To Read or Not to Read Two Books at Once

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash *

I’ve found myself in a very strange place recently, a place I never thought I’d find myself. It began when I started to read The Kill by Émile Zola a couple of weeks ago.

Not being a very long novel, I anticipated it wouldn’t take me too long to get through it, as I also thought I would love it, just like I’ve loved every other Zola novel I have read. But pains me as it does to say it, I just haven’t been feeling it. Whilst there is 1 great scene contained within the first 100 pages, in general, it is an overly descriptive, light on story piece of writing. Maybe it is me and I just don’t appreciate it, but it hasn’t hooked me in any way.

When I am in that position that I realise I am struggling with a book, my reading world slows down. I first get the thought, ‘oh well, I’ll just speed through the rest of the book and be done with it’ and then realise I’ve read 7 pages in 40 minutes.

There is nothing to help me get through a book I am just not loving. I slogged on a couple of years ago reading The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, which took me 3 painful months. I kept going because the first quarter of the book had been some of the best writing I had ever read, but the rest just didn’t live up to the early promise.

The awful thought then comes, ‘do I give up on this book?’. Zola is the last author I’d ever want to give up on, as I really want to read the whole of the Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels, but how can I carry on, when I’m robbing myself of reading the hundreds of other great books out there?

In my head, I had decided to give up on it. I’ll just have to come back to it one day, when I am a better reader and just get through it, I thought. I decided to go back to the Greek classics and read Medea by Euripides. Now this hooked me straight away. Happy that I am reading a book I really like, I then out of nowhere read a few more pages of The Kill.

What?! Am I reading 2 books at once? I never contemplated I would be in this place. I’d heard some people read 2 or 3 books at a time, but I thought that was crazy. How can you love one book with all your heart, when you are seeing other books at the same time?

My plan has always been to read one book at a time. But now I realise 2 things: Firstly, reading 2 books should not be much different to watching 2 TV programmes (programs for my American readers) or more over the course of several months. Secondly, reading a book you are fully engaged with can help you get through a book you are determined to get through, but are struggling with.

It has been a slow couple of weeks for me on the reading front, but now hopefully with this new way of reading, I can make some progress again. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Blogging regularly

My aim is to blog once a week. This means I didn’t post as intended last week and I feel a little blogger guilt for that, which is silly I know. But I have found a small group of dedicated readers through this blog, who I love talking to about the classics, which was always the main point of creating this blog.

There may be weeks I don’t post, but in general, my plan is to be a regular blogger, for it is my creative output. Some of the blog posts, especially my ‘thoughts on’ posts do take a bit of time to write, but in those instances, I will try to fill the gap with shorter posts like this one. I should have 2 ‘thoughts on’ articles coming soon though, on The Kill and Medea.

It’s still a challenge to read and blog regularly, what with raising an 8 month old at the same time, but I believe that life can be a harmony, and everything you love will find its time.

Thank you so much for those who read this blog, your words and thoughts mean a lot to me, and I hope to continue writing posts that get people thinking and writing!

9 thoughts on “To Read or Not to Read Two Books at Once

  1. Hello Pete. I can tell you that I had the same experience with The Idiot as yourself. And with Anne Bronte’s “Tenant” book. At first I thought: Anne is going to be better even than Charlotte and Emily, but, for me, both her book and The Idiot as well, really tapered off as I continued, but I went on to complete these worthwhile works.

    I read Medea in a Great Writers class in school, a matter of decades ago, and remember the recrimination scene between Jason and Medea at the conclusion to be stunning in the intensity of the savagely bitter feeling between the two. I am one of those that like to jump around between several books simultaneously and right now am listening/reading three divergent and varied ones including How Should We Then Live? You may find this sort of flexibility helpful at times to renew an occasional flagging of inspiration if that should occur. It seems to work for me.

    Talking about the classics with you is exhilarating.. Your thoughts and insights have an openness and immediacy of interest that never fails to please.

    The best of good fortune to you with your 8 month old. I have three children (two sons and a daughter) that are grown and five grandchildren, so I’m in the same boat with you to some extent, although I’m a bit older than you. Keep up the good work at your own pace and time amidst whatever challenges arise.

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    1. George: Ooh, I’m having the same problem w/ Tenant. I fell into it immediately, but its wordiness or situations dragged on; and bc I am an emotional reader, I am or was finding the timing not great for reading a book that required patience. So, I put it off and I am going to wait until summer to finish it. That may not be what you experienced, or maybe you did find it drawn out.

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      1. Ruth, I can only remember now, after a lapse of years, that the interest level of Tenant slacked off for me after a promising start. Sorry for a vague answer, it would be good to give it another shot later on as you’ve planned.

        I know you didn’t ask for recommendations nor do you need them, but two long and extraordinary books (to me) included in James Mustich’s 1000 Books list are The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch and The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. They were two of the best books I read (listened) to last year and Mr. Mustich can introduce them far more skillfully and enticingly than I can. Another very good one, much less lengthy for a change-of-pace, is Anybody Can Do Anything by Betty MacDonald.

        Of course, I’ve looked him up, but can you tell me anything about J.I. Packer and his book, Knowing God, from your experience?

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    2. Thanks George, greatly appreciated! Great to hear about your family, I hope they are all well. I have just the one daughter, and I couldn’t be happier.

