Time to Ponder Books: a fat stack all up in your face feeds your memory and reduces anxiety

Welcome to today’s edition of Time to Ponder Books. Lately, I’ve been thinking about memory and reading. I’ve often confessed to struggling to retain any information unless a book’s characters attach themselves to me emotionally. Novels like The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, Cruddy by Lynda Barry, and Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell (which I am currently re-reading aloud to my husband) have memorable characters whose thoughts and actions stick out in my head (though I may for get a character’s name).

Series are easier to remember because the first book is the lesson and the following are more like quizzes to cram for the final, series like Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, The Brigid series by Sheila Lamb, or Pigs Don’t Fly by Mary Brown. Then again, you have to commit yourself to a whole series, which not everyone wants to do. Currently, I’m co-hosting a read along of fifteen sixteen books out of a series of 35 novels, all by Mercedes Lackey, all set in the Valdemar and surrounding kingdoms. Do you enjoy series? I tend to because I get obsessive.

But what about those single books, fiction and non, that I read and forget right away? I’m trying something new to push my memory: I’m reading multiple books at the same time.

As I mentioned in my Sunday Lowdown #11 post, I am currently reading five novels. Each day, I give myself reading homework, and I have to tell you, it keeps my anxiety down. My whole life I have despised Sundays because they are oftentimes unstructured days of rest (whether you’re doing it for a Christian reason or not). Not knowing what to do with a whole day of my life scares me. Then thinking about how many Sundays there are on the calendar each year (the answer is 53); that’s almost 8 weeks of not know what to do with my life per year. You may be thinking, “Quit mathing, duh” but this is how anxiety works.

Having “homework” gives me purpose. I have something I have to do each day, and if I get behind, I have to make it up when I can. I know you are all going to leave comments about how you don’t like forcing reading or feeling like reading is a chore. You likely have a nice, fairly organized life and feel like you have purpose every day. Perhaps enjoying a book when you want to is your purpose on Sunday. That’s not how my brain works.

But, there has been an interesting side effect that I did not predict: reading so many books at the same time has increased my retention of all the books. Again, the names are gone, but I can tell you the basic plot of Mammoth by Jill Baguchinsky, which I read in January, along with four other books. I’ll ramble off facts from Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, read in February. The fat college girl and her baseball-playing boyfriend — Natalie and Thierry, I just remembered! — from This Much Space by K.K. Hendin are easy to dredge up, and so are those wonderfully emotional moments between them.

During 2019, I’ve also read seven books by Mercedes Lackey, and I could spend hours telling you all about the system of magic, Gifts, bond animals, Taledras, who’s dating or lifebonded to whom, which battles were fought, characteristics of the people in each kingdom, and how Vanyel changed the course of Valdemar history. Typically, I review a book and forget it; if you took a week or more to comment on my review, I would have to re-read my own review to remember the book!

So. If you have anxiety and love reading, you may want to try giving yourself mini goals to keep your mental health in a good place. And you may even get more long term out of your reading experience.

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48 comments

  1. Glad to hear this new approach has been helping with your anxiety! 😊 Reading is definitely my safe space too.

    I’m usually a one-book-at-a-time kind of reader, but I am often tempted to try having a couple on the go; perhaps one fiction and one non-fiction? Sounds like it’s worth a shot! 📚

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    • I also have found that an audio book and a physical book make a difference, simply because they are different media. In May, I’m going to continue reading more than one book at a time, but in June I’m trying to reduce the crossover, and then in July I’m doing one book at a time again, but reading something like 50 pages per day. I want to see what happens and if I should stick with reading lots of books.

      Liked by 1 person

        • With audio books, it’s all about when you can’t read a physical book: walking the dog, washing dishes, folding laundry, exercising, etc. If you can listen and drive, there is an opportunity, too. I’ve convinced many people to take on audio books, especially busy friends and mothers with young children. I’m not sure how libraries are in Scotland, but in the U.S. you can get an app and download audio books from the library right at home.

