The Case for Book Juggling

‘Book people’ are very particular about their reading habits. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering how ‘people who read’ are a widely varied segment of the population, but the stereotypical depiction of a bookish person offers up voracious readers who can read an entire tome in one sitting, or someone who has a very regimented backlog of books to read. These people exist, but I think the predominant trait that exists in ‘book people’ is a very superstitious belief in their own habits and traditions surrounding reading, rather than a cartoonish commitment to order. People who read a lot can have their special scrap of paper they use as a bookmark, their special backlog stack sitting on the floor of their room, method of marking passages they like, or other ritual associated with the act of reading that can border on the absurd to an outside observer (or completely blasphemous to a fellow ‘book person’). Because of this culture of superstition in the bookish realm, I wanted to outline a particular reading habit I have practiced for the past couple of years, in order to give other ‘book people’ more insight into their own reading rituals and different perspective on the act of reading.

As of the time of writing, I am currently in the middle of four books. One is the Marx-Engels Reader, which everyone at least somewhat interested in philosophy or economics should read. Another is Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which really should have been split up into five separate novels. Next is Irregular Army: How the US Military Recruited Neo-Nazis, Gang Members, and Criminals to Fight the War on Terror by Matthew Kennard (believe it or not, this is my ‘fun’ read). And finally, I’m re-reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire for a future blog post. For some of these books, I’ve been reading them on and off for the better part of a year, others I will chew through as quickly as possible. I imagine that a younger version of myself would be horrified by this seeming lack of discipline in my casual reading, but I genuinely believe that the act of book juggling has improved my enjoyment (and productivity) while I read, more than when I was following rigid, self-imposed restrictions.

For a brief definition, book juggling is when a reader lets the whims of their interest dictate what they decide to read at a given moment, even if they are in the middle of a different book already. So for instance, if I am reading a dense, classic Russian novel and it makes reading feel like a chore, rather than toughing it out and finishing it before I start another book, I will start that other book instead. I might make it back to the denser read eventually, but the more important thing is that I am continuing to read, despite my day-to-day experiential feelings about a book that I’m struggling with.

To me, this kind of ‘disordered’ or ‘disorganized’ reading feels liberating for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it frees readers from the expectation that casual reading should exclusively resemble study or work, instead of being a self-directed pursuit of entertainment, knowledge or perspective. It’s not unusual for us to arrive at the former conclusion, considering how, for the first chunk of our lives at least, our primary environment for reading comes from schools. Educators make earnest and successful attempts to model positive independent reading habits all the time, but it’s nearly impossible to separate the act of learning how to read from the academic context in which it is taught. All of the encouragement to foster independent reading outside of the classroom is backed up with the institutional authority of the educator, which prevents casual reading from escaping the bounds of productive study under penalty of poor grades. It’s not necessarily a surprise that some students come out of schooling with a distaste for reading under these circumstances, as many people speak about deliberately not reading anything (even for fun) immediately after graduating from high school or college because of how many uninteresting readings were foisted on them in the course of studying. On the other end of the spectrum, the model provided for students who love reading is one of ‘productive’ study and discipline, which can lead to a different sort of burnout on reading where one cannot continue reading a book because of the subject matter, but they also can’t pick up something else because they would feel guilty about “giving up” on a book. Book juggling enables readers to sidestep these expectations and assumptions about what reading is supposed to be, in order to get more in touch with what they immediately like about reading.

Another benefit I have noticed since I’ve started book juggling is that it helps me jumpstart my interest in reading when I’m feeling worn down by particularly demanding texts. I previously mentioned that I am in the middle of 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, a well-regarded novel that also pushes the limits of what can be considered a novel by virtue of its length and complexity. I’m enjoying it quite a bit, but I can really only read it in bursts since it is a 900-page novel about the depths of human misery split into five somewhat independent parts. Generally, I will read one of the five parts over the course of a week, and then take a break to reflect on it and recharge by reading other novels until I’m ready to pick it up again. Book juggling has helped me get further in 2666 than my previous attempt by turning it into a leisurely endeavor instead of a race to the finish. Additionally, I feel like the practice of book juggling has given me the ability to better assess if a book is a difficult read, or if it is just a bad read. Now, I’m more willing to stop reading a book that I don’t like, primarily because I could be reading something else that’s more immediately interesting to me.

Obviously, there’s space for this approach to backfire, especially as your “books I’m in the middle of” pile grows ever larger on your desk. For me, I supplement it with organization strategies like a backlog shelf that collects five fiction and five nonfiction books I’m interested in reading. But I truly believe that reading and the pursuit of knowledge that comes with it is best when it is as self-directed as possible. With book juggling, it might take you longer to read that book that all your friends have read already than if you just forced your way through it, but if you are attempting to read for pleasure or self-discovery, there’s nothing wrong with letting your mind explore different books if it wants to.

