The Way I Read: Haphazardly

Following Pulitzer celebrates its 4th anniversary this week—that’s right, 4 years (give or take a multi-month outage or two when I disappeared like a magician’s assistant) of non-stop rambles through a very idiosyncratic take on largely forgotten prize-winning American fiction from the period between the world wars, interlaced with a lot of pretty excellent poetry and some navel-gazing about the idea of America (some would call the whole blog navel-gazing, but presumably not you, faithful reader).  Anyway, this would be a great moment to bounce back triumphantly from hiatus with a post on Upton Sinclair‘s Dragon’s Teeth, but truth be told that dazzling volume was only rediscovered yesterday under a pile of papers on what passes for a coffee table here at FP’s palatial digs in an early 20th century Chicago apartment building, and so it’ll be a day or two, at the very least, before I have anything to say about it.  But I could hardly let the moment pass without posting anything, and so I thought it might be a good time to return to my very occasional series “The Way I Read” in which I offer some thoughts about who I think I am as a reader, and invite you to comment a bit on what you make of my thoughts, and how you yourself read.  It seems like a pretty reasonable, maybe even important, sideline to Pulitzer blogging—a way to help provide a little insight into why I see books (and American literature, broadly speaking) the way I do.  Newer arrivals to the blog (and long-time readers who may easily have forgotten the prior posts) can find them all gathered in one place by clicking on this link or by selecting “The Way I Read” from the category dropdown in the right sidebar.

Tonight’s topic?  It’s about time I dealt with one of the most important facts about me as a reader that is totally obscured by this blog project—the remarkably aimless way I approach 95% of the reading in my life.  Here at FP, of course, my “brand” is all about rigidity: I’m not just a “literary blogger”, or a “literary award blogger”, or even a “Pulitzer blogger”.  I’m committed to reading the Puliter Prize winning novels in exact chronological order without exception—no skipping chapters, no skipping books, no peeking ahead.  But that’s not at all how I handle reading normally, and I wonder how similar I am to the rest of you.

It’s one thing, of course, to read whatever I feel like—I do, generally speaking (more on that in a bit), but I figure that’s true of all of us once we’re free of teachers or professors assigning us reading material.  What I think is odd about me, or else what is wonderfully odd about the human race (if you’re all like me in this respect), is how many books I keep spinning at one time.  When I walked through the door this evening, home from work and thinking of picking up a book, I had six books with bookmarks (or folded Post-It notes, or receipts, or whatever’s handy) waiting for me to pick them up.  I’m not talking about books I picked up long ago but have long since forgotten that I was reading.  I’m not counting the book I’m reading aloud to my wife (see a previous Why I Read on that front), or books that are naturally read a bit at a time (like What to Expect When You’re Expecting), or books that get consulted now and then (like an encyclopedia or a travel book).  And I’m not counting the long-neglected Upton Sinclair, even though obviously I intend to pick up that Pulitzer winner and start up from exactly where I left off, nor am I counting the scholarly books I’m reading at work as part of trying to put together a journal article to submit somewhere.  What I am counting is the Dickens novel I’m finally rereading for the first time in 20 years, the book about global warming I realized I needed to re-read now that I’m bringing a human being into the world, the Agatha Christie mystery that P. D. James‘s book on detective fiction reminded me I’d wanted to read, and several other titles scattered from my bedside table to the computer desk.  And depending on what whim seizes me tonight, I may add a seventh to the mix since I brought home this book about the journalists who covered the Nixon/McGovern campaign in 1972 and a blog post today made it sound intriguing enough that I might just have to dive in at once.

Now, these six (or seven) books aren’t all going to be finished—that much I grant you.  Certainly at least one or two, and maybe four or five, of them will fall back into the sea of books that I’d call “our library” if that didn’t make it sound like books and bookshelves were some smaller subset of an apartment largely composed of other things, and of course in fact the book to apartment ratio is much closer to the ocean to land ratio current on the planet Earth.  But the weird thing is that I feel I can fall into and out of these books really easily—that global warming title, for instance, I’m pretty sure I haven’t touched since I moved it from one pile to another last week, and I don’t think I’ve read it since sometime in July.  But if I wanted to read it tonight, I’d pick up exactly where I left off, and feel I was merely continuing an ongoing “read” of the book.  I have no idea how this sounds to you.  It might be you’re saying “Ah yes!  This is what readers do, James: did you really think you were unusual?”  And it might be you’re saying “Ahem: James, if you’re reading more than two books at a time, you don’t get credit for any of them.  Those are the rules, you know.”  To me it feels simultaneously very natural and very silly.  Natural, of course, since no one’s forcing me to behave in this bizarre fashion and so this must be what my brain thinks of as “normal” on some level.  But silly in that I cannot possibly imagine where in my head all these different things are alive—fictive and non-fictive characters and situations bumping into each other like guests at an awkward wedding reception, looking past each other in the hopes that someone they know is already at their assigned table.  All of them are as present to me as if I’d just set them down a little while ago—in old-fashioned computer speak (Millenials, I don’t know if this will make sense to you), they’re in RAM, not ROM—and I can distinguish pretty clearly between a book I read a bit ago and “am still reading”, and a book I read a bit ago and “have stopped reading”, though I’m not always sure how I know this.  This is a modern luxury, of course—I figure that Aristotle and Aquinas couldn’t really have lived like this, since even owning that many books at any time pre-Gutenberg would have been pretty luxurious.  I wonder why it feels so natural to me, then, and where on earth I got the habit (to my knowledge, neither of my parents are like this, and I can’t think of any other “reading role models” off-hand who might have influenced me this direction).

