Reading Multiple Books at Once: Good Weird
4 min read

Reading Multiple Books at Once: Good Weird

man on subway standing up, reading two books at once, one in each hand.
I want to be friends with this man.

I read multiple books at a time: between 2 - 10 at a time. This does not make me smart, but it does make me weird.

I didn't realize this was weird until I was in my 20s. My father was a professor and we had a household that looked like we were desperately trying to hide all the books from a police force. Here is a real picture of one of my daughters and my father in the home I grew up in:

Grandfather and granddaughter in a room full of books.
Granddaddy do you have any books I can borrow?

My father read multiple books at a time as well: multiple biographies and histories typically, along with a long series of magazines: The New Yorker, American Spectator, The Economist, Time, Newsweek, and probably others I don't remember. I recall him being excited that our small city got a Barnes & Noble so he could regularly get a New York Times, which was harder to subscribe to back then. Hard to imagine now.

He had other habits that classify him as an Olympic level reader: he used to tear out the pages of magazines as he read them, he used to start reading dense history books by opening their bibliographies and seeing what percentage of those he had already read and occasionally going to read those first, then coming back. He once told me he read a murder mystery and at the end there was a big twist, and then (while reading the last page) he realized he had read it before. He read a lot of books in his lifetime.

I read multiple books at a time just because I like to read. Because of this I read at odd times and based on what sounds interesting. When I'm waiting for a doctor's appointment I'm reading on my kindle app, and I open whatever seems right for a 10 minutes reading session. I read like someone who likes to chew gum: I keep a lot of it around and chew when I'm bored.

I've discovered there are some advantages to reading multiple books at a time:

  • If reading is mental exercise, then all the reasons you change up your exercise routine apply here: you use different muscles, you always have exercises that feel new and interesting if you get bored with old ones.
  • It makes it easier to abandon a book that you hate, which is a great habit to get into if you enjoy reading and want to keep enjoying it.
  • It softly forces you to read more diversely: if you read one murder mystery front to back, you are likely to reach for another right after. If you are reading 5 books, reading a little a day in each, you won't pick five murder mysteries, but instead will likely diversify among topics, time frames, and fiction vs. non-fiction.
  • I think reading this way helps you remember what you have read, but I have no evidence of any form that this is true.
  • You notice things you wouldn't otherwise, because you are in multiple places at once. This doesn't happen all the time, but when it does the unique perspective serves as a magic highlighter.

On the last point: if you are reading a great surface area, then you have more of a chance of something that is happening in your life mirroring something that you might be reading. I've had many parallels at work pop up in books.

Perhaps that last point needs some examples:

How people work

I was reading a book on rhetoric and persuasion - about little tricks that manipulate people and have allowed world leaders for good or bad to use speech to sway people and make them trust them. One of the techniques in this non-fiction book was for the speaker to pick some very small detail and dig into it as a form of honest signaling to establish trust. As they had established a semi-credibility on this first detail, the listener would think that they must know a lot about everything.

At the same time I was reading a novel about a radio host that lied and caused a war. During his first speech he used Spain and their work culture as an example. He went on for a page about the siesta and how it came about and its mythology and truth, and then started lying about things after going into great detail on this one stupid detail.

Goals and Margin

I read Eat More Chickin and It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work at the same time a few years ago. One was a book written by the founder of a fried chicken restaurant, another a book by the founders of online coordination software. And their attitudes, background, and tone are starkly different.

But they gave similar advice about goal-setting as an organization:

The wisdom of setting business goals - always striving for bigger and better - is so established that it seems like the only thing left to debate is whether the goals are ambitious enough. So imagine the response when we tell people that we don't do goals. At all. No customer-count goals, no sales goals, no retention goals, no revenue goals, no specific profitability goals (other than to be profitable). Seriously.

That was from Fried et al, now from Cathy:

The lesson that is continually reinforced in me is that to take advantage of unexpected opportunities, we must leave ourselves available. If we had set lofty long-range goals for our company's growth, our capital might have been so tied up in construction that we would have been unable to respond to those opportunities. Many successful people I know set magnificent goals for themselves, then let nothing stand in the way of their achievement. I don't engage in that kind of long-range planning. Instead, I leave myself and my company available to advantage of opportunities as they arise.

If I had read these books years apart, or even months, I might not have noticed this wisdom, arrived at in parallel from opposite ends of business culture.

Sheer Volume

Last point on this: reading multiple books at once is good, because you read more, and reading is hitting the gas on growing your experience.

"If you haven't read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate and you will be incompetent because your personal experiences aren't broad enough to sustain you." --General James Mattis