When I hear friends, book group members, and customers talk about reading two, three, or even more books at one time, I have mixed emotions. Part of me is envious of people who can keep track of that many story lines, fiction or nonfiction, and jump from one to the other. Part of me wonders if they are really getting the full reading experience from any of the books.
When I read, I want to be transported to the world the book evokes. Whether it’s current day Minneapolis with John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport or 18th century Russia in Robert K. Massie’s biography of Catherine the Great, I want to be there, in spirit if not in body. If the book doesn’t take me out of my current milieu, it’s time to find another one. It’s hard enough to transition back to reality from one book; it seems to me that multiple transitions would be more than my feeble frame could take.
My recent holiday in the UK and France created a dilemma for this “one at a time” reader. Determined to lighten up on the packing, I not only took half as much clothing as usual (and what I took was more than adequate), but limited the books. I had my iPad, on which there were several novels I hadn’t gotten to, and, of course, the ability to access pretty much anything else I wanted. So I took an “airplane” thriller for the trip over, and two other more serious mysteries, thinking that I would be deep enough into one of them for it to suffice for the return trip. (Of course, I also had The Question of the Missing Head, a gift for my son, who also gets whatever I have finished reading during my visit.) Alas, I finished Gene Kerrigan’s The Midnight Choir (excellent!) just at the end of our stay. The Chatelet Apprentice, by Jean-Francois Parot, the first in a series set in 18th century France, looked like it was going to take a bit more concentration in the early chapters than this terrified flyer would be able to muster under stress.
I didn’t want to use my iPad on takeoff, when I need to be completely absorbed in something besides knowing that I am going to die momentarily. It seemed like the hassle of explaining or demonstrating that I was in “airplane mode,” even if that was allowed, was not worth the aggravation. I decided that the purchase of an “airplane book,” surely available at Heathrow, was the best bet. I still had the problem of what to begin reading in the meantime; I am not complete without a book in progress. I started reading Megan Abbott’s Dare Me in electronic form, thinking I would finish it first after returning home and then complete whatever thriller I had chosen for distraction. Not really reading two books at once.
My airport shopping was successful. The latest Reacher novel by Lee Child is available in paperback in the UK! However, I find that I am now reading two books at once, a new experience, and actually quite easy. Dare Me has turned out to be an intense emotional experience, and one that I need to undergo in small pieces. I find it compelling, and keep returning to it with anticipation, but the relationships among the teenage girls and their cheerleading coach are more twisted than any adult relationships I’ve known. In fact, these are pretty much the kind of people I stay away from in the real world. Reading about them feels like voyeurism, and I can’t stay away from the fictional embodiments. And then I have to for a bit. Watching the train wreck approaching makes me close my eyes.
I switch back to more comfortable fare. Reacher’s adventures are certainly scary, but I have emotional detachment. This type of books offers me respite from daily drudgery, problems and worries. And there is no problem keeping these two fictional worlds separate. In the future, when I find myself struggling with an emotionally charged book, I will try reading some less powerful material at the same time. I can have the intensity in the small bites I can handle, and the escape when I need it.
This experience has given me some insight into why people read multiple books at the same time. I am sure there are other reasons. What about you? Do you read more than one book at a time? And why?