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    • I’m not sure why it makes a difference, but it does. I’m learning that some books that are more dense and abstract, like James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, don’t work as well reading little bits. You really have to get through a whole complete section for that novel to gel. Otherwise, it’s working!

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  2. I’ve been reading more than one book for so long now, I’m reading this and trying to think back to the time when I would read just one. And you know what? Some of the books I can remember and others, even though I read them one at a time, don’t stand out. I don’t tend to stick with a series of books so I applaud your dedication. I like lengthy books, they make me feel so excited about the prospect of spending time with a longer story. I still read other books too but if the characters and the story pull me in too deeply, it’s hard for me to put down and pick up other books.

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    • I used to almost never read series. I read Anne of Green Gables, all eight books, 2-3 years ago, but other than that, no. 2019 somehow became the year of series!

      What made you want to always read more than one book at a time? I think you’re mostly alone in this!

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  3. Any tips for juggling reading with having young children? 😂 I would love to read like I used to but it’s so difficult to find the time! I read the kids their books but I barely ever get to read my own. 😢

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    • I actually convinced a friend of mine to try audio books after she had her first baby. She was skeptical, but now she listens to audio books ALL the time. If you’re washing dishes, folding laundry, breastfeeding or rocking baby, if you exercise as part of a daily routine — these are all great times to listen to an audio book. If you’re worried that you can’t hear your children because you have headphones on, use a bluetooth speaker instead. I’m not sure where you are, but in the U.S., most libraries now have digital audio books that you can download with an app and listen to from your phone. I hope this helps!

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  4. So interesting to hear how this works for you. I have found that reading before bed helps me sleep better; it seems to aid in turning my brain/to do list off. There’s something really wonderful about what reading does for our minds.

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  5. I love hearing about what reading strategies work for different people. I’m glad you’ve hit upon one that works! I find that my retention for books is way higher if I write a blog post about it. If it’s one I don’t write about for whatever reason, I’m less likely to remember it. But I don’t stress too much anymore about whether or not I remember books. I read so many and there’s only so much room in one’s brain for retaining things!

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    • I’m going to finish out April reading several books at once. In May, I’ll transition to around 3 books at the same time. June, just 2. Then, for July, I’m assigning myself 50 pages of reading per day, but one book at a time. I’ll see how it goes and it if works well with my mind. I think for me part of the anxiety is if I can’t remember a book, it’s like I never read it at all. But then, who’s keeping track and holding judgment over me? No one!

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  6. I’ve been a polygamous reader for a while now. I’ve never given it much thought but I suppose it does bring down my anxiety because it lets me get through my review books while still reading other books that I’m in the mood for.

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  7. I retain very little of what I read unless I write about it. While I’m getting through heaps of audiobooks, each physical book takes me up to a month, meaning I start reading at the bookmark and hope that what I read before comes back to me. It doesn’t always and I have to start again. If I’m listening to an audiobook for the second or third time what eventually alerts me is not the characters or the plot but a certain phrase will ring a bell and alert me to listen for others.

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    • That’s interesting, Bill. I’ve done that with audio books, too — recognizing a phrase and the way it was said — mainly because I was listening to the book before bed and fell asleep somewhere in there!

      My husband can put down a book for months at a time and then jump right back in and remember exactly where he was. He’s eating something special I don’t know about, or he has a super power he’s hiding.

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  8. It’s a very impressive mental exercise to read so many books over the same period of time. I can’t do it, in part because I am so impatient. I am more likely to stay up all night to finish a book than I am to read in installments. My impatience is why I don’t like books in a series, though I do have a soft corner in my heart for Anne of Green Gables. If a series is complete, than I might read it (devouring a book a day until the series is done). If it isn’t fully published, I won’t start it.

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    • When Jackie and I started reading the Valdemar books, I was under the distinct impression that Lackey is done writing them — there are 35 in the series — but no-ho! There isanother one that just came out! I feel tricked, yet happy. I read all of Anne of Green Gables in a summer, and that was a great way to do it. But then, a 9th book came out called The Blythes are Quoted — which Montgomery wrote and was discovered later!