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Heartaches by the Number: Fallout’s Future Post-New Vegas

In a long interview with the Guardian about the future of Bethesda, executive producer and subject of various memes Todd Howard recently reflected on one of the publisher’s most acclaimed products: Fallout: New Vegas. The game remains as the only mainline Fallout entry that has not been developed by Bethesda Game Studios since they bought the series’ license from Interplay in 2007, with development being helmed by Obsidian Entertainment, the studio founded by former members of Black Isle Studios, the original developer of Fallout 2. The game was widely acclaimed at release for taking Bethesda’s (buggy) open-world technology and combining it with the writing talent and attention to detail that made the worlds of the original games so compelling. When asked about the possibility of a similar kind of collaboration with their intellectual property, where an external developer uses their tools and worlds to make spin-off games, Howard shot the idea down definitively, citing the fact that “our company is so big, it’s always better to keep stuff internal.” He delivers some praise for the game (“I thought the Obsidian guys did a fabulous job”), but to many, Howard is confirming that Fallout’s deteriorating canon will be firmly in the grasp of Bethesda’s writers, a fact that will never stop bumming out some of Fallout’s most dedicated fans.Read More »

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At the beginning of this fiscal year, Netflix announced that they were looking to release about 700 original series on their platform in 2018, an undertaking projected to cost over $8 billion. While a lot of these “Netflix Original Series” are continuations of their existing shows (like Bojack Horseman) or the acquisition of the exclusive rights to ‘air’ foreign shows in the United States (like Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman or Babylon Berlin), the 700 number is no less impressive or intimidating to the average streaming scroller. The sheer number of available choices for streaming serialized entertainment is something that was unimaginable in the era of DVD boxsets, when the analysis of television as an art form exploded, forming our current critical landscape. We live in an era of choices, options, and filled niches, but why does this supposed renaissance feel so shaky in spite of its meteoric growth?Read More »

Spirited Away: the Spectre of Professionalism Haunting Education

Last summer, I read a really stellar book by Minnesotan teacher Tom Rademacher titled It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching. The book is a collection of anecdotes from Rademacher that illustrate some practical advice from an actually teaching teacher about the things you’d likely encounter if you’re teaching today. There are a lot of resources available to teachers, but I think the primary reason why Rademacher’s guide stands out is because he doesn’t mince words regarding the unprofessionalism that inherently exists within the profession, largely because the business of forming children into self-actualized young adults is a ‘human’ job, which makes it messy. He regularly shares the moments where he messes up, gets frustrated, vents to fellow teachers, and gets schooled by his students, leaving behind an accurate account of the circumstances that many teachers find themselves in. I really recommend this book to anyone who claims that teachers are “lazy” or “self-serving,” as Rademacher’s anecdotes completely dispel any notion that teachers are just teaching to make an easy wage. In the time since I’ve read the book, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what ‘professionalism’ means in education circles, and I have come to a somewhat pessimistic conclusion: it’s bad folks.Read More »

This Explains A Lot: Why “Foundation” is Elon Musk’s Favorite Book

About a month ago, Tesla CEO, SpaceX founder, and South African philanthropist Elon Musk became unhinged and candid on Twitter, railing against the media (for reporting that his factories regularly skirt safety regulations), labor unions (for attempting to organize for safer working conditions in his factories), and socialists (for pointing out his hostility to labor) in a series of well-received Twitter meltdowns. Tucked in between these choice twitter rants, Musk dropped some hints to his wider philosophy, stating, “Should prob articulate philosophy underlying my actions. It’s pretty simple & mostly influenced by Douglas Adams & Isaac Asimov.” Elaborating to one of several thousand random followers who constantly tweet at him in hopes of getting noticed, he specifically cites the influence of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series on the mission of SpaceX (“[revolutionizing] space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets”). References and homages to sci-fi and fantasy are nothing new to the morally dubious tech-bros out there, but Musk’s particular fascination with the Foundation series seems to unlock a valuable analysis of Asimov’s vision of the future. Thankfully, your dutiful critic-in-residence was coincidentally reading the first book in the series, Foundation, while Musk was in the throes of an extended Twitter meltdown. Let’s dive in, shall we?Read More »

Building Alternative Video Game Storytelling in the Shell of the Old

I’ve been playing video games for over two decades, basking in the glow of a television screen and tracking the ebb and flow of industry trends over time. Naturally, the sheer number of hours I have poured into this hobby has left me with strong opinions about the state of the industry, but my prevailing feeling nowadays is one of boredom. Don’t get me wrong, I have played some excellent new mainstream releases recently, but for every stellar game, there are several games released that feel derivative or unimaginative. Obviously, the great majority of released media is unremarkable, but the potential and evolution of video games as a storytelling medium seems uniquely squandered. The cries of “Video Games Are Art!” are regularly derailed by the business of making video games.Read More »

Reading in the Aughts or: How I Literally Didn’t Touch a Copy of “A Wrinkle in Time” Until Two Weeks Ago

A couple weekends ago, my partner and I went to the local big book chain and just wandered around the aisles for a couple hours. At the end of our experience, we only picked out a copy of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, mainly because I hadn’t read it before. My partner was surprised for sure, thinking that a fantasy series would be right in my “Lord of the Rings-obsessed child” wheelhouse. But for one reason or another, it never reached my hands until the ripe old age of 23 (and three-quarters). As I bought my book, the cashier said, “Aw, this is an amazing book. Have you read it before?” When I replied “no, actually,” her face froze in shock until she asked, “How is that possible?” I didn’t have an answer for her, but I have a few ideas.

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