One last (maybe related?) note ties back into what I noted a couple of paragraphs back, when I said that “generally speaking” I read whatever I like.  For some reason, every summer I decide I need to learn something.  I pick a topic (often seemingly at random) and assert that I really need to pick up several books on the topic and get somewhere with them.  Sometimes this is an utter disaster (the Summer of Learning Old English was not a roaring success), and at other times it works marvelously (the Summer of Learning about Climate Change has turned into a lifelong interest).  But regardless, I’ll admit, it’s a bit of an odd thing to do—suddenly select an area of interest and decide that, over the next couple of months, I am committed to reading about it.  Is this my brain trying to steer me onto a better, more focused path?  Or just one more of the many ways I make eccentricity a way of life?  It’s not clear to me.  I certainly read a weird mix of fiction and non-fiction normally, and usually none of the titles relate to each other, outside the parameters of my “summer project”.

Am I overanalyzing?  Almost certainly!  But this is the point of my occasional “The Way I Read” posts: bringing out into the light one of the sides of me as a reader that I figure might be idiosyncratic, and seeing whether it resonates with other folks or not.  I fully intend to keep reading this way in the future: I hardly know how to stop, even if I wanted to.  But I wonder—do you read this way?  If so, I’d love to hear your musings about it, and if not, it would be great to get a glimpse of what reading is like for you.

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17 comments on “The Way I Read: Haphazardly

  1. jwrosenzweig says:

    Addendum: I’m realizing the post may give the false impression that I read almost constantly, a sort of “WOW is it hard to read six books ALL AT THE SAME TIME” humblebrag. But in fact I read less often than most people guess, and less than plenty of diehard readers I know. I have my high-energy reading stretches, of course, burning through books at high speed, but I also see weeks fly by where I don’t touch books much at all (outside of my job). Anyway, I just wanted to note for posterity that this is about the weirdly tangled web of half-finished books that constantly surround me, and not really at all about how much I read at any given time or how many books in general I have read, neither of which are unusually impressive, especially given that I’ve spent my adult life working either as an English teacher or a librarian. 🙂

  2. SilverSeason says:

    I am a fast, rather intense reader and sometimes cannot stop myself from reading more. I try to have 2-3 books going at a time, in part to break up the intensity.

    I read what I want — with a strong preference for the classics — but also usually have a topic I’m pursuing for teaching purposes. (I teach for senior learning groups and can pretty much talk about whatever I want.) What I then do, however, goes crazily beyond what I really need for the classroom. Just try nibbling off a class-session size bite of the ancient Greeks or Louisa May Alcott or Indian novels in English or World War I. There is no end to any of them.

  3. Sharalyn says:

    So I have several (ok, just counted….there are 4) books that I am currently reading while there are 6 in the I have stopped reading pile but really need to get going on again (but don’t feel like it yet). I usually only really read 1 book at a time, but may stop that one to then start another, finish it, then go back (if that makes any sense). Lately I have one fiction novel and one book that challenges me spiritually/mentally. Sometimes non-fiction is substituted for one or the other as my “alternate” book. My stack of books “to read” that I haven’t started yet is 7 deep at the moment.

    I too read in fits with famine in between. I’ll blow through 6 books in two days, another 6 in 4 days, then nothing for two weeks.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      6 in two days? Holy cow! And I thought I was pretty cool finishing a book in a single day on a flight to California for a wedding. 🙂 Are these short books, or do you read at lightning speed, or do you have some secret room you can disappear into for 18 hours at a time? 🙂

      • Sharalyn says:

        Combination of several things. 1) I am a very quick reader. The longest Harry Potter took less than 4 hours to read (and that was long for a book for me!). 2) I tend to hate to put a (fiction) book down even when needing to eat or pee, so it very much can be uninterrupted. I became great at multitasking while reading (I used to walk the halls of school in Junior High/High School while reading a book–and we had super crowded halls!). 3) My children do well in entertaining themselves, so unless there is a meal or screaming, I can read while in a room near them, and they’re ok. 4) My house tends to completely fall apart when I am on reading binges (much to my family’s horror). If I’m *really* into a book, I have been know to suddenly realize it is 2 and the children are eating junk that my son figured I wouldn’t notice since I forgot time and that they should have lunch… 5) I tend to only sleep about 4-6 hours on the nights I’m read-binging, so that gives 18-20 hours a day for reading (and yes, I can bathe the baby or nurse the baby while reading).

        Lastly, I read mostly fairly simple stories in the sense that they do not require much digestion of the material. Those books would be the ones that take me a while to get through because I’ll read a chapter then need to mull them over. Those are not in my reading binges of two days.

