The Joys Of Reading Many Books At Once

Books

hide captionCultural critic Julia Keller says reading multiple books at once lets a reader juxtapose a somber book with a more lighthearted one.

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Many people are serial readers — they pick up one book and read it cover-to-cover before putting it down.

And then there are poly-readers like Julia Keller.

The Chicago Tribune cultural critic juggles four, five, or even six books at any given time, never able — or willing — to choose just one.

Some have frowned when Keller mentions how many books she's reading, she writes in a recent column.

But she's nurtured her habit not because she's flighty or easily bored — or even because it's her job to read many books at a time. It's just because she finds life is simply better when lived among multiple books.

There's nothing like the joy of accidentally stumbling on synergy between two books, says Keller, when a plotline or location in one is enriched by a scene in another.

And in an age of rampant multi-tasking, Keller asks, why not?

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

It is Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer. And if you're like Chicago Tribune cultural critic Julia Keller, you spent the last few months indulging in dozens of books, no, not one at a time, all at once. In fact, Keller is never reading just one book at a time. It's a habit she practices year around, and in the world full of great literature and obsessed with multitasking, Keller asks, why not?

How about you? Tell us your story about reading many books at once. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. You can also email us at talk@npr.org.

Julia Keller wrote about the joys of reading many books at once in a recent column in the Chicago Tribune, and she joins us today by phone in Columbus, Ohio. Julia Keller, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. JULIA KELLER (Cultural Critic, Chicago Tribune): Hi there, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Okay. So maybe this is a short question with a long answer, but what are you reading?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: You know, I look around 'cause I thought, you know, I know what she's going to ask me first. And, indeed, I have the pile - I have this pile, several piles on inside me here of the most amazing array of books. And I couldn't tell you specifically why each one was chosen, except they just happen to garner my interest at the moment.

I've got an older novel by Barbara Kingsolver, "Prodigal Summer." I have a Hans Fallada's "Wolf Among Wolves." I've got an old collection of Doris Lessing short stories. All kinds of things, in addition to the usual magazines, J. Crew and L.L. Bean catalogue, all the rest of it.

LUDDEN: And you've written about a wonderful literary synergy, you call it, in terms of, kind of, the right mix and match there. Although, you say it's not planned, necessarily.

Ms. KELLER: Not at all. Now - it's put it like - maybe you put in together a great dinner party, where you sort of let your instincts guide you and then you look around and suddenly you created this wonderful multiplicity all around you, this great cavalcade and this great bouquet of different kinds of flavors and sauces and scents. And perhaps, if it was too directed, it was then the -it would get kind of over determined, like an English major's reading list or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: And I don't mean that at all. I just - I guess I mean they just cut it, indulge your interest, and don't worry about being told you how to magpie mind, which is a phrase I was - always heard, in a kind of derisive way - that it's not so bad to be reading many, many different things at once. A chapter here, a paragraph there - to kind of skip around.

LUDDEN: 'Cause it does feel that... You know, I always have this feeling, from childhood really - if I started, I need to finish it.

Ms. KELLER: Yeah.

LUDDEN: Which is something since having kids, I just can't do all the time.

Ms. KELLER: Right, exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: But when I moved on to the next, I feel guilty.

Ms. KELLER: My sister, the second child, and she said it at that point - she realized, you know, that no one would ever have her full attention ever again, including any novel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: So it was only sad, but - and I just think we're a little bit chastised if we do read too many things. If we - you know, we're told that they going to stick with it and don't jump around and... You know, there was a wonderful book that came out, earlier this year, by Nicholas Carr, called "The Shallows."

And it's a beautifully eloquent book and his point is that the Internet, he fears, is splitting our focus and turning us into people with very short attention spans. And I have to say, I agree with him, but I also don't agree with him. I think one in those wonderful things we do is to split our focus, is to constantly be ready and available to other kinds of reading, to anything that kind of crosses our path and to say, oh, wait, that looks kind of interesting too, I think I'll go over there for a while - and then return.

LUDDEN: Is that not a comment on how the first book isn't keeping your interest?

