Textual Concurrency

Why read one book when you can read ten...at once?

Textual Concurrency

In computer science, concurrency refers to a system’s ability to carry out multiple tasks at the same time. For instance, your desktop or laptop system can check the spelling of a word processing document, play MP3 music files, and send virus-laden emails to everyone in your contact list, all at the same moment. In reality, the computer cannot do multiple things at once. Instead, the computer simulates multiple tasks by chopping every second of time up into small pieces, and letting each program use individual shards of time for its work.

Computers are so lucky. I’m stuck doing one thing at a time. Or am I? Although playing with time at the sub-second level is beyond my mortal abilities, I often attempt to time-slice my activities at the hour and day level. And reading is no exception. One book at a time? Boring. I typically have two or three main books active at once, plus a few supporting books in progress for lesser concerns. Here are my current reading sections.
Concurrent Books

  • The Craft of Research, by Wayne C. Booth, et. al. I’m reading this in preparation for the Well-Read Man project, to improve my study habits. So far, meh.
  • The One Year Bible. The publisher claims that by breaking the massive biblical text up into 365 daily readings, you will breeze through God’s Word in no time. Apparently, lying is no longer a major sin among religious publishers since it’s only May and I am already a month behind schedule.
  • More Information Than You Require, by John Hodgman. You might know this author as PC, from the “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” commercials. This book of fake trivia sits on my nightstand and provides four or five minutes of content-free reading each evening.
  • Remembering the Kanji, Volume I, by James Heisig. I married into a Japanese family, and learning the language is obligatory for communicating with the in-laws. I started into this book’s 2,000-plus kanji characters more than a decade ago and I’ve just about reached the halfway point. Good progress!
  • The Dumbest Generation, by Mark Bauerlein. Although the book’s subtitle is, “Don’t trust anyone under 30,” the author doesn’t seem to worry about reduced book sales among this age group since he makes it clear that they don’t read. Another selection for the Well-Read Man project.
  • Philosophy for Dummies, by Thomas Morris. The title says it all.
  • Basic Economics, Fourth Edition, by Thomas Sowell. This book is thick, but Sowell does a good job at dumbing-down the subject matter for people like me. Although I am only halfway through it, I am already amazed at how the author effortlessly reveals Adam Smith’s “hidden hand” of economic magic.
  • The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I, by Mark Twain, obviously. My son gave me this book for Christmas. I’m on page 200, which is where the biography begins! Two hundred pages of introductory content? No wonder this project will consume three volumes before it is done.

When the Well-Read Man project gets into full swing in July, I may need to rethink this many-books strategy. I always considered my book-tasking abilities an advantage. Instead of absorbing one source of content, my brain is advancing on several fronts simultaneously. But research indicates that I’m doing the opposite. According to a 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (and summarized in this Wired Magazine article from that same year), people who flit from one activity to another tend to fare significantly worse on nearly any activity involving the brain. Like thinking. Or at least that’s what I got out of the article. My favorite song was playing!

[Image Credits: pixabay.com/SerenaWong]


  1. Hi Tim! I think reading several books at once is the only way to go. Multi-tasking on a minute-to-minute basis is certainly bad for performance, but slogging away on one thing for hours and days on end is a really quick way to learn to hate what you’re doing. I don’t know any serious readers who don’t have multiple books on the go at any one time. The Kindle was invented so readers could go on vacation with only one suitcase… 😉

    This might also help: http://all4one4all.wordpress.com/2008/12/25/how-to-refresh-your-brain/

    I once read the whole Bible (Oxford annotated NRSV with Apocrypha) in the 40 days of Lent. It took about 3 hours a day, which included reading introductions and annotations. It was good to read it in sequence because I got a sense of the gradual shift in culture and use of language over the centuries. You won’t get that with the “One Year Bible,” especially as it doesn’t include the Apocrypha (which are somewhat transitional). Just a thought.

  2. Thanks for the advice on refreshing the brain. I like the one on smells. I’ll be sure to keep a dish of buttered-popcorn-flavored Jelly Bellies near my book reading chair. I love how they emit a popcorn smell as you chew them.


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