A Case for Multi-Reading, Part 1

A Case for Multi-Reading, Part 1

From Mono-Reading to Multi-Reading

Cook dinner. Transfer the clothes from the washing machine into the dryer. Create a lesson plan. Finish writing an essay. If taken one at a time, I could complete each task with relative ease. But if all needed to be completed before my wife arrived back at home after work, something would be forgotten or bungled. Multi-tasking does not suit me.

For the longest time, my aversion to multi-tasking transferred to my reading of books. Only one book at a time could hold my attention. Rather, I wished only to give my attention to one set of ideas or images or plotlines at a time. My focus could be narrowed and given wholly to a single book. If that were fiction, I could be completely immersed in that particular fantastical world, allowing those unique images and themes to shape how I see the world. If theology, fully devoted to those ideas while developing my knowledge and love of God. If history, making sure to comprehend the context of that time period and seeing the larger story of our world. Because of this intensity of focus, reading one book at a time has much that may be commended.

Perhaps other book lovers have felt the same inner angst that follows the completion of a book as I have felt. Do I buy that new book that just came out or pick up a classic? Is it selfish to read another work of fiction for pure enjoyment while my challenging intellectual books sit nearby? Will I get bogged down in intellectual pursuits if a read multiple nonfiction books in a row? Personally, a kind of guilt would inevitably accompany whatever choice I made.

The guilt began to be purged not by volition, a personal change in conceptualizing the issue, but by necessity. The cleanse originated in the necessity of taking multiple college courses that each required heavy amounts of reading. To read only one book at a time would be to fail spectacularly. During summer and winter breaks, however, the mono-reading methodology returned. Right after college, seminary required the same, if not a higher, level of multi-reading. (I thought this sounded cooler than multi-task reading or multi-tasking books.) But the circumstances there were slightly different. For one, I was reading more and was reading subjects that were more closely related than marketing research reports and Puritanism in New England (the fruits of being a business and religious studies double major). For another, my access to TV was more limited, so some other kind of self-entertainment was needed.

Since that time, usually I work through at least two books at a time but sometimes just one. When I recently picked up four at a time, I became reminded of those benefits I received in college and seminary.

Retrain and Refresh

Many of my friends in college were Harry Potter enthusiasts. By that point, I did not consider the series to be the witchcraft-endorsing tract that many in my family and church thought it to be. However, as a self-proclaimed “Lord of the Rings guy,” a Tolkien purist, the HP franchise was beneath me, petty fantasy; the two were mutually exclusive (which, of course, doesn’t really make sense). In seminary, needing some entertainment, needing something to “baptize my mind” to alter a phrase from C.S. Lewis, I caved, much to the approval of my friends, who pined for the time they could be surprised and thrilled by the series again.

Long story short, I am now a HP enthusiast myself. After a day in classes and thick theological readings, Rowling gave me a fun, whimsical world to enter, an engaging narrative, and surprisingly deep morals and themes woven throughout. My imagination had the opportunity to drink and be enlivened after being taxed and drained.

The same is true now. My current fictional companions are Don Quixote and his faithful squire Sancho Panza. Their ridiculous antics allow me a brief escape, refreshing my mind to reenter the real world more effectively, without the numbness that comes with staring at a screen streaming Netflix for hours on end.

At the same time, I am not only escaping in a fictional world. Several other books are also engaging my mind on a more strictly intellectual plane. Thus, this process resembles a physical workout, where muscles require a rigorous active stimulus in addition to periods of rest and rebuilding for maximal growth. Given that God created the world with this general work-rest pattern built into it (six days of work, one day of rest), no wonder we find that pattern reaching many areas of life. Reading a number of books, then, can encourage greater personal growth by retraining and refreshing our minds (and hearts...if the book is truly affecting), aligned with God’s work-rest pattern for flourishing.

Could multi-reading garner any further benefits? My next post will explore other ways in which multi-reading can stimulate both personal and even spiritual growth.