Ms. KELLER: Well, see, I worry about that too. I think, is it boring me? And if that really isn't it, I mentioned reading - I'm reading Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," his wonderful new novel. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that novel. I mean, you could sit and read that at a single sitting. I mean, if you have like a good 14-hour stretch to tend to it. But you're on a different mood at a different time.

Different books kind of grabbed your attention and different times just as, you know, you wouldn't eat hotdogs all day, every day. I say that, having just eaten two hotdogs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KELLER: You know, I wouldn't want them every day, but boy, for today, that was just what was needed.

LUDDEN: But now you are a book critic. So, I mean, I can imagine you would sort of be forced to read many books all at once. Is it something that's kind of come with your job, or you had this proclivity before?

Ms. KELLER: Actually, I did it before. I did it ever since I was a kid. But I did worry about that when I wrote the column. I thought, well, people is going to say, well, yeah, sure. I mean, that's - that's like founding out that, you know, Peyton Manning likes to throw a football around his backyard. Well, I guess. So I really meant that it's something I think is kind of part of the human species, to always be kind of looking over the horizon to the next thing. And I think that when you break off your reading to go read something else, the first thing is enhanced. It's enhanced by that contrast by realizing all the different varieties of voices that there are out there.

I mean, I'm one of these people - I call it my kind of oh, wow, theory of literature, where you come across a new writer or one that you thought you knew before. And then, suddenly they seem new to you, and this voice just seems so magnificent. And to think that such a thing is out there in the world, you kind of go, oh, wow. It's a little unsophisticated, but it kind of carries you along.

LUDDEN: All right. I think you've got a sympathetic soul out in Lake Tahoe, California. We've got George on the line. Hi, George.

GEORGE (Caller): Hi, there.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

GEORGE: Well, I'm reading "Angle of Repose" by Wallace Stegner.

Ms. KELLER: Mm-hmm.

GEORGE: It sounded interesting. It's California history, and so I was interested in that. And I read multiple subjects, partly because I may get bored with a book, for one, and at the same time I'm interested in different subject matters. So I've been reading some Arthur C. Clarke short stories in a collection. When I have spare moments where I don't want to spend an hour reading, maybe just 15, 20 minutes - and then when I have free time in the evening, late in the evening before I go to bed, I'll sit up with another book that - I like "Cryptonomicon." I just finished with over 1,000 pages, and that took, you know, several weeks to read, in-between the others I've been reading.

And then, you know, plus doing research for a little bit of writing I've been doing, though I have to bury the subject matter and just try and get a little bit of everything in at once. It's kind of like going to school. You know, you have several subjects that you have to study for throughout, you know, the school year. And I kind of have just kept in that mode, I guess, the last few years.

LUDDEN: And George, you have different times a day - is there, you know, one night reading, one morning reading, or does that matter?

GEORGE: Well, when I was taking classes, yes, I would study math in the morning when I was fresh, and then more subject matter that was wordy, like sociology texts and that sort of thing. I do that in the afternoon, lunch time, and then novels and that sort of thing in the evening. Now that I'm not in school, you know, I can kind of do more like Internet reading in the morning, sometimes, you know, some subjects in at lunch time. And then in the evening, back to the novels. And, you know, I just happen to be in vacation right now, so I can read three, four books at once, you know, throughout the day as I like.

LUDDEN: All right. Well...

Ms. KELLER: I'm glad you mentioned science fiction. You mentioned Clarke and Neal Stephenson. I always have at least one, maybe even two or three science fiction books going at the same time. I don't know why, but that seems to be a really good kind of a counterpoint to whatever else I'm reading, maybe something that is very, very steeped in verisimilitude or something that's -it's very realistic, to always have that kind of science fiction counterpoint out there. So it sounds as if you follow the same sort of pattern.

GEORGE: Well, yeah. I'm drawn to the stars. I mean, one of the - my favorite things here is to sit and look at the stars at night...

Ms. KELLER: Mm.

