The Juggling Act

“So, what are you reading these days?”

Every so often, a friend will ask that simple question. Simple and dangerous. Like a dragon deep within its cave, I have to smile in anticipation at an adventurer who does not know his peril.

“Well, I’m getting into a book on the fall of Richard Nixon. Oh, and there’s that new translation of The Iliad. And of course, Missy and I found a really fun modern fantasy series to go through at bedtime, we might have another hit there. And speaking of fantasy, there’s a novel  a co-worker finally got me into …”

No, I’m not just throwing out the coming attractions. This isn’t the to-be-read list, though that particular reading mountain is also impressively high. At any given time, I’m usually juggling anywhere from three to six books. It kind of works out a little bit like a literary version of Mambo No. 5: “A little bit of Asimov in my life, a little bit of history by my side ….”

I know I’m not alone. We’re out there, taking our meandering path less traveled. We’re often the kids who had to be told “No more than five books, OK?” on each library trip, knowing that we’d cart off half a shelf if given the chance – and devour it all.

And invariably, we get two questions from more tightly-focused readers.  “How?” Quickly followed by “Why??”

“How” isn’t something I’m sure I can answer. Like any skill, it seems to be a mix of inclination and practice. It’s not really multitasking (thank goodness) where one to-do interrupts another, lowering your productivity at both. If anything, it’s more like having multiple foods on your plate at dinner: you don’t have to finish your mashed potatoes before starting on the steak, but can alternate bites of both as you like, letting the flavors reinforce each other.

And maybe that’s part of the “Why?” as well. At its heart, this narrative whirlwind may be the most liberating experience I know.

We go through a lot in a day. Everything we touch shapes us, so that we’re not quite the same person from hour to hour, or maybe even minute to minute. Our mood shifts, our energy level shifts, our ability (or desire) to engage with the rest of the world shifts.

And as our life balances and re-balances, the sort of inner world we need may change, too. Like grabbing an umbrella for a rainstorm or a T-shirt for a sunny day, it’s nice to have options. (“The forecast is hopeful and curious, with a chance of random silliness: Yes, this is a great Connie Willis day.”)

It also keeps the stories fresh. We’ve all had the experience where even a favorite book can get a little fatiguing if you KNOW you have to finish it up before you can move on to another story you’re curious about.  Giving yourself the freedom to move from tale to tale as the inclination takes you (with careful bookmarks, of course) can keep all of it fresh and exciting.

It’s also a great reminder that nothing happens in isolation. Like that dinner plate I mentioned, it gives you a chance to combine and compare, bringing out themes you didn’t expect. (This happens to writers, too, by the way. Isaac Asimov once mentioned that the idea for his Foundation series happened when a Gilbert & Sullivan illustration got him thinking about what he’d read of the fall of the Roman Empire.)

So go ahead. Let the worlds collide. It’s your literary universe, after all.

 And when someone asks you that Simple Question – remember to let your inner dragon smile.

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