‘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.