Reader Multi-Tasking

A friend recently flailed at me that I should read a book she was reading. “Oh, I have that one,” I told her, and decided that I should see about reading it sooner rather than later, since I already own it. I wanted to tell her that I’d start reading it right away, only the problem is I currently have five books checked out from the library and have a bookmark in two others. Even I will admit, that’s a lot of books on my nightstand.

When I’ve mentioned the number of books I’m currently reading to other people I usually get gasps of horror or confessions that they can only focus on one book at a time. I get it. I’ve been there, but reading multiple books at a time is my usual modus operandi (though, I admit, right now this is a bit ridiculous).

So how can I possibly read this many books at the same time and not get confused? It’s easy to get confused if there are no differences in what you’re reading, but I vary my reading in three different ways: medium, genre (or content), and pacing.


Of those seven books sitting on my nightstand, there are four books I’m actively reading, by which I mean, four books that I’ve read within the last week. Of those four books, one is in audio format, two are physical, and one is a graphic novel. Switching between an audiobook and a physical book helps me keep straight what’s happening in each book. It’s easier for me to remember if I read a fact or if I listened to it. Graphic novels are obviously a very different format from all-text or audio, so that’s easy to keep straight as well. The more variety I have in how I consume the media, the easier it is for me to track what’s happening in each story.

Going through four books at the same time is a little excessive, even for me, but it’s normal for me to listen to an audiobook and read a physical book at the same time. I’ve been doing that for the last year or so, and it’s been a good way to help me get through books when I might not otherwise be able to read, taking advantage of time when I’m on a long car ride, taking a walk, folding clothes, or if I wake up in the middle of the night but don’t want to turn on a light. Having the audio option in addition to the physical book has helped me get through more books in the last year.


If medium is one of the ways I keep stories straight, how is it that I can read two physical books at the same time? This is where genre and content come into play. I find it’s much easier to mentally track which story I’m on if I’m reading things from different genres. For example, if I’m already reading fiction in audiobook and physical formats, and I want to start another book, I usually add something nonfiction. This can also work by reading fiction from very different genres—futuristic science fiction and high fantasy or contemporary realism. The more different the genre or content, the easier it is to keep the stories straight.

In addition to varying books by genre, right now I’m also rereading an old favorite. No matter the genre of the other books, I’m not about to confuse the events of Harry Potter with any other stories, so it’s not difficult for me to keep rereads straight from other stories.


Another way I help differentiate between the books I’m reading is by staggering my pacing. I try to space out the books so I’m starting and finishing them at different times. It’s much more difficult to read multiple books if I’m about at the same progress on each one. Climaxes can get confused, or I might not remember which new character is in what book. Staggering starting and finishing points helps a lot—also it means I never have that lag period between finishing one book and starting the next one. (In fact, it might be nice to read just one book for a few days, but I never get out of the habit of reading.)


Reading multiple books isn’t for everyone, and not everyone has to do something as crazy as reading four books at a time, but for an author who wants to read for research, read to know her genre, and read for fun, I have found these strategies for multi-tasking some of the best for increasing how many books I read per year, and, in general, for making the most of my reading time.


What am I reading now?

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