Photo credit: Catherine Smith
Soon after I graduated from college, I was struck by the idea that other people (professors) would no longer be in charge of selecting the books that invariably waited in a stack by my bed. My undergraduate degree was in Spanish rather than English, so I’d spent the previous four years immersed in the fiction of García Márquez
and the novels of the Latin American “boom” and, when it came to North American literature, I was anxious about all the things I hadn’t read. So I asked a few friendly academicians for an American literature reading list and, with their recommendations in hand, I moved to New Mexico, where I landed a job as a typist and spent my non-typing hours with my nose in a book.
Beginning with those recommendations, I started to keep a running tally of what I read.
This was in 1982, and I have now kept my booklist updated for 36 years. Keeping it has been enormously satisfying for a number of reasons I couldn’t have foreseen, back when I was typing legal briefs for a living on an IBM Selectric, at 22. Here are some of the reasons I think every reader should maintain a list.
Reason #1: Your Memory Probably Sucks
And, if it doesn’t suck now, it probably will later. You will become one of those people who engage in conversations full of blank spaces, like great slabs of Swiss cheese.
Years ago, my husband and I went to see a foreign film in New York. We both hated it, but we were in the middle of a long row of seats and so stayed to the end. A decade later, not remembering the name of the film, we accepted a friend’s invitation to see it again. It was just as awful the second time. Another decade passed, and I rented the film on Netflix, made a bowl of popcorn, and sat down and, disbelieving, watched the opening 10 minutes of the movie again. I still don’t remember the name of the film, which was something both bland and intriguing, and I live in fear of seeing it for a fourth time.
I have done this same sort of thing a few times with books — particularly novels with multiple covers — but, because of my list (handwritten in a notebook, then transferred to my computer so that I can sort it by author), it happens less often than I think it otherwise would.
Reason #2: The Desert Island vs. The Rule of 3,000
Periodically, someone will ask that old chestnut of a question, “If you could bring only one, or three, or ten books with you to a desert island, which books would you choose?” I’m unlikely to find myself on a desert island any time soon, and I have always felt that the more relevant question would be, “If, out of the millions of volumes available to you at your local bookstore or library, you could read only one lifetime’s worth of books, which ones would you choose?” That is the realistic, and more important, question.
What is a lifetime of books? The number is astonishingly small. I typically read a novel a week. For even numbers, let’s call that 50 books per year. Multiply that over an adult reading life span of 60 years, and here’s what you’re looking at, in sophisticated mathematical terms:
50 books per year x 60 years = 3,000 books
That’s what I call the Rule of 3,000. If you’re reading a book a week (with two weeks off for illness and/or holidays), you’re abiding by the Rule of 3,000. Two books per week, and you’re abiding by the Rule of 6,000. Even 6,000 is a frighteningly small number. But there’s a comfort in keeping track of those books. And, a list of 3,000 items isn’t much of a burden; it’s not very long.
Reason #3: The List of Books You’ve Read Is an Autobiography
I don’t write comments or critiques on the list of the books that I’ve read — that would take too much time — but I do indicate with a star books that I particularly loved, with a check mark books I enjoyed, and with an "X" books I disliked intensely. I also occasionally annotate the list, including bits of personal data or marginalia. During the summer of 1988, during a sweltering heat wave, I was pregnant and on partial bed rest, and I read Anna Karenina
and War and Peace
back to back, lying down in a hammock with a bag of ice on my feet. Three years later, nine months pregnant with my second child, I got the chicken pox and ended up quarantined in an obscure wing of the hospital. Denied visitors as well as good books, I read Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day
(I had brought it to the hospital with me) at least four or five times. My book list records these things; it remembers who and where I was when I encountered a book. (I’m surprised my daughter wasn’t born with the title of Ishiguro’s novel embossed on her head.)
My list of books includes references to a move across the country, to the purchase of a house, to the deaths of my parents. In 1983, the word “wedding” (that is, my wedding) appears amid a cluster of happy favorites, squarely between Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge
and William Kennedy’s Legs
, and (read on my honeymoon) Alice Walker’s The Color Purple
and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
. The personal context in which I experienced the books altered my opinions and impressions of what I read; “second hip surgery” appears among a lackluster collection of books that earned "Xs" or nothing at all.
Reason #4: You Will Surprise Yourself
Looking back at my list — and at the series of stars and "Xs" indicating rapture or displeasure — I am sometimes chagrined at my own opinions. Now and then I have flipped back through the years and seen a star and thought, Who gave that horrible novel a star?
There is the evidence of my love for Frank Norris’s overwrought novels, McTeague
and The Octopus
and The Pit
; there my Anne Rice
phase; there also, my failure to drum up anything beyond tepid interest for Virginia Woolf
The list of books is self-knowledge, and evidence of change. Madame Bovary
is recorded twice, a few decades apart, and apparently I had more sympathy for Emma’s social climbing the first time around. Sometimes I have been tempted to return to the 1990s or early 2000s and do some re-ranking; but it’s probably better that I acknowledge and own up to my former self.
Reason #5: You Will Become a Resource for Other Readers
Everybody likes to be an expert, and that’s what your list of books will allow you to be. Yes, you can use Goodreads or some sort of soulless spreadsheet online — but I prefer the intimacy of a notebook. Because it reflects me, my booklist is private. Would I upload my diary to Facebook? No, I would not. But when a friend calls to tell me that she has scheduled that long-awaited trip to a desert island and is in need of three books, I will consult my hand-written list on her behalf, and pluck from the 1,927 volumes of the life I have lived so far, something she might enjoy.
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grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, and graduated from Oberlin College and Cornell University. Her first novel, The Body Is Water
, was published by Soho Press in 1995 and was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Her other books include the novel Dear Committee Members
, a short story collection, An Explanation for Chaos
, and five books for younger readers. She lives in St. Paul and is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of Minnesota. The Shakespeare Requirement
is her most recent book.