Sunday, September 10, 2006

Books read in '93

Last week Dorothy blogged about the pros and cons of keeping track of the books she'd read. Could list-keeping cause a person to become so obsessed with counting books that the number finished would become more important than the experience itself, she wondered. Several people weighed in with the reasons why they thought keeping track was worthwhile.

When I was a kid I often kept lists of the books I'd read in the back of my diaries (and oh, how I wish I could unearth them from the bowels of my parents' basement) but I'd quit the practice by high school and then gave up diaries completely once I started college. I managed to jot down the books I read for a couple years in the mid-Eighties (the year R. was born and the year after when I also managed to keep a daily diary for her, 28 books total), but it wasn't a practice I revived for good until 1993, when I once again began keeping track.

At some point in '94 or '95 I bought a "Book-Woman" blank book and started keeping an official list of my reading, starting off with 44 books completed in '94 (first book listed: Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses). My misplaced '93 list wasn't discovered in the sideboard until after I'd recorded the reading for '95, but if you excuse that out-of-joint year I have a chronological listing of every book I've completed (1,095) since writing down Good Hearts. Reynolds Price in January of '93.

One of the unexpected perks of keeping a reading list has been that it creates a diary of sorts, one that's safe to leave out for others to see because they're unlikely to crack the code. I could certainly be judged for what I read--look, she read John Grisham and James Robert Waller!--but when I read over the list I see relationships and remember specific incidents and occasions.

For example: Robin Hemley's The Last Studebaker. I'd been thwarted in an earlier attempt to take Hemley's writing class at the university here--post-bacs need special permission and he'd turned me down flat instead of agreeing to squeeze me in the way that I'd expected since I'd asked ever so politely. No way would I ever read any of his books if he was going to be that way! Seeing his novel crop up in early January reminds me that I'd done more than fume unproductively--I'd signed up for a puny one-day workshop at the main library with Hemley and Ruth Moose back in October. He told me twice that day that he liked the writing samples I submitted and asked if I'd consider taking the semester-long class with him at the university (Already tried, I snarled, no longer needing to be polite). So there I was at the last minute before the spring semester started, finishing up my Hemley reading (I read his story collection first, before the kids knocked it into the toilet. It dried all right, though, so I was able to keep it), about to start the best semester of class with the best classmates I'd ever have.

Or Anagrams. Hemley had compared one of my stories to Lorrie Moore at the October workshop and I'd been quick to lay my hands on Self-Help and Anagrams afterwards to determine how much of a compliment I'd been given. I fell so deeply in love with Anagrams that when it was my turn to select a title and host book club the following year, the Moore seemed the perfect choice. Suffice it to say, it was not a hit with the women-who-lunch crowd who attended this particular book club, but what I remember most about that session is that when S., then a mere pre-schooler, abruptly threw up on me, and into my cupped hands as I sat there attempting to lead a discussion, no one offered to get me as much as a paper towel from the kitchen until I asked for assistance. I'd stick it out for a few more months (there were actually better books chosen that year than the preceeding, although only the Ishiguro garnered more than five minutes worth of discussion), but I'd drop out of the club before the year was over.

Or Ishmael. I read Daniel Quinn because during Whoopi Goldberg's interview with Dwight Yoakam on her short-lived show, she'd recommended it to him. Dwight sang a couple verses from "Lonesome Roads" on the show just prior to the release of This Time and dear Lord, did the hair ever stand up on the back of my neck. L. and my friend K., who was always up for a country show, and I would go to our first Dwight concert later that spring, and we would all have a fantastic time, but "Lonesome Roads" has never affected me the way it did the night Whoopi Goldberg recommended Ishmael. (the ideas in Ishmael didn't strike me as profound since I was already reading Joseph Campbell.)

Or Streets of Laredo. I attempted to read Larry McMurtry during R.'s raucous birthday party/sleep-over in August. I remember walking around using a large wooden spoon as a bookmark, hoping such a bookmark would appear intimidating and threatening enough to tone everyone down. But it didn't. I don't think Woodrow Call himself could tone down a pack of eight-year-old girls determined to whoop it up all night long.

The Bridges of Madison County reminds me of baby-sitting co-op and the mom--a college instructor, no less!-- who handed it to me after a meeting saying "You will love this." I loved mocking it, that's for sure. I wound up reading most of it sitting on the bathroom floor late at night, chortling wildly, after L. decided he couldn't take having the dialogue read aloud while he was trying to sleep.

