Narrative Threads: On Following Multiple Stories at Once

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Batgirl and the Birds of PreyThere are currently two books on my beside table: Patrick Rothfuss’ fantasy novel The Name of the Wind and the DC Comics omnibus Batgirl and the Birds of Prey: Vol 1. Who is Oracle? Looking now, I can see the bookmarks in each marking the place where, too tired to continue, I last stopped reading. In my study bookmarks poke out the top of other books too – novels, works of philosophy, collections of letters and essays. I’m part way through each of these. Some I’ll return to, some not.

I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days. I’ve realised that I’m following a large number of stories at once. I’m currently reading, playing through, watching or am otherwise invested in many narratives over multiple formats and through various channels, from novels and comics to podcasts, actual play live DnD streams, network TV series, narrative-heavy JRPGs and other videogames. I'm holding together in my memory the narrative threads of all these different stories at the same time.

I would not have wanted to have two novels on the go at once when I first started my undergraduate degree. I preferred to read one book at a time, and didn’t start reading a new one until I had reached the end of the last - which was unhelpful when studying 6 first year modules at once!

So… has my attitude towards the consumption of narratives changed? Why am I now happy to be engaged in multiple stories at once when previously I was purportedly against it?

There are a number of different answers to these questions, some straightforward and practical, some more complex and tied to bigger questions of psychology, sociology and technology.

For instance, the change in my habits may be part of a broader trend resulting from the advent of more technological distractions and the general shortening of attention spans.  I'll admit to being suspicious of such an argument as it sets up a series of false oppositions. For instance, it opposes a new distracted reading to an older, purer or more focussed form of textual engagement. This is a myth. Despite my own best intentions, I inevitably always had one eye or ear on something else whilst reading.

The more I think about it the more I realise I was kidding myself in thinking I was ever engagig with one narrative at a time, no matter how few books were on my desk. I’ve always been wound round with narrative threads. For example, I was reading Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix for my MA dissertation whilst also playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, watching TV series and listening to audiobooks, and so on.

So I’ve decided to stop questioning the number of narratives in which I’m invested. I'm going to stop chastising myself for my lack of reading focus, or for picking up a whole series of new stories before finishing others. Instead, I’ve decided to try and be conscious of all those narratives, and celebrate the wonderful texts I enjoy. To hold all these narrative threads together is wonderful fun.


My current narrative engagements:

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (novel, paperback) – 362 pages in.Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Switch Mythra

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (novel, paperback) – 492 pages in.

The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss (novel, paperback) – 150 pages in.

Batgirl and the Birds of Prey (comic, paperback) – end of volume 1.

The Mighty Thor (comic, paperback) – end of volume 1.

In Search of Lost Time (radio dramatization) – end of episode 1.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (videogame, Nintendo Switch) – middle of chapter 5, 60 hours in.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (videogame, Nintendo Switch) –165 hours in.

Critical Role (Actual Play DnD live stream, Twitch) - Campaign 2, episode 76

Not Another D&D Podcast (Podcast) - episode 3

Voyage to the Stars (Improvised Comedy Podcast) - last episode of season 1.

American Gods (TV series, adaptation) – end of series 1.

Brooklyn 99 (TV series) – series 5, episode 18.

Glow (TV series) – series 3, episode 3.


Do you prefer to read one book at a time? Which stories are you currently enjoying? Let me know in the comments below or via social media, on Twitter or Instagram.

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