A couple of years ago, around the time that I was heading to the NonfictioNOW conference in Flagstaff Arizona, I realized — for the first time — that my reading practices were a bit strange. At least, that’s when I first had the impression.
It had to do with how many books I was reading at a single time.
I’d had a discussion with one of my classmates about it, or at least I thought I had, until I went to write about it. But as I try to think of the conversation now, I don’t recall any the details, or even, I realize, if it happened at all. It’s just a hazy impression, the shadow of a memory. Perhaps that’s all it was.
I do, however, remember the trip to Flagstaff with my fellow MFA candidates and our professors as a fun ride in the 12-seater university van, which reminded me of road trips I’d taken with my family growing up.
I recalled those family trips and how I sat in my usual spot in our second-hand minivan: the back seat to the far right, close to the sliding door but still with a good vantage point to know with a glance what was happening around me as I read. This seat also happened to have a handy place over the wheel-well where I could store my books that I’d brought to read, four or five at a time.
It didn’t really matter if we were going half-way across the country, or just into town — the number of books I brought with me, all on the go, remained the same. I never knew what I would be in the mood to read, I reasoned. I wanted the variety.
My mom recently reminded me that I’d spent so much time reading while in the van that when I got my license, I had some trouble knowing how to get anywhere.
Back in the university van, one of my MFA friends was in the back corner reading a thick hardback copy of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. (This also reminded me of how I’d missed out on getting a copy signed by him when I went to a reading several months before he’d been awarded the prize. But that’s another essay.)
Now, I’m not a very fast reader — over the years I have finished, on average, four books a month. I was amazed as I noted over the course of our 12 hour drive to the conference and the 12 hours back, that my friend quietly put away a few hundred pages, all from this single book, as the landscape quietly passed by.
I knew that All the Light We Cannot See was not required reading for class, and I thought about my own store of non-required books I’d brought on that trip — my standard number of four or five — and the space I’d reserved for the books I would purchase at the bookfair when we got there.
Somewhere in the Arizona desert, I decided that I was reading too many books at once.
What prompted the following change in my reading practices? Was it the now unremembered conversation I had with one of my classmates? Or the conversation I had with a friend of mine, a librarian, who was skeptical at my being able to remember anything by reading several books at a time instead of one after the other? (Coincidentally, she was also originally from Arizona.) Or, was it just the silent example of my classmate who steadily worked her way through a single book on the total 24 hour drive?
Out of the classroom, I saw her in new circumstances, a different light. I realized that it was possible — at least in theory — for me to start and finish a single book before dipping into another. I decided to implement a new rule for myself: I would finish two books before I could start another.
The conference was in October, 2015. In November, I finished ten books (two and a half times my normal average, amidst my studies no less). This is documented in the reading log I created called “Books Read Since Beginning MFA.”
I didn’t finish another book until mid-January.
The conference — like so many others — came and went, and I have lots of notes of good ideas to prove it. But one of the most lasting practices that came out of it was noting my friend read, and then my being changed by it.
Why do I write this post now? Judging from the teetering tower beside my bed, I’m thinking I need to reimplement this rule, at least temporarily.
Question: How many books do your read at a time, and why?
Please refer back to my comment in your earlier blog (“Disorganizing your Bookshelf“) about “style” (Gregorc) and “Intelligences” (Gardner). One could interpret your reading proclivities in terms of these two sources as well as the many who followed them for the past nearly 40 years. Gregorc’s ideas could serve to explain some of the “How and Why” and Gardner could give insight into some more of the hows and whys that you are wondering about. Gardner’s “Linguistic Intelligence” including the subset characteristics along with his “Intrapersonal Intelligence” and subsets may give further clues as to why we read in the ways we do. Reading in the car is another whole way of interpreting one’s approach that might require understanding of a “Bodily-Kinesthetic” Intelligence (or not). I could never read in a car.
My thoughts, UJ
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Thanks, UJ! Yes, I was thinking of your previous comment as I was about to post this one. I realized how, in some ways, my natural reading practices are very similar to the ways I organize my books: haphazard! (seemingly) – or “random” as you say Gregorc might classify my style.
It got me wondering if the similarity between how I organize my books, and how I tend to read, is also true for others? For example, for those who alphabetize their books on the shelf, which you say “might be considered an abstract-sequential” system, are they also more likely to have an abstract-sequential system when it comes to reading? In practical terms, I’d imagine this might look like someone: 1) starting one book and finishing it before beginning another, and/or 2) reading books within a series in either chronological or sequential order. My big-picture, underlying question, I suppose, is this: if I have a certain “style” in one area, am I more likely to have that same style in other areas? And is this true for everyone? What do you think Gregorc might say?
With the idea of Gardner’s “Bodily-Kinesthetic” Intelligence: I can read while travelling in a car no problem, but I’m not so good at reading and walking – though I know those who are! So my question is: do I need to initiate the movement, or just be in motion, for the intelligence to be considered “bodily-kinesthetic”?
I think it would be interesting to explore these ideas further.
If I’ve got Gregorc completely wrong, please excuse me! I haven’t read Gregorc (or Gardner), but from what you’ve shared, their theories sound fascinating! A neat way to frame thinking about organizing books and reading.
Thank you for your thought-provoking comment(s)!
For me, I don’t think I can read more than two books at a time. Usually I read just one. If I’m in the middle of a book and then I’m introduced to another book that I’d like to read, I might jump right into the second book, read it all the way through, and then go back to finishing my first book. But I don’t really switch back and forth between two too often because I tend to put all of my energy into things all at once, until I’m finished with that thing or want to move on to something else. If I have more than two books on the go at once, chances are pretty high that at least one of them won’t get finished. In fact, when I was visiting last week, I returned one of Mom’s books for the same reason – I liked what I’d read of the book, but had started and finished a handful of other books since I’d last read it, so I returned it until maybe sometime in the future when I feel like actually reading it again.
Great post! I’m always excited to see new posts to read on your blog.
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Thanks for your comment! I think it’s interesting that you’ll essentially “put a book on hold,” on occassion, and then come back to it. It sounds like, for the most part, you are a monogamous reader (I thought I just made that term up, but a quick search tells me otherwise!).
I like what you said about putting all your energy into one book. Maybe I’ll try it as an experiment sometime. 🙂
Thanks again for your comment and your kind words! 🙂