GEORGE: ...once it gets dark enough. At 9 o'clock, you can see the Milky Way and things that I don't see. I live in the Bay Area, San Francisco Area and don't have that opportunity to sit at night and, you know, let your mind kind of expand and think about stars and space travel and whatnot. And so I get to do that here. And I sit down there while you're drawn to other subject matter, more earthly things, politics, you know. There's so much about religion and Islam and what's going on in the Middle East right now. I read several books in that area - confidently, lately.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, George, thanks so much for the call.

GEORGE: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And listeners, let us know why do you read many books at the same time? Call us at 800-989-8225, or email us at talk@npr.org. Lyle - sorry, Suzanne is on the line from Lyle, Washington. Hi, Suzanne.

SUZANNE (Caller): Hi.

Ms. KELLER: Hello.

SUZANNE: I read different things in the course of - at the same time, that is, because in the course of the day, the equality of my attention varies. I read the more challenging material in the morning and fiction later in the day.

LUDDEN: And at bedtime? Or can you stay awake to read at bedtime?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SUZANNE: At bedtime, actually, it's often fiction or poetry, science and philosophy and essays in the morning.

Ms. KELLER: Yeah. That's a wonderful idea: poetry right before you go to bed. There is a - because there's that wonderful sort of refined, stripped-down quality of a poem.

SUZANNE: Yeah. The imagery is...

Ms. KELLER: Yeah.

SUZANNE: ...dreamlike, in some ways.

Ms. KELLER: Right. Kind of edging your way out of the day.

LUDDEN: But when you all switch from one book to the other, I mean, do you go back to the other one? Or does this mean that your chances of actually finishing a certain - a given book go down?

SUZANNE: No, I generally finish what I start. It just takes longer to finish because I'm reading several books at the same time.

Ms. KELLER: And sometimes, do you ever put - I kind of put other books in between sometimes if I'm afraid to finish a book, because I'm so involved in it, and I am loving it so much I don't want it to end. We've all have that feeling with books that are particularly special to us. I've recently reread Carson McCullers' "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." And I really got kind of anxious because I knew it had to end, and I didn't want it to end. So I would start interspersing other books in between the chapters to kind of stave off that terrible moment when the book ended.

LUDDEN: Suzanne, thanks for the call.

SUZANNE: Thank you.

LUDDEN: We have an email from Melanie. She says: The books I read, the one in my purse, the one in the break room at work, the two in the coffee table with two or three magazines, the two by my bed, the one that sits on the back of the commode.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: So that's a wonderful. But Julia Keller, is there a point where it's too much?

Ms. KELLER: Well, this is always the issue. It's because we are told - I mentioned the Nicholas Carr book - and I think his fears are valid, that the way we read now is certainly very different than the way we used to read.

For one thing, we don't have those long stretches of not only leisure time, but time without interruption, interruption from other kinds of things: The phone ringing or kids coming home from school or maybe the boss hollering over our shoulder. We live in a very different way. I mean, there are television sets everywhere. You can't sit at the departure gate at an airport now without being assailed by the noise of a television set right over your head.

So we've lost those quiet spaces and our leisure moments, in many cases. So I do worry that maybe some of this rushing around restlessly from book to book is more a symptom of our times rather than a good thing. But it's a habit that I can't break at this point, is that I've been doing it since I was, you know, old enough to read. And it's - I just find it to be a source of great pleasure and delight to know that there's always something else. Don't tell me what you're reading. Tell me what you're reading next.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's hear from Isis(ph) in Great Bend, Pennsylvania. Welcome.

ISIS (Caller): Hi. How are you?

LUDDEN: Good. What's your story? Well, I'm actually - I'm a graduate student now, but last year, I was finishing up my senior year at Simmons College in Boston as an English major. And I had decided late to pursue that major. And so I was finishing up my entire major in my junior and senior year. And last year, I was taking five graduate courses in each semester. And I would be reading all kinds of books, all at the same time, literally going from chapter - one chapter in one book to one chapter in the other.

And I would come to class and I was - part of it was being muddled, but then part of it was also - it - my thinking became much more associative, because I could see much more the breadth of what I was studying. And so I can refer to other books during class, but also I might say: Oh, I've read this somewhere else, and I don't remember what it is. And sometimes they would turn out to be from that very class that I was in at the moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: So you were getting all the plots confused?

