On Recording a Reading History

A question posed at the recent “L.M. Montgomery and Reading” conference gave me cause to reflect on my own reading. The question followed an address – I believe it was the keynote by Emily Woster. Why, the questioner wondered, did Montgomery not keep a record in one place of all her reading?

The question was speculative, but engaging, and piqued my interest. Why indeed?

In the preceding address, as well as throughout the conference, we heard about the many ways in which Montgomery documented her own reading: she used numerous literary allusions and quotations in her fiction, wrote about and reflected upon books she’d read in her journals, and peppered many of her letters with discussions about books with her correspondents.

She read widely and prolifically, and some would say indiscriminately. For someone who has made it a point to preserve so many other important records, why didn’t she in this, too?

Had Montgomery kept a running list somewhere of books read along with the date of completing them, it would have made the job for scholars and readers much easier in trying the piece together her reading history.

It was then I reflected on my own reading and record of it.

Since I was a child, I’ve been keeping track of my reading in one form or another. Most of it was unintentional: I wrote about my reading in the journal I’ve been keeping since I was 9. That’s the main place (like Montgomery in her own journals) where my reading has been recorded. At one point, I started going back through my old journals to try and re-create my reading history, but didn’t get very far, perhaps because of the sheer volume of them.

But I’ve also compiled lists over the years – some on paper, others on the computer. The most lasting and complete list of all, however, is within a Book Notes Journal with a section of “Books Read.” It begins with  my having finished Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso on December 20, 2005 (required reading for an undergrad Canlit course) and is full of both books read for school and leisure, which cover two degrees and numerous life experiences spanning almost a decade. As I looked back at it, it was interesting to find that I’d recorded 33 readings of books by or about L.M. Montgomery, including the five volumes of her Selected Journals, several collections of her short stories, and three re-readings of The Blue Castle.

The final entry in my “Books Read” list ends with Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White from June 9, 2014, in the last allotted space. It’s been over four years, then, since I’ve kept a consistent, hard copy record of my reading. This has made me feel uneasy over the years, I’ve reflected: like there was something incomplete when I’ve finished a book. Perhaps it’s because I recorded my reading for so long in this way, which I’ve since realized is quite ritualistic.

I wonder what is behind this urge to record my reading history? And what about that question in the Q&A personally affect me so much, to the degree that it inspired me anew to try and re-create my own reading history?

Not long after I got back from the conference, I got to work.

When in school, I usually have little time for reading other than my course work or books directly related to my research, so it was fortunate that soon after that last entry in 2014, I started a two-year MFA, making it relatively easy to start reconstructing a list from course readings. (I’d also kept a spotty record, which helped.)

During that time, I’d also continued to write in my journals, so I searched those,  too, particularly those from after I had finished my degree and had “leisure” time in which to read again. I was delighted to find in them traces of many books I was reading, thoughts I had on them, and dates of completion. Going back four years isn’t that long, so my memory also helped where there was no written record. And I have a personal library that I’ve been able to scan my shelves for the spines of books I’ve read relatively recently (though I have to check to make sure there isn’t a bookmark still in them – I’ve also tended to begin many books that I intend to finish one day, but have to re-shelve when the teetering pile beside my bed gets too high).

I completed my search through my journals last week, selecting a new, hard cover notebook which I’m dedicating exclusively to keeping track of my book reading. It has a mauve cloth spine, three gilt edges, and boards decorated with flowers that look like Queen Anne’s Lace, laced with purple and gold. I’d bought the attractive blank book years ago without an intended purpose in mind, though I was confident I’d discover one.

As I opened its pages and began copying in my best handwriting the reconstructed list that I’d compiled temporarily in a computer file, there was almost a sacredness as I wrote. I’d carefully counted the lines before beginning, to ensure my formatting worked: two columns, with three lines for title, writer, date and a space in between each entry, and a margin between the two columns, which I created by meticulously measuring the half-way point of the width of the page in three different places and connecting these with a ruler and pencil.

I wasn’t sure at the time the reason for the solemnity of this ritual, though I felt it keenly. Maybe it has something to do with the other kinds of events we dignify with writing a name and a date by hand: a birth, a death, a marriage. There’s some semblance of the impact that both reading and vital events can have on a life. I don’t want to (quite) equate books with people, but their impact on us can be just as profound.

Again, I return to wondering why I feel the urge to record my own reading. Perhaps to mark this significant aspect of my life. Perhaps to preserve my own history. I don’t presume that others will one day be scouring my journals for a reading history, the way we are interested in doing with Montgomery’s for her reading. What’s the motivation behind preserving my own record, then?

I feel like I’m only just dipping into the possibilities. I’d love to hear your own thoughts on the subject.

Question: How (and using what mediums) do you record your own reading? Any thoughts on your urge to do so?