitasking. (I’m writing this to Glen Gould’s performance of Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto. I find myself recognizing passages during the pauses between thoughts, but the rest just flows by, creating a kind of aural creative cushion, a continuity that fills in the gaps left by interrupted imagination.) I rarely read to music.
But I do generally have three or four books going at the same time.
Right now I’m reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and at the same time working my way through Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia. (Does that count as a kind of musical background? Nah!) In between, I’ve been reading short stories in current issues of Asimovs SF and I’m about to start research into Madame de Stäel for the next book in the trilogy I’ve been working on.
The trick is to mix them up. I almost never read two novels simultaneously. History and a novel, essay collections and a novel, science, politics, etc. From time to time they color each other, to interesting (but I’m not sure to superior) effect. I recall once reading Michael Moorcock’s marvelous The War Hound and the World’s Pain and C. V. Wedgewood’s history of the Thirty Years War more or less at the same time. Whatever else I might have been reading got overwhelmed by the totality of those two books. Sort of like reading Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead and a biography of Admiral Halsey together, or just a good history of World War II in the Pacific.
While we read with our entire brain (especially fiction, in which the internal creation of images is strongest), it seems we can compartmentalize detail. I wonder sometimes if when I put down one text and pick up another, what I’m doing is giving my subconscious an opportunity to process the first text. It feels curiously relaxing sometimes to go from one to another, like changing up an exercise routine.
I am a slow reader. I read roughly 80 books a year, cover to cover (probably if I added in the total page count of articles, short stories, partial reads, and such it might get closer to 120, but nevertheless) and it can sometimes take me a seemingly inordinate length of time to get through a book. (Having done two works now with a reading group—Ulysses and Dante’s Commedia—the upper range now stands at seven years to get through a text.) Many factors are involved, the chief being the time to sit down and read. Life interferes. Where once it seemed I had a whole day to go through a book, now I read them in 20 minute to 2 hour chunks. And the depth of the text places its own constraints on how quickly it will be absorbed. (I can read a standard murder mystery in a couple of days, but I’m looking at a book on my shelf that I know will take a month at least—Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought, a history of the United States from 1815 to 1848. The older I get, it seems, the more attention I find I must give to such books. I zipped through William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in high school and did it in less than a week.) “Processing time” is more necessary, but the urge to keep reading is abated only by picking up a different book for a while.
I have yet to confuse texts. I always manage to keep whatever I’m reading this way separate. That might change were I to read similar books simultaneously. (In fact, I do recall confusing sources during a period of intense research into the Civil War, wherein I switched from one text to another regularly in an attempt to glean a collective comprehension of the period.)
Almost all of my reading, however, is linear (as probably is most people’s). There are some I’ve known who open books at random and read in the middle, then the beginning, then somewhere else (though not novels, but I wonder how this might work in history?) but not me. Beginning to end. Yet I keep them all separate—multi-linearity?—which might seem difficult, since I put one down to pick another up and each return is like starting over. Yet…
It makes for an interesting, often fascinating journey. Dancing down the Yellow Brick Road on the way to Versailles at the height of the Sun King’s reign and finding the legation from Vega waiting in the trans-Plutonian consulate fora. Metternich and Monroe are over there in corner, at the end of the buffet, discussing the Euro with Aragorn while Peregrin and Meriadoc introduce Nero Wolfe to delicacies from Canopus. There are serious issues under discussion among the gathered dignitaries, not least of which is the true location of the Maltese Falcon and whether or not the heirs to the Dukes of Burgundy have right of return, for which cause Chingachgook represents them to the Culture Minds who may or may not intercede. The whole arrangement of the imaginative universe could be altered. Everyone is waiting for arrival of the next book in the series. in the meantime, we read widely to grasp the multiverse in which existence itself is given meaning…