March 12, 2013

On Reading Multiple Books at a Time

Delightful excerpts from Joe Qeenan on his book habits:
“No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a public library,” wrote Samuel Johnson; “for who can see the wall crowded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditations and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue.”

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Somewhere along the line, I got into the habit of reading several books simultaneously. “Several” soon became “many,” and “many” soon became “too many.” A few of my female friends read one or two books at a time; my closest male friends insist that they are always reading at least one, though I believe this figure may embody the triumph of hope over truth. In my adult life I cannot remember a single time when I was reading fewer than fifteen books, though at certain points this figure has spiraled far higher.

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My reading habits are unusual, perhaps counterproductive. Sometimes I think that I am reluctant to finish books because I want to let the joy of reading them go on and on forever. Other times I believe that I get a particular kind of thrill out of starting books that I do not get from finishing them. Another possibility is that, at any given moment, I am distracted from the subject I am reading about—the life and times of Mata Hari—by a far more pressing concern—the neutral-zone trap employed with such great success by the New Jersey Devils. Friends say that I suffer from a short attention span, an inability to stay focused, but I think exactly the opposite is true. If anything, I have too long an attention span, one that allows me to read dozens of books simultaneously without losing interest in any of them. Moreover, I have an excellent memory that permits me to suspend reading, pick up a book six months later, and not miss a beat.

Most books written by journalists open with two reasonably good chapters, followed by loads of padding, then regather a bit of momentum for the big roundup. This is because editors encourage writers to front-load the merchandise, jamming the best material into the first two chapters, the only ones that will ever get read.

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Well, I do get back to them later. I started Lord Jim in high school and finished it when I was fifty-two. Better late than never. No matter how good the book I am currently reading—be it The Aeneid, War and Peace, or The Red and the Black—I am always ready to drop everything and crack open a forty-year-old book about the 1954 Viet Cong triumph at Dien Bien Phu.

When I look at that stack and try to imagine the order in which I might read them, I always arrive at the same conclusion: Middlemarch is the last book I will ever finish. I’m not going down without a fight. I have started it six times; I am now 312 pages into it; but it is much like the mandolin or snooker or tantric sex: something I would dearly love to master without ever believing for one second that I would actually enjoy the experience...

Middlemarch is one of those books that I long ago enshrined at the very top of my desert-island reading list, that compendium of elusive, difficult, fundamentally unreadable books I have always wanted to finish or at least start, if I only had the time to do so. But I know that if I were shipwrecked and somehow managed to stay afloat by clutching the splintered, though jagged, remnants of the mainmast and started paddling through shark-infested waters toward a distant shore and then, just as I was dragging my battered, bruised, waterlogged body out of the surf, spotted a pile of desert-island reading books that included Mrs. Dalloway, Finnegans Wake, and Middlemarch, I’d turn around, plunge right back into the surf, and start paddling toward another island.

I used to think that I kept stopping and starting books because I could never find the right one. Untrue. Virtually all the books I start are the right one. It’s the fact that all these books are so good that makes me stop reading them, as I am in no hurry to finish; the bad ones I could whip through in a few hours.

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