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.”


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.


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.


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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