I am a woman of many piles: a stack of dishes from the aftermath of the prior night's risotto, a pile of clothes I swear I will take the dry cleaner, a tower of New Yorker magazines in which I've bookmarked resonant articles.
Then there are the books. They are divided into two piles: the future pile and the present pile. (The past pile is not a pile, but a small fort.) Right now my stack of books I'm reading right now is taller than the books I want to read in the future, so that means two things: I have to go book shopping soon, and I have my hands full, reading-wise. But that's a glorious thing: I'm a big believer in reading many books and genres at once.
This reading style works on a practical level. I split my time between two different ends of Manhattan; I work downtown and live uptown. So if I forget a book at work or head directly from work to a bar (obviously don't want my book to get beer-splashed, so I leave it on my desk), I can read something else when I get home. I can avoid the desperation Lena felt when she was "deep in" White Girls:
Reading multiple books at once also keeps my attention sharp and my memory attuned. To keep track of characters and timelines and facts and language across a number of books, the reader has to be able to keep things straight.
Multi-book reading is not the same thing, though, as multitasking. It's all about carving time from the metaphorical spiral-cut ham that is my day. My commute: a novel, maybe, or short stories. My lunch break: a memoir. Lying on the couch: The New Yorker/letter from friend/recipe for split pea soup — what have you.
I'm not trying to do more than one thing at once; I'm not trying to speak while texting or watch TV while cooking. I'm in a book 100 percent — which is a good thing, because as the American Psychological Association proved and as we all already knew, multitasking really cuts productivity and performance. (That means you should close those 10+ open tabs.)
It's quite the opposite in the case of multi-book reading, actually. Reading sections of two different books in the same day is more engaging. The books, to borrow one of my former English professor's phrases, are in conversation with each other. I usually have to go back a few sentences or start a chapter again in order to refresh myself, but I'm not racing to the finish. I'm not just turning pages.
I find parallels between characters in different novels and genres and between fiction and non-fiction. It's cool to watch how different authors describe similar ideas. Now that I've read Jesse Ball's Silence Once Begun , quiet scenes between two characters in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah could mean something different — pain and isolation, rather than just stillness.
Do I forget what last happened in a book? Where I left off? Yes, of course, and I'm often rereading from the beginning of a chapter to catch myself back up. But I don't consider this time wasted.
And so I will keep on stacking my books. As literary scholar Soulja Boy said, "Stacks on! Stacks!"