Why I’m Reading Four Novels At the Same Time (plus one non-fiction book)
How many books can you read at the same time? One? Two? Three? At what point do you get confused? Was John is this book . . . or was it that book? Have you even tried it? I was afraid to read multiple novels at the same time, until I fell in love with it.
In my past life, before I started writing, I would read multiple non-fiction books and a single fiction book at the same time. This would fluctuate between five and ten books, ten was pushing my limit for working memory, but five was easy. And, it was awesome. I made so many unusual and unique connections. If you’re reading a book about how humans imitate each other in almost every way, including their desires (called mimetic desire from the philosopher Rene Girard), and a book about business strategy, and a memoir, your mind will connect them.
The human mind is incredibly flexible and can connect any two ideas. This is called relational frame theory. Try it, how are a pig and a chair like each other? Give yourself a little bit and the ideas will start flowing. You just might be amazed that you can’t not relate any two ideas. You can associate things that you wouldn’t have associated through any other means. This can be applied across mediums as well. Watch the show Westworld, read the book “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” by Julian Jaynes, and read “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Timothy Gallwey, (and read about the narrative paradigm), and you will have some epiphanies about the human mind. You can do that with any subject.
Over decades my reading involved into this intuitive method of reading multiple books and jumping around whenever I felt like it. Sometimes I would put them in a stack and go through them reading a page at a time. I found it incredibly engaging to change subjects whenever I wanted to. By doing this my reading never bogged down, I could read for hours, and hours, and hours. I was a bit of an obsessive reader to begin with, and this method fanned the flames.
But, then, I got sick in Kenya and had a bone in my neck press into my brainstem (I have a spinal deformity called Klippel-Feil Syndrome that I didn’t know about until the symptoms really ramped up). At this point I’ve been struggling with issues for almost two years, and at times my working memory, ability to concentrate, and reading comprehension dropped so low reading was almost a futile endeavor. I continued to do it, but it was a slow agonizing process filled with buckets of frustration. Slowly, I started to build up my reading volume again.
Then, I started writing. I wanted to compare different writing styles, and subjects, and structures, and everything else. Maybe, I thought, I could do the same thing that I had done with non-fiction writing. I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t done it before and I thought that I might get the characters or the plots confused. I was/am having issues with the functioning of my brain, so it made sense to me that keeping track of multiple narratives would be beyond my capacity, but I wanted to try it anyway. I decided to read Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower Book 1: The Gunslinger” and George R. R. Martin’s “Fevre Dream” at the same time. I loved “On Writing” by Stephen King, but I don’t usually like his subjects so I’d never read one of his stories. I like epic fantasy, so “The Gunslinger” might be a good fit. George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” is an amazing series and I wanted to see if his other writing was on that level as well.
Reading those two books together was amazing. I started out by alternating chapters, but King’s chapters were significantly shorter than Martin’s. I adjusted and kept the page numbers relatively similar. I noticed several things very quickly. I did not get confused about anything. The worlds, plots, and characters were easy to keep separate. I could notice the style and structure differences with more clarity than I could’ve done if I’d read them sequentially. And, finally, and most important, I could tell which one I liked more, which one was drawing me, pulling me into its world (George Martin’s “Fevre Dream”). I loved that feeling of being drawn into a book and noticing that it’s happening because you don’t usually know. You become entranced and forget that you’re reading, time and the world slide by, but it’s a little different when you’re choosing between two books. You become very aware that the one book is calling out to you more than the other, it’s hard to choose between them at first, but later it’s hard to not just read the one you like most straight through. I enjoyed the experience, so I kept doing it.
I read the first Chronicles of Narnia book alongside some other book, then “The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared”, then the first Harry Potter book. It’s amazing to see the styles side by side, and to be pulled by the stories. It’s as if the plots and characters are vying for your attention, your approval, your love.
I finished Narnia 1 and Harry Potter 1, but the plot of “The 100-Year-Old Man…” seems to be becoming more contrived and forced, so I’ve slowed down. Now I’m reading Harry Potter 2, Narnia 2, “The 100-Year-Old Man…”, and “Elantris” by Brandon Sanderson. I’m also reading “The Art of Fiction” by Ayn Rand. I just finished with “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle.
I’ve made a reversal. I’m reading four novels at once with just one non-fiction book, and it’s great. It’s doing the same thing for my understanding of fiction that my previous reading did for my understanding of non-fiction. I’m connecting things that I wouldn’t normally connect, relating things that I wouldn’t normally relate, and noticing things that I wouldn’t normally notice. It’s making a better reader, and hopefully a better writer. If nothing else, I now more clearly understand what I like. It’s clear to me that I like Harry Potter 2 and Narnia 2 the best, then “Elantris,” then “The 100-Year-Old Man…”. Now, I know what to study, and I can use some of the best natural abilities of the human mind to make myself better by finding the differences between the works and integrating the patterns that I find.
Reading multiple stories at the same time is my most recent experience of enlightenment, I am attached to it, I love it, and I highly recommend it. Later, at some point, I’m going to evaluate some of these stories using the framework that I’ve developed but haven’t yet named. You are welcome to join me at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com
Also, if you feel like being a patron and supporting my growing artistic skill you can help fund my work at patreon.com/JeffreyAlexanderMartin