      I had never though of reading more than one book at a time previously, but it seems that a lot of people on here do that! It would certainly help prevent long breaks of struggle, so I will try to adopt that further in future. There are many books I gave up on, that I could probably keep going with, if I was reading something else at the same time.

      The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is on my shelf unread, but I will give it time at some point. I haven’t read anything at all by the Brontes, but I’d like to be familiar with their work in future. I gave up after reading 100 pages of Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, and I think I am worried (probably for no good reason) that I will struggle with the Brontes as well.

      Thank you as well for your kind comments about my blog, I am so delighted you enjoy reading my posts, and I am very happy you like to comment 🙂

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      1. My family is fine right now Pete, and thanks for asking. It’s good to know about your happiness with your family.

        I think you made a key point when you said that reading other books at the same time could help you keep going…this method can work and sometimes enables you to return to the original work that may have been knotty in a refreshed frame of mind ready to embrace the challenge.

        I read five Austen novels (two recommended by Clifton Fadiman’s plan plus three more as suggested by him) a long time ago. Not really tempted to revisit them at this point in time. I like what Nabokov said in his essay on Dickens about the contrast between these two authors, Dickens and Austen. The Brontes seem to be made more to shake our souls. The element of power is there, especially in the volcanic Emily, whose characters may not be particularly likable but some of them are vivid like a nightmare is. (My edition of Wuthering Heights was provided with a key to the strange broken dialect of the character Joseph which was most helpful.)

        Thank you too Pete, for your fine commentaries, and for your graciousness and encouragement.

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  2. Life first, Pete. I like that you record the struggles as well as your remarks on books here because that makes your journey relatable. Believe me, all of us struggle like this — with reading, blogging, making time.

    I have half-read classics all over the place. I tend to read A TON of books all at once and drop the ones that bore me. Sometimes forever — sometimes until I feel inspired later to try them again.

    A friend of mine once asked me how I can read so many books at once, & I explained it like this: my mind is compartmental. I can easily switch between rooms and hold pertinent information within one chamber while I switch to another. I tend to move through the chambers by unconsciously prioritizing where to put my time, dropping what is no longer vital (even if it isn’t done yet) & taking up the next in the list. If I need to finish whatever is dropped, I tend to come along behind, days later, cleaning up the loose strays once that chamber re-prioritizes it.

    It’s hard to explain, but I am guessing this is simply how a right brain works? The focus is very big picture.

    Doing things neatly in order gives me a headache because there are then so many unused chambers in my mind. I feel unbalanced. I find reading one book at a time absolutely maddening: I can’t concentrate because it’s just ONE BOOK. I need something to busy all my other brain chambers so I can concentrate. When I read ten or twenty books at once I am far more at ease.

    * shrugs *

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    1. Hi Jillian, thanks for your comment! It’s great to read a few of you are reading many books at once, I really did not realise it was so common! There are many books I have read and not finished as well, but I still have always tried to read 1 book at a time, which is why it troubles me so much when I am struggling to read a particular book. Having others on the go should help this problem.

      You are absolutely right, life itself comes first. I would love to have more time to read and write and the moment, but I wouldn’t sacrifice time I spend with my wife and daughter, life is more important. I believe everything will happen in the right time though 🙂

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  3. I, too, wanted to read the entire R-M series. I started w/ Germinal and was hooked. I went back to the beginning of the series, and I think I read 3-4 others and had to quit. I was so disappointed. Germinal was amazing, but the rest did not keep me. I do have a couple other Zola titles, like the Earth, and I plan to try them one day.

    I experience disappointing books the same. They sit on my nightstand waiting for me to pick them up, and I avoid them like an ex-boyfriend. But then my reading drops altogether. So, I had to learn to break up with the book, if it was a disappointment. You can’t force yourself. Another blogger suggested reading 50 pages. If it doesn’t deliver, even just a fraction, then stop. It may not be for you. I would even suggest 100 pages, particularly, if there is some promise.

    To address the multiple book issue: I thought this was a male/female issue. I’m reading six books right now, although two are w/ my kids during the school day. But the other four are emotional reads. It depends on how I feel and when I am reading that determines which one I will spend time with.

    But then you mentioned watching more than one program at a time, and I remembered that when we had TV, my husband could watch multiple shows at the same time, switching between commercials! I couldn’t even be in the same room when he did that bc the loss of information or disconnection to sequences burdened my brain. He could fill in the missing info. Yet, he would probably think I’m crazy for reading 5-6 books at one time. He would have to finish one book before he started the next. So that’s how it is.

    Thanks for bringing up these great topics.

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    1. Hi Ruth, thanks for your comment! I understand that the early R-M novels are not as good as anything that follows and including L’assommoir. I did enjoy the first novel The Fortune of the Rougons though. I’m actually trying really hard not to read The Earth, as I have heard that it is one of, if not the best novel in the series, but it is also one of the later novels, so if I can hold off until I have read more, I will, but if the other lesser known novels don’t do anything for me, I will go straight to it. I won’t read the whole series if other novels like The Kill, just don’t do it for me. Germinal is amazing though, and one of my favourite novels.

      I’m really surprised but delighted to see that yourself and other posters are reading more than 1 book at a time. I thought it was the done thing to just focus on 1 at a time, but now I feel I can start to read other books I have put off for a long time.

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