ISIS: Yeah, very - yeah. I got confused (unintelligible) ideas to make my papers much more interesting, I think, because I could refer to other works that I had been reading and it made my thinking more complex.

LUDDEN: Julia Keller, you write about that.

Ms. KELLER: Yeah, you know, I think that's actually a great point. We become more imaginative, I think, ourselves, when we're reading multiple things at once. By which I mean, you kind of have this fanciful notion in your own mind of imagining characters from one book, suddenly being transported into another; or imagining one plot suddenly being applied to another situation you've been reading about. I don't think that's a bad thing.

I mean, I like the idea of books, not just this thing off to the side of our lives, but they're right in the midst of our lives. We're, in effect, living our fiction and our nonfiction. And you can do that when you're reading multiple books. You do kind of just get this idea that you're moving through this forest of words and stories and characters. It's not just this block of paper or a Kindle or an iPad sitting at your elbow. It's a part of your life. It's something you're moving through, just like you are the days of your own life.

LUDDEN: All right. Isis, thanks for that call.

ISIS: Thank you so much.

LUDDEN: Let's listen now to Mary(ph) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Welcome.

MARY (Caller): Yeah, this is Mary.

Ms. KELLER: Hi, Mary.

MARY: Hi. I'm reading "The Town That Started the Civil War" by Nat Brandt, the true story of the community that stood up to slavery and changed the nation forever. And this is about Akron, Ohio.

LUDDEN: Hmm.

MARY: And the book also cites someone's doctoral thesis, "The Early Anti-Slavery Movement in Ohio," here at the University of Michigan. So I got that out of a library here. And I'm reading that, which gives a lot more detail. (Unintelligible)...

Ms. KELLER: (Unintelligible) on your reading sort of followed the meandering trail.

MARY: Yeah. It's fascinating to get that detail.

LUDDEN: And how do you decide when to go back and forth between the two?

MARY: Just whenever I feel like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARY: Whenever the mood strikes you.

LUDDEN: That's great.

MARY: All my life, I've just read whenever I felt like reading, you know?

LUDDEN: Thank you, Mary.

MARY: Thank you.

LUDDEN: So, Julia Keller, do you have any other specific examples of double reads that really kind of made one thing come to life in a better way for you, because you're reading another book at the same time?

Ms. KELLER: Yeah. I was going to say there are specific ones, and also just that books are often very intense, I think, for those of us who read - and it's the majority of us, I think. I think we're actually more a nation of readers than we know. We're always being told that the book business is in peril and all this, but I know from the mail I get and the people I run into and the things I'm aware of, we're actually all reading intensely.

There's also the sense that if you feel books intensely, one does lead naturally to another. I mentioned "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." And I had read it many years ago, and in rereading it it became so intense and vivid to me, it was almost more than I could take at times. I mean, the sorrow of the character, from the anguish of the characters and the situations.

So I would break it up and read something funny, something amusing - a Charles Portis novel or something by Terry Pratchett, the wonderful British satirist. And I found that all of these books enhance one another. It's almost like listening to a great symphony. You wouldn't want it to be just one instrument or another. It's the whole symphonic power.

And each book gains in profundity, I think, in relation to what's around it and what you gather around it. It's certainly been true for me, and I know the responses I got to the column would indicate that it's true for other people as well.

But again, I don't think it's something you can will and plan. It's like that great dinner party. It's like that great new friendship. You kind of have to let it happen and just be open to that kind of serendipitous occasion when one book will naturally fall in with another, and then you've created this great new reality.

LUDDEN: Julia Keller is a cultural critic for The Chicago Tribune. You can find a link to her recent column about reading many books at once on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Julia Keller joined us today by phone from Columbus, Ohio.

Julia, thanks so much for spending your Labor Day with us, and happy reading.

Ms. KELLER: Thank you.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, openly gay at work. We'll talk about the challenges and rewards of coming out to your coworkers. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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