How I Read #1: Reading Rotation

Why it's so helpful to read multiple titles in parallel

This is one part of a series of articles about How I Read, i.e. what's worked for me and what hasn't. I probably wouldn't recommend reading all of them together, that sounds like serious overkill.


By far, the single most impactful change I’ve made in my reading habits was to be very keen on reading multiple books in parallel, rotating between them on a regular basis.

Most folks you know who read a lot probably do this. Most folks you know who don’t are probably scandalized by the very idea. But I’m going to argue that if you’re working on building a reading habit, reading multiple books is actually easier than not doing so.

More to Choose From

Most habit-forming guides will tell you that it's a great idea to think about what would make performing your chosen activity more fun for yourself.

As much as you may like a particular book you're currently reading, there will come days when you simply don't feel like picking it up. Maybe you're a few chapters in and you kinda-sorta know what to expect from the next few chapters, and it just doesn't align with what you want to do with your one free hour off today. This can mean that you're not really up for reading at all (and you shouldn't force yourself, nobody wins in that scenario), but it can also mean that you're just not up for reading that particular book.

By keeping multiple books running in parallel, you give yourself a better chance at finding something you feel like reading every day.

This is also why it makes sense to pick a good variety of genres and forms, since you’re covering a lot more ground and generally exploring more space. It pays to be adventurous.

Reading multiple books that all touch upon the same subject or speak in the same way would defeat the purpose of maintaining variety. Also, good luck maintaining distinct mental models for the books you're reading if, say, you decide to read two separate fantasy series together [1].

I find it convenient to have one fiction and one non-fiction book going in parallel (not a lot of scope for mix-ups), thus using a 'Mood Factor', if you will, of 2. If I don’t feel like reading one, I will probably feel like reading the one. If you try this, know that in practice, you’ll end up balancing this simply because you ‘miss’ the active book you haven’t picked up in a while.

The number 2 is what works for me. It's probably possible to do a lot more if you split by genre or any other attribute that makes a difference for you.

Mood and Circumstance

Your mood dictates just one dimension of deciding which of your active reads you're going to pick up next. The other dimension, orthogonal to Mood, is Circumstance. While Mood influences things like genre and content, Circumstance dictates the form and function of what you can read.

I have found that the kinds of reading windows that typically show up in my day roughly correspond to 2 major forms of books: ebooks (on a Kindle) and audiobooks. I read before sleeping on most nights, and I listen to audiobooks while cycling. Knowing that these windows exist and are distinct from each other allows you to assign separate books to them, and thus give yourself more choices.

Circumstance actually ties into what I want to cover in a separate post, where I’ll talk more about finding time to read. For now, suffice it to say that because there’s usually more than one kind of setting in which you’re happy to read, it follows that you can associate different types of books with each setting, and thus achieve a greater degree of parallelization (and more efficient use of your reading time).

More on this later.

Your Steady State

I wouldn't say the same number of books should be read in parallel by everyone. People read differently and their habits ought to dictate the extent to which they can stretch the rotation concept.

For me, the magic number seems to be 4+1.

The 4 means I find I can easily handle four distinct books in rotation. Sometimes it goes higher if I'm excited about a new book and want to squeeze it in, but 4 is the number I am generally aiming for. This number actually makes sense cos it's simply Mood Factor * Circumstance Factor, i.e. what do I feel like reading and what can I easily read right now, so 4 is actually easy peasy.

I’d highly recommend spending some time figuring out what your steady-state number is, meaning understanding your Mood and Circumstance factors, since doing this allows you to plan your reading better. ‘Targetting’ a steady-state means that whenever you finish a book, you should try to replace it with exactly 1 more book that fits into the same Mood/Circumstance grid position. A non-fiction ebook will be replaced by another non-fiction ebook, etc.

The +1 in the 4+1 refers to one-off short reads, which I am hugely in favour of. Mentally I call them Sunday Reads, tiny things you can start and finish in a single day, often in a single sitting. Cheat books. Books that people will say you "shouldn't count". More about those in a later post.

Longer Timelines

Naturally, reading N books in parallel instead of serially means you're going to spend a larger period of your life reading every individual book amongst those N.

So if you’re reading 4 books, each of which would normally take a week to read, here’s what serial vs parallel processing looks like:

(if you had to publish quick and the Miro Gantt chart is the best you can do for visualizations)

In each case, you took a month to read a book that you could’ve finished in a week. So you’re definitely slower.

Of course, even this is an ideal you won't really achieve in practice. You're more likely to read different books of different lengths together, and long books, in particular, will take a very long time to finish if you rotate equally.

I find that this isn't really a problem though, since the idea is to stay flexible enough to optimize for your own enjoyment. If you're enjoying a particular book, by all means, stick to it and finish it in one shot. Use the rotation strategy only when you find your interest in a particular book waning. If after a while you feel like returning to the first book, great. If that never happens, it means it's time to Abandon the Book.

PS: This turned out a lot denser than I expected. To compensate, the next one will be on Sunday Reads, a much happier affair overall.

Footnotes

  1. Not a hypothetical. I tried this. It is a dumb idea. Do not do this.