      • Sharalyn says:

        Oh, and I typically binge with books all from the same author, so there is not a lot of style shift either. Last binge was Carol Ryrie Brink, and I’m stocking up on Lois Lowry (YA and Adult) and Madeleine L’Engle (YA and Adult–never finished “A Wrinkle in Time”) as our library will be in renovations for most of September and October, so our books aren’t due until November 3rd. I currently have 38 books out with 41 on hold that I hope come in soon (some for the kids too–all the Scaredy Squirrels, the rest of the Wrinkle in Time series for Alexander, complete George & Martha hippo books, etc.).

  4. Mabel says:

    Do you mean navel-gazing or novel-gazing? 😆 (Ahem. Sorry.)

    I completely get your haphazard approach. It’s EXACTLY how I read. I read half of War & Peace off and on for a year and then set it aside a couple years ago, figuring I’d eventually get back to it. I am confident I could simply continue without much catch-up.

    I love (LOVE) reading several books at once because I get to compare and contrast the different styles/topics/eras/POVs/etc as I go — all at an intuitive level. (Meaning I don’t necessarily notice I’m doing it and certainly couldn’t put it all into words, but along the way, I am comparing.)

    That said, I might try focusing a bit more while I’m back in classes. So I can finish something!

    I love the “select an area of interest” idea.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Mabel, I thought of you when I was writing this, since I remember you blogging about this (I’m almost certain you did, anyway) at some point in the past. I do like the compare/contrast side you’re talking about, although it does make me wonder whether this approach sacrifices something of the opportunity to fully immerse myself in a single vision or world. Does reading this way make it harder for us to get truly invested in a book the way we do when we’re young? I ask but don’t know the answer. 🙂 And I’m glad you like the “area of interest” approach—I highly recommend it as a nice splash of order for the otherwise-chaotic reader. 🙂

      • Mabel says:

        I do recall blogging about this topic. 🙂 And I definitely think reading in multiples changes the way I read. I sometimes long to go back to the “full immersion” of childhood. I think, for me, it’s eagerness that makes me pick up in multiples. As a kid, I didn’t know anything about literature, so for me, one book (my favorite was Charlotte’s Web) was a whole universe. The fact that I know now how much literature is out there waiting, and I know I can never read it all, makes me want to keep exploring, even as I am immersed. I very much want to try reading just one at a time, but I’ve had no luck yet! I always go back to reading in multiples. And I guess, since that’s how I seem to read now, I like to see some positive in it, like the compare and contrast aspect. 🙂

  5. Donna says:

    I am always reading more than one book mostly because I am usually taking a class, leading a book discussion, discovering a new Civil War history, borrowing and starting something new from the library, reading background material for a book discussion, participating in another book group, trying something new for the ARRT genre study, or…. something else. It’s exciting and wonderful. When I get on a mystery kick, particularly a new (to me) series, I have to read at least two or three in that series to get my fill. Then I can go back to the series at any time and remember who the characters are. Mysteries I read pretty fast and that’s what I usually read at bedtime. Nonfiction requiring careful reading I must do sitting up in a chair–not in bed. Some reading is on audio, but not much. When I go on vacation (in 10 days!!) I usually bring my Kindle and some magazines that I can throw away as I finish them. I’ve stopped many a book and come back to it weeks or months later knowing just where I left off. I guess you are not the only one — count me as an eclectic reader too.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for sharing—I’m the same way with mysteries, usually, but they’re about the only genre that I normally feel compelled to stick with in a row like that. Your mention of the Kindle makes me wonder if I’d be even more like this if I didn’t have to physically keep all the books I’m “reading” in close proximity—when I finally make the leap to an e-reader someday, it’ll be interesting to see what results!

  6. Nerija S. says:

    I’d say I’m a pretty haphazard reader, too; I have nine books in my “currently-reading” folder on Goodreads, some of which I haven’t picked back up in years, having gotten distracted by other reads. It really depends on how much a book sucks me in. There are those I’m mildly interested in — enough to want to finish eventually, but no rush…there are those I really love as I’m reading them, but don’t feel the need to stay up all night to finish all in one go, and am ok with taking breaks to read other books…and then there are the ones that do pull me in enough that I will not pick up another book until I finish this one.

    I felt like that most recently with the Hitchhiker’s Guide series (admittedly, three of them were re-reads, though the first time was over ten years ago; also, I bought the whole series before starting my no-new-books-until-I-finish-what-I-have-at-home project, so I figure it counts); I got so caught up in Adams’ cosmology and humor and all the fascinating philosophical concepts, and dang it I just wanted to see what happens next! And now that I’ve finished the series, I feel like going back and doing it again–even though I know there’s a huge pile of other books waiting for me (i.e. all those older books I bought over the years and never got around to reading or finishing)–because I know there are things I’ve missed, conversations or asides that I skimmed, that might actually explain some of the things I’m still confused about. All of book five, for instance. I’m still scratching my head over that…

    P.S. I like your ocean:earth::books:the-rest-of-the-apartment analogy. You know you’re a scholar/literary person when… 🙂

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