The secret splendours of the reading log
Do you keep a list of the books you read – a “reading log”? The world, no doubt, is divided between those who think this is a wonderful thing to do, and those who not only couldn’t be bothered but find the very idea ridiculous, boring, pathetic and all sorts of other unkind things. Not me: I like being a nerd.
I’ve kept a reading log since 29 November, 1986 (the date of the first entry). It’s very simple. I use a hardbound notebook (“Universal” is the brand; MADE IN AUSTRALIA, it says prominently on the front). On the left side of the page I write numbers, then against each number the name of the author, the title, and the date finished. That’s all. I don’t give full bibliographical citations. I don’t write comments. I don’t give star ratings. I observe only two rules. Perhaps they’re arbitrary, but I’ve never varied them. First, I’m only allowed to enter books. An article, short story, or poem in a magazine will not be entered. Anything which forms part of an anthology must be excluded, unless it’s a full-length novel which appears in an omnibus edition. Second, I enter only books I’ve completed. A book I began, but never finished, isn’t allowed in. There have, alas, been quite a few of those over the years.
Sometimes I’ve hankered after a more complicated, more elaborate system. But this is hubris. If my system hadn’t been so simple, I wouldn’t have kept it up. This way, all I have to do upon finishing a book is take out the reading log, fill in one line, and that’s that. If I’m away somewhere, and haven’t got the reading log with me, I record the book in some temporary form and add it to the log when I get home.
My logbook contains several other elements, which got in there more or less by accident. In 1986, before starting the log, I began the notebook by writing out, in order, the author and title of every book mentioned in Walter Allen’s historical survey, The English Novel (1954), all 285 of them, presumably on the assumption that I would one day read them all; those titles that I (a) possessed, or (b) had read were variously highlighted or underlined. In the back of the book, I have at various times written out other lists, such as the ninety-novel novels in Anthony Burgess’s survey of modern fiction, Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (1984), the fifty in Martin Seymour Smith’s Reader’s Guide to Fifty European Novels (1980) and the fifty (twenty-one English, eighteen European, eleven American) in Somerset Maugham’s Books and You (1940); there are lists, arranged chronologically, of the plays of Shakespeare or the novels of Dickens and Iris Murdoch, not to mention the novels of Arthur Ransome and Mary Renault. Much of this bespeaks, of course, the earnest aspiration of the eternal student; the heart of the book remains the reading log itself.
I’ve always wished I could read faster. When George Saintsbury, the literary scholar, wrote his history of the French novel, he (so it is said) read a French novel each morning before breakfast. Now there’s a reader for you: I imagine the great man lying in bed for an hour or so, having reached down a languid hand for the latest leather-bound volume from the pile on the floor beside him. How paltry are my talents! I couldn’t even manage Carmen in that time; Saintsbury probably got through Lost Illusions. Had I been a fast reader, I like to imagine that I too could have been a great scholar, writing vast synoptic surveys of world literature – as it is, I have mixed cerebral dominance, and am slow at many things; fiction writing suits me better. Therefore my reading log, if I let it be, is always a reproach. My ambitions when I started it have hardly been fulfilled (how many of Walter Allen’s books have I read, let alone Burgess’s?). In more than twenty-five years, I have entered many more than a thousand books, but well under two thousand. Nor have all my choices been the wisest. I haven’t read much out-and-out trash, but certainly I’ve read many ephemeral books, middlebrow novels or modern, would-be literary novels, earnest books about social issues, books that were fashionable for a time and seem, in retrospect, entirely unrewarding. The classics, some of us realise in the end, are classics for a reason. Invariably, the books I’m most glad to have read are the books I resisted: the hard books; the long books; often just the famous books that always seem, before you read them, far too dull and worthy, reeking of the classroom. Education has a lot to answer for. I didn’t read Candide until I was thirty-three.
Perhaps all this sounds mechanical, obsessive. But the reading log has a secret, and I’ll tell you what it is: it’s just how often the mere name of a book, and the date when I finished it, plunges me back into the memories of that time. It could be ten years ago, fifteen, twenty. Suddenly I’m there. Proust’s madeleine had nothing on my reading log. For me, it’s a kind of memoir, written in a code only I can understand. I once discussed this with the English writer Sue Gee, who revealed to me that she also has a reading log, and feels the same way about it. Another reading-log aficionado, who has taken the bold step of making his entire list available online, is the American singer and actor Art Garfunkel. Garfunkel’s list, a remarkable document, stretches back in an unbroken line to 1968; the online version also includes a list of his favourite books.
My reading log – which I doubt will ever make it out of handwritten form – is getting shabby now. It’s certainly been around. I started it on a whim, then just kept going. There was never any lifetime plan. Had I known how long my reading log had to last, I might have chosen a sturdier book. But I like the one I’ve got; and, when I look at how many pages I’ve filled, and how many pages still stretch ahead, I realise that this reading log and I will be together for life. I’ll never need another. When I die, there will be pages left unfilled. I’m happy about that.