The Peculiar Way I Read

One of the things I regularly do on this blog is post “Reading Updates.” In these, I mention 5 or 6 books I am currently reading  and my thoughts on them. However, I have not completely explained what I mean by “currently.” While occasionally I pick up books at random (‘I was reading Book A but then while cleaning my room I found book B so I decided to read for a while’), my grouping of books on this blog actually reflects a much more specific and purposeful pattern I have developed over the years. This pattern helped me grow as a speed reader and has been instrumental in holding my attention span through thick, non-fiction books. What is my secret?

I read 5 books, 1 chapter at a time.

Stick with me.

When I was around middle school, I read a book called The Anybodies by N.E. Bode. It was a very memorable book with a variety of colorful characters. However, what stuck out to me most was a scene where Fern (the main character) is asked to read to her grandmother. Her grandmother has an odd way of reading…she reads 3 books at a time, 1 sentence at a time. Basically, she picks up book A, reads the first sentence, then book B, reads the first sentence, Book C, first sentence, then back to book A, second sentence, book B, second sentence, etc.

I decided this was a marvelous idea. I had to try it! Shockingly, it didn’t work as well in real life as it did in fiction. Books aren’t really designed to be read one sentence at a time. I experimented with one paragraph at a time. Similar results. However, when I tried one chapter at a time, it worked wonderfully. 3 books at a time seemed too short. 7 proved too many. In the end, I decided 5 was a good median. (Not that I always hold to 5. Depending on thickness and size, I might add or subtract books from that number.)

Basically, my reading goes like this. I read a chapter in Book A, set it down. Pick up Book B, read a chapter, set it down. Pick up Book C, read a chapter, etc. It is mentally satisfying because I make it through more books than I normally would, and intellectually gratifying because cross-reading genres often presents similar themes I would not normally have noticed. I like that it holds my attention span. No matter how well written or interesting a book, my brain runs away from prolonged focus on one idea. It is much easier to step back and see the “big picture” when I’ve spread that big picture over several books.

Some other thoughts. Overall, this style of reading works a lot better with non-fiction than with fiction. I rarely am so engrossed in a non-fiction work that I decide to finish it instead of switching to the next book. With fiction, that happens frequently. Also, fiction relies more heavily on a continual narrative, whereas each non-fiction chapter tends to be a contained thought, or next step in the idea, and not as difficult to go back and forth with.

There are some downsides to this style of reading. For one, it is hard to travel anywhere. One book fits in my purse, but not five! I tried fixing this problem by getting a Nook, but I don’t find e-readers as satisfying. Another problem is that it involves a lot of brain power. I usually try and tackle thicker, more challenging books when I read them in this pattern because I know I will find it more difficult to read them cover to cover. However, I’m not disciplined enough to consistently keep up the intellectual work, so usually I will finish my handful of hard books, and then respond with a Young Adult fiction binge. 

Like anything, this is one my cycles of interest; it comes and goes. However, I suppose it is a rather unique way of reading. For me, it is just another fun way of engaging with the written word. If you are a big picture person (or a little ADHD…), I recommend giving it a try!

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