I finally figured out a name for this thing I’ve done for years.
The thing is this: simultaneously, or in very quick succession, reading a group of books about one topic or theme.
I call this weird little habit of mine “reading in swarms.”
I suppose you could also call it “research,” but that would be too clinical and would give me too much credit.
Is it “curiosity”?
Sure it is. Of course. I’m curious about something or someone and then read not one, but five or seven or ten or more books about the topic. But there is something about reading five or ten books (and not, say, two) that tips this — at least in my mind — from curiosity towards some other kind of activity.
Is it mania?
Maybe. But a benign mania.
I don’t know what it is. It’s just what I do when I read.
I don’t do it exclusively. O, god no.
I also read one-off books, so to speak: a single book by an author.
For example, while I am reading a swarm of books about the Arctic, say, I might also be reading the novel Mating by Norman Rush. In fact, I am never not reading Mating, but that is a different mania of mine. I’ve never read another book by Rush except a book of his short stories.
Maybe this impulse to read in swarms is an impulse towards mastery.
Perhaps. That’s more like it.
In reality, it’s probably all of those states along some sort of continuum. The impulse to read a book about death, for example, starts off as curiosity or a straight-up need. As in, I needed help in figuring how to deal with the impending death of my mother, so I looked toward literature for that help. Then, having read one book on death, I got curious as to how other minds thought about it, so I started searching for and reading more books on the topic. And then it became a bit of fixation and a what… hobby? obsession? race? hunger? (See my blog posts: Death, A Reading List part 1 and Death, A Reading List part 2.)
That’s more like it: hunger.
What I know is that for a while I was insatiable about the topic of death in book form. I was desperate to find some aspect of my experience described by another person. I wanted words for the unutterable grief I was enduring at my mom’s side during those years of her dying. That’s why Christopher Hitchens’s perfect phrase “living dyingly” spoke to me when I first read it. It physically rearranged something in my brain and body. I read that phrase and something that slid into place inside me. That’s why I picked up his slim, piercing book Mortality in the first place. A writer like him would surely be able to help me articulate what I couldn’t.
While my mom was dying, I picked up book after book about daeth. (Well, there was that period of time when neither she nor I could read anything, but that’s for another blog post.)
And each book added another window to the metaphorical dark house I was living in.
Now, I don’t read as much about death anymore. My mom’s been dead for more than three years. Things aren’t so urgent. I’ve metabolized the writings of the authors in my death swarm. I’ve written my own book about death. It’s a songbook.
I occasionally add books to the swarm, of course. People send me things to read. I’d never swat these words away.
New swarms have appeared or old, forgotten swarms have reappeared: the Arctic swarm, the Shakespeare swarm (the Ur-swarm for me), the Jamaica Kincaid swarm, the William Faulkner swarm (I took a whole semester on Faulkner at Harvard, so this is another old one), the Rachel Cusk swarm, the Elena Ferrante swarm (this one is fraught and frenzied), etc. There are also nonfiction swarms (the income inequality swarm) and self-help-y swarms (time management).
Beekeepers, I’ve heard, consider themselves lucky when they come upon a swarm. Catching a swarm is exciting and unpredictable and somewhat (or a lot) chaotic.
I think I understand.