Why reading makes you a cat or dog person
Which one are you? Most of us know which one we are without having to think too hard. As readers it seems we fall just as readily into two categories: people who read one book at a time and people who read several. You’ve probably grouped yourself already.
At edetä, we were curious about why this is the case. We did some exploratory research. We asked readers. We asked some cognitive psychologists.
Most of the people we asked, around two-thirds (of, admittedly, a small and biased sample), preferred serial, one-book-at-a-time, or mono-reading. (Often, they looked askance at the suggestion they might do otherwise, which is in itself quite telling.) The rest, the poly-readers, gave us fewer funny looks and were more forthcoming with explanations about why they read lots of books at once; also quite telling. What was quickly apparent is that there isn’t much straying between the two styles. If anything, there’s a tendency to think our way is normal, and the other is slightly weird.
“Where’s the satisfaction in leaving yourself hanging between several different plots at once?” queried one mono-reader. The underlying assumption seems to be that reading is sequential and linear. This is how we read. It’s what you’re meant to do. We learn this early on. They don’t let you take more than one home-reader and the rule takes root. Embedded in the approach is the notion of progress: you start a book, hopefully fall in love a bit, reach the end, part company with a twinge of regret for what has ended, shelve it, repeat.
It’s strikingly similar to serial monogamy. You owe your chosen book, or author, your exclusive attention for its duration. Which perhaps explains the raised eyebrow when you suggest there is an alternative. Poly-readers, with their promiscuous book habits, are committing a form of cheating. Can’t they exercise a bit more self-control? Apparently not, if Montaigne, sixteenth-century essayist and unreformed poly-reader, is anything to go by:
“I leaf through now one book, now another…without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments.”
There are, of course, good reasons to read one book at a time, and they’re not all functional; that would be like suggesting mono-readers regard reading primarily as a task. One explanation that makes a lot of sense is that it’s only possible to read one book properly at a time in the same way that you can only fully experience being in one place at a time.
It’s this notion of going somewhere that seems to be the kernel of the experience for sequential readers: it doesn’t make sense to take unrelated detours en route. If you set out to go to Naples, with a mental map in mind of all that you will see, hear and experience there, you probably won’t welcome a detour to Northampton (even if it was home to the late, brilliant J L Carr). It will probably be a serious annoyance and detract from your anticipated enjoyment.
For polys, reading is not like that at all. For your typical poly-reader, with at least two but more likely five or six titles on the go, there is no sense of conflict between books themselves, or competition for their attention as reader (though time is another matter). How can you keep track of all that going on at once? is the standard response. Don’t you get them mixed up? Pretty much any poly-reader will tell you the risk of confusion is no greater than that of mistaking your good friend Gustave for your good friend Gerald.
Poly-readers will also tell you there are good practical reasons for adopting their approach. Some books were not written with a rush-hour bus journey in mind (this surely, is the market Penguin Pocket Classics were designed to corner?). A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara) is one reader’s example. An Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Maths is another. Poly-readers, above all, shudder at the idea of being caught short; they make sure they’re not. They have a book for every twist and turn of the day, a portal ready to step through whether they’re stuck in a meeting, stirring porridge or locked out of their apartment. Poly-reading is well-suited to the fragmented nature of modern life, where a home/desk/bed/car isn’t necessarily something you occupy in dependable chunks. A book can be your thread of continuity, your emergency rations, for whatever scene shift or misadventure the day has in store for you.
To a poly-reader, blithely interweaving styles and genres, starting a book is more like joining a conversation. And just as there are people you seek out and talk to for intellectual stimulation, for emotional wisdom or for puppy-training advice, some books are better suited to a particular time or mood than others. A cool drink of contemporary non-fiction – Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails for example – can be the perfect antidote to an emotionally draining heavyweight. Professor Nancy F Knapp, author of The Psychology of Reading, says, “I often poly-read fiction and non-fiction…I also often am reading an “old favourite” before going to sleep or carrying around with me to doctor’s offices, etc. I save good new books for times I can spend a few hours reading, so I will frequently have one of each of these going at once.”
At a less conscious level, poly-reading is about hearing a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, even bouncing between historical periods. In its richness and unpredictability, poly-reading more closely mirrors real-life interactions. “If I read just one book I start to think in the voice I’m reading,” one poly-reader explained, “and why would I want to limit myself anyway?”
So are they undisciplined, unfocussed opportunists? Montaigne seems quite comfortable with being seen this way, unapologetic about his scatty habits, even claiming (possibly to be taken with a pinch of salt) he never makes an effort with a book that proves demanding. But there is some hazy method at work.
Poly-readers will tell you theirs is a richer reading experience. That reading this way generates, and allows them into, a kind of inner world, between the voices of multiple books. That their apparently chaotic reading style opens the door to serendipity and leads them to unexpected connections between books or author perspectives (For one reader, discovering both E. M. Forster and Orwell both taking digs at Dickens in the space of one week was quite exhilarating, “as though they were alive, talking to each other”). And whatever you come across, it will be via a unique path. Our go-to mathematician calculated at less than one in 250 billion the chances of two people randomly reading the same 5 books simultaneously – if there were only 500 books in print! That sense of discovery is hard to beat.
Plus, it’s highly addictive. “I’m a compulsive book buyer so new arrivals tend to sneak in while I’m reading others,” a poly-reader confessed. Because once you do away with the notion of one book at a time, you’re free to speculate and accumulate. It means there will always be the reissued classic that you’d never seen in a bookshop till yesterday, or the book that was practically falling out of the Street Library you happened to be passing, or that you’ll finish checking out as soon as you recover the Booktopia password; quite often all three. And, because it takes astonishing will-power to leave the newcomer alone, the behaviour fuels itself.
But what about finishing books? “If I started reading five books, I’d never finish reading any,” one sequential reader told us. This is where the two styles really seem to part company. For mono-readers, it comes back to the journey: once you’ve set out it makes sense to commit yourself, to get to the destination taking in everything along the route, with minimal distractions.
Poly-readers are generally more comfortable with the risk of not finishing – or not yet. It’s not that poly-readers don’t finish books – the ones we asked almost always do, eventually – but it’s not what they read for. If reading is our passport into the interior worlds of others, our way of connecting to realities bigger than our own, why rush through? In fact, there’s no particular advantage to finishing, as the longer you take, the broader the multidimensional world, in which cross-fertilisation of themes, plots and characters is virtually guaranteed (literary synergy, according to writer and critic, Julia Keller).
We asked three cognitive psychologists for their insight, all of whom were very helpful, but none of whom were aware of any theory that explains why we tend to adhere to one reading style. There is, they told us, no right or wrong way (they were all poly-readers). What’s natural for one reader may be unthinkable to another.
It seems our preferred style may owe as little to fundamentally different assumptions about why we read as dog and cat owners have wildly different expectations of their preferred pets. A cat owner is probably not looking for a walking companion any more than a dog owner is looking for moodiness, inscrutability and unscheduled disappearances. What they’ll both say they benefit from are company, mutual understanding, and the addition to daily life of a presence who makes a house feel like home. Strikingly similar to books, then.
It’s not the only parallel. Dog and cat people don’t tend to convert. From what we’ve heard, readers probably don’t either.