Keeping Track of Reading Habits With a Book of Books

By Pamela Paul

With no small amount of trepidation, I lay open here the first page of my diary — high-­schoolish stabs at intellectualism, fleeting girlish obsessions, deliberately obscure annotations and all. After many failed adolescent attempts at keeping a journal, the summer after my junior year in high school, I finally found a format I could adhere to: Never mind describing the back-and-lack-of-forths of unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends. I decided to list the books I read instead.

And I’ve stuck with this Book of Books, or Bob, as I’ve come to call it, ever since. Were my house to burst suddenly into flames, I would bypass the laptop and photo albums and even, God forgive me, my children’s artwork in order to rescue Bob, the record of every book I’ve read or didn’t finish reading since the summer of 1988.

The impetus for starting my book of books had less to do with recording my life than with documenting what my embarrassingly faulty memory failed to hold on to. I often can’t remember if I’ve read a book or not, nor do I remember the barest substance of those I have. A former beau once demanded to know the hero’s name in “Of Human Bondage” six months after I’d read it. “His object of desire’s name was Mildred,” I answered miserably. Though I’d spent more than 600 pages and nearly a month with the character, I couldn’t for the life of me remember his name. (It’s Philip, if you must know.)

Bob may not reveal the identities of individual characters — all that sort of thing is still lost — but it does show how one book led to another or prompted a total shift in genre. It records whether I’ve read an author before, and if so, when. Why had I left him, and what drew me back? Over the years, it’s become in certain ways even more of a personal record than a diary might be, not about what happened but about how what happened made me think, drove my interests, shaped my ideas.

It’s also become an itinerary of where I’ve been and where I really was while I was there. During my 20s, when I lived abroad and traveled frequently, I would annotate Bob with my location at the time, recording the serendipity of reading a particular book in a particular place. I remember how, lying in a dormitory in Mauriac, an unspectacular hamlet in central France where I was staying on an American Field Service program, I read the subject of the first entry, inspired by Baryshnikov’s performance in “Metamorphosis” on Broadway: “The Trial” (fittingly, an unfinished work).

Location often dictated content. When I backpacked through western China in the early 1990s, I picked up whatever discards I could get from passing travelers — Donna Tartt’s “Secret History”; a middling Tom Sharpe satire; “Ethan Frome.” I remember reading “Moby-Dick” during a lonely holiday on Ko Phi Phi, while most vacationers more reasonably nursed hangovers with potboilers and romance. And reading “A Distant Mirror” in northern France, where I could visit the nearby Château de Coucy.

I admitted to Bob when I read self-help or reread old favorites or tossed aside “Interview With the Vampire” after one chapter, mystified by its raging popularity. Bob knew that I was perennially behind on pop-cultural phenomena, that I read “A Civil Action” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” years after the cocktail-party chatter faded. That I never finished “Paradise Lost” for freshman English. With 24 years of data, Bob reveals as much about my literary foibles, passing curiosities and guilty pleasures as any other diary.

For these reasons, I don’t generally share Bob with others. Whether it stems from envy or disappointment or genuine outrage, other people’s reactions to Bob are almost universally negative. “You’re tallying up books like the ticking off of accomplishments,” one ex-boyfriend accused me, as if I’d admitted to quantifying parental love or indexing my inner beauty. “Hurry, go note it in Bob,” he’d gibe every time I closed a book.

“What does this tell you if you don’t remember anything about the book?” another asked, suggesting an expanded Bob with a page of my impressions of each book in its stead. (That lasted one book; the relationship didn’t last much longer.) “You’re not seriously going to allow books on tape, are you?” demanded a third.

Quite a few people just can’t get past the numbers. I didn’t even think to enumerate my entries until I was somewhere in the 300s, at which point I went back and counted. But I will admit to satisfaction in the growing tally, if also an element of danger: Have I read as many books this March as I did last? What’s my yearly average? What of the long books that slow me down: “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” “The Power Broker,” “The Pickwick Papers”? There’s also the inexorable decline over time, my rate dropping in response to accumulated responsibilities, children to care for, piled-up magazines competing for my attention.

Bob is otherwise showing his age. At some point, I spilled coffee on him; the gray cover is mottled, and one corner is woody and bare. Truly hopeless, I occasionally forget to enter a book I’ve just read. But I always eventually go back, ever faithful, and note the missing volumes.

Shortly after we met, my husband met Bob and came up with his own variation, the Blob (Big List of Books), which he enters into his computer. An upgrade, I ­decided.

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