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  9. I’m with you on the heart of this habit, except I don’t call it homework: just my reading schedule. But I do have sections on the calendar for given days, sometimes so that I spread short stories out over a chunk of time (they’re not to be rushed) and other times because there’s a library due date or a reviewing deadline, but sometimes just because I want to challenge myself a little. And I’ve been reading multiple books at one time since I was a kid, but a couple of times a year I tidy up the stack completely, down to a single book (usually a really long one) and then reconsider whether i want to keep that up. Then I think how neat and concentrated it is to read only a single book, and gradually resume my busy (but not messy) stacking. Looking forward to your reading mood post!

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    • I only started calling it homework after many of my followers noted, “That sounds like homework!” in an unhappy way. So, I figured I would just call it that: “homework.”

      It’s interesting that your tendency is to go back to reading multiple books! I agree with you about short stories. I don’t have a page goal with those, but a certain number of stories per day.

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  10. For the very first time, I juggled three books at once…twice in one month. It was an experience. I also tend to forget things unless they’ve affected me emotionally, but at least while I was reading these, I didn’t lose track of what I was reading. I was however terribly stressed about whether I’d be able to get through them all. I did it, but I had to push myself a couple of times to meet certain deadlines.

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  11. Funny I also find I retain a book more if I cut it into smaller chunks and read several other books at the same time. Sure you can do that with a single book and read it all in one sitting but reading multiple books I notice that not only do I remember more but I notice more too. ❤️ Neat discussion.

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    • Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad to hear that someone else has experienced what I am. I was starting to wonder if it’s just me. I wonder what exactly helps us remember more when we read small chunks. Today, I was trying to catch up on one book, and I think I figured it out: I get so lost in the story that the pages just fly by, so I have a hard sense of maintaining time. SO MUCH happens in 30 pages, for example.

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  12. Oh this is very interesting. I would have thought reading goals would have increased anxiety but I’m so happy that’s not happening for you! I suppose i have reading goals in the sense that I need to have things read by certain deadlines (for my book club, for my radio segment, etc). I don’t really post about my radio segments anymore but I still do them once a month (more often in the summer) and I have another television segment coming up in May (weee!).

    I also find it fascinating that reading a few books at a time is increasing your retention of them! The brain works in mysterious ways…

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  13. It’s great that you know yourself well enough to know that “homework” in the form of reading is beneficial to you. You know me, I wait until the last second to do anything. Why? Because I’ve filled my life with far too many things to accomplish in the first place! While this means I never suffer from the anxiety you feel related to wasted Sundays, I struggle with the opposite side of anxiety: When will I get it all done?!

    The human brain. What a crazy thing.

    I’ve found that discussing books and writing reviews for books are what cements them in my mind. If I read a book alone, and I never write a book review for it, nor discuss it with anyone, you can bet I’ll forget all those details. In fact, this is one reason I started my blog! I read more than I could book club at the time. So, I made my own book club. My blog. 🙂

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    • It surprises me that book clubs meet once per month. Is everyone reading that slowly? Do they only want one book per month in their life? It’s confusing to me. I can see it being a problem if the club wanted everyone to read the same book, but they could do the same book one week and discuss what you’ve been reading the other weeks.

      Are you still in band and on a board at the Temple? What other things are on your plate — hobbies, I mean. I know about the farm, which is plenty!

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      • Most of the book clubs I participate in are ones where everyone reads the same book. I’ve been trying to get other sorts of book clubs together, but they don’t seem to stick the same way. [More Building Better Book Clubs posts are scheduled in the future around this topic!]

        I am no longer on the board at Temple. That’s a thing we should chat about at some point. It’s a long story. But I’m still on the board and performing with the Verona Area Concert Band. I also have 5 active book clubs I participate in. Plus, services on Fridays and standing M or T dates each week with friends. I need to find more time for… well, myself.

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  14. That’s insane. You have a gift or something, because I have the exact opposite reaction when I read more than one book at a time–I can’t remember ANYthing. But good for you for finding a system that works for you. Just goes to show that everyone is wired a little differently. 🙂

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