Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Book Filled with Books

I started keeping a list of every book I read back in the spring of 1990. It was just a cheap notebook from a discount store in Darlington. The shop was called Boyes and it sold everything from linens to strange china ornaments of dogs wearing dresses. I bought two of these cheap 160 page books during the Easter break from college. In one I started writing the early chapters of what eventually became my novel, ‘Does it Show?’ And in the other I decided that I was at last going to keep a record of everything I read.

The first few pages were taken up with a list of everything that I could remember having read already. There’s a wonderful mishmash in those pages of beloved children’s books and entire series and cycles of books: Borrowers and Gummidges and Narnias and Doctor Who’s and Star Treks. There are also half-remembered books, or titles and authors I’m guessing at. There are evidences of more adolescent fads and phases – smatterings of Anne McCaffreys, Frank Herberts, James Herberts and Stephen Kings.

But Easter 1990 was when I started, all afresh, making a list of every book I chose and read for myself. It begins with a lovely combination of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and A.C Crispin writing about Spock and his long-lost son. Right from the start I enjoyed charting the elaborate, resolute zig-zagging of my reading habits. I’d go Nabokov – Baum - Burroughs – Dahl – Wells – Woolf and the logic of it would elude anyone but me at that moment. I would finish a book and see what my eye lit upon next.

Almost twenty four years later and that first book is almost – at last – completely full. It’s a chart in many different shades of ink of everywhere I’ve been inside my head. My handwriting begins orderly and small, very well-behaved, like a school kid keen not to blot his copy book. It goes through wilder, more abandoned phases and settles here and there into something more tidy, with a few elaborate flourishes as the years tick by. It’s only a list of titles and author names. I don’t offer an opinion or a review. Sometimes certain books are marked by a red felt tip dot that signifies extra special approval.

Each season is announced and underlined. Each summer’s reading is enclosed by headings and so are all the Christmases. Some books I have no memory of reading at all. Some titles are completely alien. Others make me cringe that I spent the time and energy and kept going until I finished the last page. Others make me wince that I didn’t try hard enough and gave up halfway through. I usually read about 110 books a year. That’s the average, I’d say.

Twenty three years ago I decided I needed to keep a comprehensive list because I had realized that reading was the most important thing (after writing) that I was spending all my time on. Reading for sheer pleasure, that is. At that point I was coming to the midpoint of my English degree and doing multiple modular courses, each with very heavy and involved reading lists – mandatory, secondary, indicative. There was a lot of reading I had to do, just to get my degree, but I made a decision early in 1990 that I needed to be reading way beyond the limits of my undergraduate course. I decided that I needed to buy a new book – something contemporary or at least twentieth century – every week. That was as much as I could afford both in terms of time and cash. It was about the pleasure of going into WH Smiths (and later that year, Waterstones, when they opened up their shop in Lancaster. They had chandeliers and dark wooden shelves and a fiction section directly underneath a hotel bedroom where Dickens and Wilkie Collins wrote a famous ghost story together.) It was about the pleasure of choosing a book that wasn’t on a reading list. A completely free choice. And in those early months and weeks I made some pretty good choices – almost at random I hit upon Christopher Isherwood, JD Salinger, John Irving.

All those years have gone by and the book has come to a sudden end – with Christmas this year and my anthology reading, and my utter absorption in the Salinger biography by David Shields and Shane Salerno. By flipping through the soft pages of my reading list (pale yellow like sugar creamed into butter when you’re making cakes) I can see where I’ve been and when I was obsessing or when I was excited or dull or disenchanted or enflamed with a new bookish romance. In most cases I can picture where I was sitting – which room, which building, which city – when I read almost anything.

It’s my travel diary.

I’ve been just about everywhere.

But in 2014 I’m starting a new reading diary. A new list. I took ages choosing exactly which book I’d need to write it all down in. The original reading list book is almost falling apart. Its stitched spine has frayed away. But it’s the notebook that’s been with me the longest. It’s always to hand and has been all that time, in a way almost no other book has. So the new one has to be durable and I have to be careful to fill it up with good things.

I’m looking forward to next year’s reading already. My first resolution is no more self-imposed reading lists or reading piles. I’m not going to oppress myself with silly schemes. I’m going to read one at a time and then move onto the thing that next catches my eye – in that moment of dizzy liberation between stories. The very thing that I want to read next, in that moment. That’s how you get the true zig-zagging going on. That excitement of how one book always leads to the next.

And – in true January resolution fashion – let’s try a little self-imposed ban on book buying. Just for a while. I think I’ll spend some time on the stockpiles and all that squirreled-away treasure.


  1. I love the idea of your Book of Books. If I had kept one since I was 10 I would be amazed to see what I had forgotten I had read. I guess that's why I quite like Good Reads as I can haphazardly and belatedly add everything I can remember having read there. Although for now my list is very incomplete.

    1. I feel lucky that - for some reason - I started to keep my book back in 1990. I still wish I'd started it earlier! I've never been tempted to do the Good Reads things. It seems like the bibliophile equivalent of a nudist colony somehow