IN A RECENT podcast, a books editor mentioned her “recent Covid-specific behaviour” of “reading multiple books at the same time”. Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, wondered why it took her decades to realise it was “allowed” to read more than one volume for pleasure, but said that having stumbled upon it, she found it “very pleasurable” and loved it. Listening, I did a double take. As someone who is routinely at different points in four-five (sometimes fewer, but often more) books simultaneously, I had never thought that my reading habit could have seemed to be taboo to fellow readers.
Equally, I have always been fascinated by readers (most of them surely more thoughtful than me) who can contentedly work their way through one book before picking up the next.
Strangely, my reflexive “Covid-specific behaviour”, though just in the initial weeks of the lockdown last spring, was to read just a single book through, finding myself suddenly unable to shuffle between multiple volumes. I cannot say I found it satisfying. It felt as if I had been stranded in a bound space, and thankfully, as the days rolled along, I fell back to my old habit of reading many books at one time. When this pandemic is past, we readers will likely get a fuller sense of how our individual reading patterns shifted or changed—but for me, that unnerving period of linearly reading through just one book at a time has got me thinking about the processes by which I gather together my reading menus for the next few days or weeks.
For instance, part of my mix inevitably is a previously read book. It’s compulsive. And therapeutic too. As the American writer Vivian Gornick writes in her early 2020 collection of essays, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, ‘It has often been my experience that re-reading a book that was important to me at earlier times in my life is something like lying on the analyst’s couch.’ It’s a way of being connected to yourself, present and past. Gornick explains the essentialness of it when she says:
‘…it was to the books that had bsecome my intimates that I would turn and turn again, not only for the transporting pleasure of the story itself but also to understand what I was living through, and what I was to make of it.’
Gornick goes back to select writers, including Marguerite Duras and Thomas Hardy, and provides the reader a template for how to trace re-readings of beloved novels and her evolving self. If this provides an impression of a slim bookshelf, the American critic Michiko Kakutani embeds the rereading exercise in greater abundance. In Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread, also published in 2020, Kakutani expands the (perhaps) self-imposed limit of 100 books by clubbing collections as single entries (for instance, ‘Books by Salman Rushdie’, ‘Books About Democracy and Tyranny’, ‘Muhammad Ali Books’ or simply ‘The Plays of William Shakespeare’). It’s a personal list, but it’s also a list that makes space for different sorts of books (fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, plays, poetry), which, put together, she encourages the reader to ‘read or reread…because they deserve as wide an audience as possible. Because they are affecting or timely or beautifully written. Because they teach us something about the world or other people or our own emotional lives. Or simply because they remind us why we fell in love with reading in the first place.’
Books, emphasises Kakutani, ‘can catalyze empathy—something more and more precious in our increasingly polarized and tribal world’. And to this end, she encourages the reader to read as widely as she can. Reading Kakutani’s short write-ups, you could pick an argument about her selection—why, for example, she chose Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and not The Lowland. But then, the nudge to the reader to curate her own selection, to draw up lists of books to read and reread, is part of the design.