It occurs to me, that the last hour I have spent making an Excel spreadsheet of all the books I’ve read since 1998, might not be entirely normal behaviour.
I first started keeping a list of books way back when I was in school, working my way through a pack of rainbow-coloured felt tipped pens. I kept this list folded up inside a book on the shelf above my desk; I must look for it next time I visit my mum, but as my parents are not the compulsive hoarders that I have become, I am resigned to the fact that my list has long ago been consigned to the bin by an unsuspecting Oxfam bargain hunter. I remember this original list consisted in large part, of the works of John Wyndham, which barely slaked my thirst for science fiction, plus a good amount of Thomas Hardy thrown in for balance.
This recent attempt to catalogue my reading list, began with the foundation of a reading circle, and the purchase of a notebook which I initially thought would be ideal to hold my comments and thoughts for future reference. In the beginning, I noted the date of first publication, the publishing house, and a brief summary of the book, and I kept this up for several years when I reverted to listing just book titles and their author. I have spent the intervening years moving around the world, founding book groups where none existed, and attempting to integrate myself into groups that were already in existence. Every book read, has been duly noted, so, having had reason to check back through my list on several recent occasions, I suddenly had the idea of making a spreadsheet, so that I can re-order the list and search by title, author, date or literary awards gained.
I joined a new book club recently, soon after arriving in yet another new country. I had of course missed the reading list for the year ahead, which had been planned well in advance. The first book under discussion was Felicia’s Journey, by William Trevor. The title seemed familiar, and checking back through my notes I was able to confirm that I had in fact discussed the book several book clubs ago, and hence contribute my thoughts at the meeting.
As I work my way through my new, interactive book list, I have found myself transported through time and space to the different periods of my life. I can picture each book on the shelf where it was catalogued, and that means which room, in which house, and which country. If I were to fly back through time, I would be able to pluck any of these books instantly from its place in a matter of minutes. My list is a record of the different topics and themes that interested me at different phases of my life; the subjects my fellow book clubbers and I discussed and recommended to each other, the books and authors I loved and would willingly read again, and those I hated. There are even a few titles that I have forgotten, although very few that I have abandoned before the end.
It irks me that I have never finished reading Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s tome which I am determined to finish when I eventually find the time and energy to try again,
I tried to read this classic during a holiday in New Zealand, which included what should have been the perfect inspiration; a tour of an abandoned whaling station. To be fair, as some sort of compensation I did turn to a story called Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund which filled in some of the gaps. I also found a copy of The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex by Owen Chase, supposedly the true life inspiration for the novel, and much more readable.
There are many books and authors I have loved and would willingly read again if there weren’t so many books and so little time, but there are also plenty I have not been so impressed with. Some of the best book club meetings revolve around the books that no one likes. Niall Williams ‘Four Letters of Love’ was one such example, and was universally panned by every member of the group. By the end of the meeting we had a thrown our copies to the floor in disgust, the pile of books defaced and the authors photo adorned with biro glasses and beards. We all agreed the book was awful, but what a great and memorable meeting that was!
Sometimes finishing a book has been as much of a challenge as running a marathon. Doris Lessing’s ‘The Golden Notebook’ springs to mind as one I have just struggled to complete, but now that it’s over, I feel a sense of achievement and can proudly boast about it to those of my friends who either didn’t get to the last page, or who skipped over ‘the bits about communism’.
My list follows trending authors, prize-winning titles, and prestigious shortlists. The names of authors whose work I have enjoyed can be seen popping up again and again, as I work my way through their back catalogue. I seem to have tracked the moment when E. Annie Proulx, dropped the E and became just Annie Proulx. My notes record the moment when Harry Potter was fresh and new, before the books became so think and heavy with background information that I lost the will to continue. I lasted only the first three volumes.
After my initial enthusiasm for Kate Atkinson’s ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ 1995 winner of the Whitbread Prize, I enthusiastically embraced the next two books, Human Croquet (1997) and Emotionally Weird (2000). Traumatized by my disappointment, it would be another nine years before I braved Kate’s work again!
My book list also tracks my children’s progress through school. When my son was about 11, his class entered a ‘Battle of the Books’ competition, and I was quickly ‘volunteered’ to read ‘How to become a perfect person in 3 days’ by Stephan Manes (Broccoli features highly in the answer to this question) And to present it to his class. When my other son was studying for his IB diploma, I was able to share such delights as Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thy Huong, and Uncle Petros and Goldbachs’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis. My daughter’s class tutor is now an award-winning author of children’s books, and one of my top 10 reads of 2012.
Physically, the books I read when we lived in Asia, were of several different kinds; English versions, bought from airports, Amazon or while on home leave, American versions, which tend to be subtly different, and the local versions, printed in tiny fonts on thin grey paper that soaked up the sweat from your fingers in the 90% humidity that we lived in. The local books, by local authors taught me much about our host country, and books by foreign authors set in the same country reflected insightfully on their intercultural reactions. Customs and superstitions were highlighted to say nothing of expanding my horizons of geography, history and politics. When you stand on the other side of the world, the view is surprisingly different. Everything takes on an unexpectedly different perspective. Now I live in a country where it is both difficult and expensive to get hold of books in English and for the last few years, I have come to rely on electronic books. This in no way diminishes my love of real books; if I had easy access to a book shop I would much prefer to browse the latest book charts in person, but for now, I can be reading a new book in a matter of minutes instead of wondering when the package will arrive how much the customs duty will be.
I have finally finished cataloguing over fifteen year’s worth of reading material, and over 200 titles. It has been a long and tedious process, and one I’m not sure I want to tell the world about.