Sunday Salon

Sunday Salon: Reading in parallel

sundaysalonI’ve built up a fair ability to multi-task certain things over the years. Ironing while watching TV (or more recently the Plagues, Witches and War video lecture on historical fiction) ? No problem.  Gardening while catching up on the latest podcast or listening to an audio book? Easy.  Cleaning up my email archive while listening in to an audio conference for work? Simple ( just remember to put your phone on mute so the sound of key tapping doesn’t give you away).

I’ve mastered all of these activities but one thing I have never managed to get the hang of is reading more than one book at a time.

I know some avid readers find no difficulties in having two or even three books on the go simultaneously. But not me.

I’m so poor at keeping track of characters’ names that I will often get to the end of the book and can’t remember what their name was. When reading I sometimes have to look back to remind myself who the person is that’s just been mentioned ( Russian novels where the individual’s given name, family name and patronymic can be used interchangeably, get me particularly confused.) So if I get perplexed by one set of characters, having a completely different set to keep track of, throws me into a spin.

Then there’s the difficulty of remembering where I am in the narrative. If I leave off reading a book for any length of time there is a danger I’ll forget what has happened already so then I have to back-track to fill in the blanks again.

I’ve tried a couple of strategies such as making sure I am reading vastly different genres. Two crime novels at the same time would be far too confusing. I’ve also tried reading a chapter from each in rotation. But that was frustrating because just as I was getting back into the style and the story, it was time to stop.

So I’ve more or less abandoned this as something that just will not work for me.

Problem is that to take full advantage of the Plagues, Witches and War course it would help to have read each of the five set texts before the date when each author will hold a discussion group on their work. So far I’ve read just one and am about 100 pages into another.  It’s just not feasible to squeeze any more reading time into my day.  My options are therefore to skim read each book so at least I have a rough idea of what it’s about (doesn’t seem very fair on the author) or to skip one book and come back to it at the end of the course (which means missing out on good discussions with other students) or to nail my problem with simultaneous reading once and for all .

I’m hoping that somewhere in the blogosphere are some smart people who have honed this skill and can share their strategies with me.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

17 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: Reading in parallel

  • I use to think I could not read more than one book at a time, and then something happened, can’t really put my finger on exactly what, but this year I’ve been reading up to 4 books at a time. Usually there is an AudioBook there and then 2 or more from the library, because I have a limited time with those in my hands! But I’m afraid I cannot give any advice on how I do it.I agree with Bryan though, if is not for you is not a bad thing 🙂

  • I think Katrina offered excellent advice. I used to make bookmarks with characters names — and ID’s and other important info — such as places for students when I taught. I also accepted that it was part of reading to go back and refresh. Hence, I do a lot of back skimming when I read. I don’t like reading more than one at the same time but do so from time to time. When I was in grad school in English I developed the need to read every book before class began and again during class. Since I came to Plagues, Witches and War a week late I am going to give myself a break and catch up on the Love Artist book later on. I like the video lectures and impressed with the course content (videos, discussions) so far. However, I have begun the Deliverance Dane book and while I’m somewhat intrigued, I’m also disappointed with the quality of the writing.

    • Bookmarks with character names? Now that’s something I could usefully do. Thanks for the tip Barbara. As for Deliverance Dane, I find it tedious so far simply because of the writing – too heavy a reliance on cliched characters and telling vs showing. The author’s research is also not very elegantly woven int the narrative.

  • I agree I don’t think I could ever really read more than one novel at a time. This year I have started having one fiction, one non-fiction, and one short story or poetry collection on the go at once. It has worked well for me.

    • Thanks Jessica, seems that approach works for several people so might be something for me to look into

  • I like Katarina’s advice, but hey, “if it isn’t your thing, just take it one book at a time.” 😉

  • Since you sound so desperate for a strategy that’ll get you reading in parallel, I don’t want to leave you hanging with the likes of “if it isn’t your thing just take it one book at a time”.

    So my advice is as follows… Have you tried keeping a log of characters’ names, connections and major plot-points for each novel you’re reading?
    You could do this on an index card and use it as a book mark. So when you switch between novels you can familiarize yourself with the names and characters plus their stories before you get back to your reading.
    I also would advise you to read at least 50 pages of a novel before switching and to make the most of natural breaks in the story, chapters, parts, etc. so it’ll be easier getting back to it after you’ve read something else. But I guess you’re doing that already. aren’t you?

    I really hope I could help you out 🙂

    Cheers, Katarina 🙂

    • Wow Katarina, these are excellent ideas – very practical. I see the logic of switching only at natural breaks rather than chapters. thank you so much

  • I can manage two, one that I’m reading for discussion purposes and one that is just for sheer enjoyment, but beyond that I’m stumped. Given that I’m trying to fit the Historical Fiction books in with book group reads at the moment this is taxing my reading hours as well.

    • It’s a nice problem in a way to have so I shouldn’t moan too much. If only I could take a week off work I’d be back on track…

  • I can’t manage two at the same time either although I occasionally manage with a fiction and non-fiction but generally I get so engrossed in one that I have to re-visit the other one when it’s finished. Hope you manage to find a solution it all sounds really interesting and I’m more than a little jealous.

    • It might be one way of getting through the mountain of non fiction, work related books I have acquired but it’s so much more fun to read fiction that they keep getting pushed to one side. Maybe reading them in parallel might be the answer Cleopatra

  • joyweesemoll

    I read two books at the same time. One is fluffy and fun and I read it only at night in the bathtub. The other is serious, usually nonfiction, and I read it with meals and snacks at the table. Different genres, different times, and different places — all of those help me keep the two books separate.

    Good luck! Your video lecture series sounds cool!

    • Ah what an organised woman you are to be able to do this. Sadly, no-one has yet come up with a book that I can read in the shower not being partial to baths at all

  • I have trouble reading more than one book at a time, too. The only thing that has ever worked for me is to read nonfiction with fiction. And I only did this once, as I, too, have trouble keeping track of what has happened. But that is more problematic when reading two fiction books.

    Even reading one book on my Kindle is frustrating, as I have trouble going back and finding something, some detail, that I want to refresh myself on (names are problematic, too!); at least with a print book, I can flip back to discover the info.

    Interesting post….and thanks for visiting my blog earlier. I am looking forward to Before i Go To Sleep.


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