The Firm and Taller Women in close proximity remind me of my writing buddy who attended readings with me, including Lawrence Naumoff's. When I mentioned a particularly bad dream I'd had, one that involved me and a suitcase full of chopped up human body parts, he made me both feel better and handed me the perfect beginning to a story I'd fretted over for way too long by saying it sounded as if I were dreaming about one of my characters. I'd have the story accepted for publication a year later.

There's a lot of '93 that isn't encompassed in the reading list, from how R. sat on her bed screaming at the top of her lungs while she read Roald Dahl's The Witches to S.'s insistence that he was so too big enough and brave enough to go see Jurassic Park (he was right, too--he only became upset at the very end when the velociraptors turned on his hero, the T-rex), and I can't determine from the list if it was this April or the next that K. and I took the four kids to Merlefest and sat in the dark during Mary-Chapin Carpenter's set trying to locate a just-lost baby tooth by feel among all the spilled pop corn kernels on our quilt. But without a book list as a prompt I doubt I'd be as likely to remember as much.

What about the woman who loaned me the Jon Hassler novels? She moved away shortly thereafter and our Christmas cards exchange has long ceased. Would I remember that she grew up playing happily among the twisted limbs of an apple orchard, during a not particularly happy childhood, without the book list to bring it to mind?

I'm so used to using the lists as a mental crutch by now that I just don't know.


  1. What a great post! These stories are the best arguments I've ever heard for keeping a book list. I love the idea of book lists as uncrackable codes for personal memories.

  2. I'm the exact same way! I was keeping a list on and off for a while. I couldn't keep up with it when I tried to write a paragraph about each book. So I switched over to just a simple list like yours.

    I swear, if I didn't have that list, I wouldn't be able to even remember which books I read. And every once in while, I look it over, and I get the same rush of memories. I worry, though, that a bit of the pleasure of reading is taken away because I want to finish the book quickly in or to "tally" it.

  3. Dorothy--thanks! I've never regretted taking the time to keep a list. I do think the benefits outweigh the statistical obsessiveness that can go along with it.

    Renee--I've definitely gone through stages where I want to "count" the book before I've finished it and I've had to mark out a few titles when it's either taken me much longer to finish them than I'd expected or I decide I can't finish them At all. Although it's kind of interesting to look back and see the books I couldn't read and try to remember why.

  4. What a fabulous post, with great memories! The next person who scoffs at my list -- and you'd be surprised at how many do (or maybe you wouldn't) -- will receive this link.

  5. Anonymous1:38 AM

    It's always so interesting to see the actual, physical writing of a person whose typed words you've read.

    And I had the exact reaction to Bridges; my mother was reading it on a visit and I picked it up and I found it hiLARious. Perhaps it was rude of me to read passages aloud, in Mom's presence, through tears and hiccups. :(

  6. I've kept lists on and off (rarely complete) for years. Usually they were in the back of my journals, I would comment in the journal as I read (if it was really interesting), then list in the back. The lists provided me with authors I might want to read more of, and in the case of non-fiction, books I might want to refer to later.

    This is my first year to keep up regularly with my least so far. And the lists of each month let me see where I need to broaden my horizons or read in related areas.

  7. Anonymous5:31 PM

    Would it surprise you to know that I have one of those "Book Woman" journals, too?

    Heh, heh, heh.

    Wonderful post, Susan.


  8. What a wonderful post! I have one of those Book Woman journals too with a book list in it! I love all the stories about each of the books, another good reason to keep track. It would be a shame to lose the memories that are jogged by the book titles.

  9. Diana--remember the part where F. excitedly thinks about how wonderful it is to be having a discussion about literature with old whatshisface? I yelled at the book: "You're talking about MARKETING, stupid."

    JenClair--I've started drawing a line under the number of the last book I read each month. I really wish I could lay my hands on my old diaries. For all I know my sister may have sold them at a flea market for scrap paper.

    Melissa and Stefanie--Nope, I'm not at all surprised that you two have the same Book Woman journal. Are your pages falling out, too? I don't like the thought of transferring everything over to another journal at this point, but sometimes I think I'd better.

  10. Yikes, John, I didn't mean to skip you. No, I wouldn't be surprised. Too many people still don't understand why anyone would want to read a book let alone make a record of it.

  11. Anonymous12:13 PM

    I have a spiral bound Mudlark journal for my books. I like being able to go back and see what sorts of books I have been into. It is interesting to see all the various phases and books, and sometimes I can remember a reason why I read a book or what was happening at the time. I just wish now that I would have written down more than just title author and date!

  12. This is another great multitasking activity I can add when I'm watching TV and eating! Seriously, I'm enjoying getting ideas like these. (And way wowed over the comparison to Lorrie Moore -- there are WORST things in the writing life, to be sure! :) )


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