Years ago, when my daughter, now in university, had just started elementary school, my sister gave me a blank book for Christmas. Physically, it is a lovely object: spiral-bound to lie flat for writing in, about a hundred sheets, with a reproduction of Monet’s Water Lilies on the smooth hard cover. Several times in my life I had attempted to keep a diary, but the entries tended to get bogged down in day-to-day trivia, and the truly momentous events kept me too distracted to bother.
With this blank book I began, instead, keeping a reader’s journal, logging every book I read, either to myself or out loud to my daughter. My intention, then, if memory serves, was simply to record which authors we liked or disliked, to help me remember who to search for or avoid in library or bookstore. In the beginning, the entries were minimal: title, author, date finished, with at most a sentence or two (often not even that) about the story and what I liked or disliked about it. The first year (2003), covering forty-five books, about half of them children’s books, took up all of eleven pages.
But the entries grew as I kept adding to it. Sometimes, a terse statement along the lines of “police procedural, with too abrupt an ending,” wasn’t enough to trigger any memory of the plot or characters. So I started adding synopses, and going into more depth, and outgrew the original blank book. Now, for the first six months of 2017, my reading log takes up fifty-five pages in a subsequent, fatter volume.
But what’s the point, you may ask. Why bother? Putting pen to paper, and forcing a coherent analysis of the good and bad points of any work is always a useful exercise in critical thinking, and the log has helped me hone my own writing. I’ve become a more careful reader, I can more easily articulate what aspects of a story matter to me, and I’ve built a catalog of examples, both good and bad, of plot twists, character development, scene descriptions, etc. to refer to when I need help on my own stories.
Isn’t this a bit too much like writing book reports for school? Well, no, because I’m not being graded on it and I’ve never had any plans to show it to anyone else. My log is all about what attracts or repels me, and what repels me may be—often is, apparently—what someone else is looking for.
Looking back through my log triggers a flood of nostalgia. The lists of children’s books bring back fond memories of reading to my daughter. Notes on other books evoke strong memories of other things going on in my life at the time. I listened to the audiobook version of Sandra Brown’s The Crush on the Garden State Parkway commuting to a job I hated. Watership Down helped us through a case of traveler’s tummy in a guest house in Hyderabad, India. I lay on a leaking air mattress in a rental soon after we arrived in New Zealand (our furniture was in storage while we looked for a house) and read Alison Goodman’s Two Pearls of Wisdom with the Wellington wind whipping clouds past the windows of our flat.
So in a sense I’ve kept a diary after all, measuring my life in units of books read. My only regret is that I didn’t start keeping this log decades earlier.