On keeping a list of all the books I’ve ever read

Not that I’m anxious about getting through all the books I want to read or anything.

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

I have a list of all the books I’ve ever read. Well, not ever. But since 1993 at least.

It began with a red spiral-bound exercise book. The first book I recorded was , followed by Angela Carter’s , , , and by Will Self.

At first, I didn’t just write the names and authors; I had pretensions of becoming a literary journalist and was ambitious enough at the time to think I would write a review of every book I wrote.

At the back of the book I had also jotted down an early attempt at flash fiction. It is the story of a young man who learns that the receptionist won’t be coming into work that day: her boyfriend has phoned to say that her father has just been injured in a car crash. The young man’s reaction — and this is not remotely autobiographical, remember — is dismay at learning that the receptionist has a boyfriend.

Well, I need the exercise book, so the story must stay too.

The actual reviewing of books — a callow mix of pseudery and stylized self-revelation — only lasted for about of half a dozen titles, after which I reverted to the formula I have followed ever since: author and name in list form, with a tally of books read at the end of each year. These years, anything over 40 counts as a good score; looking back, however, I see that in the late 90s and early naughties I was getting into the 80s and 90s. Well, I was younger then, single and childless, and I had time to burn.

On the day of our wedding, my wife presented me with a plain notebook bound in a loose leather cover, on which were embossed my initials and the words: . It was a replacement for the battered red exercise book, which I promptly tucked into the back of its successor, where it has stayed ever since.

That gift is a measure of how well my wife knows me, and of how lucky I am.

Looking through the pages now, I see various patterns and preoccupations in my reading habits. The obsession with esoteric cults. The French phase. The binges on particular authors (Olivia Laing, Updike, Graham Greene, Joyce Carol Oates). The self-improving efforts to be highbrow (, , , read over many months) with the purer pleasures of comedy (Alan Partridge, , Jeeves). The books I seem to have re-read every decade (, , ).

Over the years I have worked out a few ground rules. Do I record short stories read? (No, unless it’s a collection.) Novellas? (Sure, whatever a novella is exactly.) Plays? (Yes.) The many stories I’ve read my children, from all the way up to ? (Alas no. I’d need a second book.) The book-length manuscripts I’ve written myself? (Sure. At least they’ll have one reader.)

The notebook stands as a physical emblem of my obsession with reading, of my anxiety that — as every obsessive reader knows — there are just so many books in the world, and just so little time to read them in. I look at the blank pages that are left and wonder if they will see me out; sometimes, indeed, I fancy that my end will actually be triggered by the writing in of the last title in the last available space.

I used to be frustrated at my inability to remember the plots and themes of books. Now I struggle to remember titles and author’s names. What doesn’t go, at least, is the feeling a book gave you when you first read it. At least I can still visit those exquisitely vague sensations again, thanks to my compulsive little catalog.

Written by

Funny-sad author | Hotel du Jack @SandstonePress; Work in Progress (formerly Kitten on a Fatberg) @unbounders | Pushcart, Slackjaw, Pithead, X-Ray, Ellipsis

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