Keeping a List of Books Read (and What This Says About Us)

Rebecca Mead recently published a delightful article in The New Yorker titled “The Pleasure of Reading to Impress Yourself.” She describes unearthing an old notebook in which she recorded the books she had read for several during the 1980s. What she particularly noticed was how heavily it was weighted toward classics of English literature and the pleasure derived from not only having read these books but being pleased with oneself as becoming “a well-read person.”

True confessions time. I’ve kept a list of books I’ve read since 1993, when a colleague made a remark about being deliberate in our choices of good literature since “there are so many books and so little time” and how he recorded not only the books he read but a summary of those books and his response. So I began keeping a list which I’ve kept up to this day, now numbering over 1600 books. Back around 2008, I started supplementing this with reviews posted on an app on Facebook, and when I had problems with this because of one of Facebook’s interminable changes, I started posting those reviews on Goodreads in late 2011, and linking them to this blog, which I began last year. Here was my list from 1993:

1993 Reading List

My 1993 Reading List (click to enlarge)

What strikes me as I look back on this list is that my reading choices were probably driven by a similar motivation–not only to read for information or pleasure but to have the pleasure of being impressed with being well-read.  I remember that it was around this time that I picked up an edition of Clifton Fadiman’s The New Lifetime Reading Plan and started looking for books that I didn’t have. I notice on the list for that year reading Dickens, Dreiser, Forster, Hardy, and both The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer.

It was probably a few years later that I supplemented Fadiman with Eugene Peterson’s book, Take and Read (I just found it on my list for 1996), focusing on spiritual reading. But even in 1993, I noticed taking on Calvin’s Institutes, Newman’s Idea of a University (which I re-read last year) and books by Lewis and Chesterton.

I also noticed that then as now, I was reading lots of history and biographies, including a biography of Lawrence of Arabia, another of Teddy Roosevelt, a history of the battle of Antietam, Landscape Turned Red, and more.

I’m reminded of the good memory of reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s A Long Winter as a family as the winter of 1993-94 began as well as Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

I see some of the books I read for issues we were wrestling with then and (and now) including I Suffer Not a Woman on women in the church and books on race by Cornel West and Perkins and Rice.

As I reflect on this list, I’m struck over and over by the continuity of reading interests, and even authors. I see a book on this list by Jaroslav Pelikan, and I just recently completed another book by this author. Likewise, I am currenly reading James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. I note that I read his book Culture Wars in 1993. Of course authors like Lewis and Chesterton turn up on my lists again and again, as do authors like Dickens and Hardy. I also seem fascinated with books on Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt. Sometimes I give an author a second chance. I thought Gabriel Garcia Marquez kind of strange in 1993. I still thought he was kind of odd when I read him last year, when I discovered that either people absolutely love his stuff, or just don’t get him–I confess I’m in the latter category.

It is fascinating to me how our book lists, if we keep them, serve as a kind of narrative of our lives, and a window into the things that matter to us. These days, I’m not so much into following book lists which, when transferred to my books read, leave me impressed with myself. My book choices reflect curiosity, sometimes serendipity, and sometimes simply returning to authors that have given me pleasure and insight in the past. But they also often remind me where I was when I read a particular book or who I was reading it with as is the case of some from our Dead Theologians reading group, which has met since the late 90’s.

So while it may seem compulsive (which my wife says I can be!) my book lists remind me not only of the books I’ve read but the events of life associated with these. Some evening soon, I need to just sit down with the list and take a walk down memory lane.

Do you keep a reading list or post the books you’ve read on something like Goodreads? What has keeping such lists meant for you?


6 thoughts on “Keeping a List of Books Read (and What This Says About Us)

  1. I came to reading late. Almost flunked 1st grade, unable to read Dick and Jane. My parents were divorcing at this time which most likely contributed to my late start. Always a bad speller and poor reader, college finally opened me up to biographies and history. Still, slow reading kept me from the joy and value of books. My daughter, a single child (now an adult), who has always “inhaled” books, was the spark and inspiration to get me into reading.
    In 2008 I read seven books including, David McCullough’s John Adams, Hamlet, Shoeless Joe, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, and John Grisham’s The Testament.
    I now read between 15 and 25 books a year. As you referenced, and I’ve mentioned a few times on my blog, “So many books, so little time,” (which I understand is a Frank Zappa quote). I make a short list of some of the books I plan to read in the year ahead. Still to come this year are, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, The Presidents Club, Robert Bly’s Iron John, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Pride and Prejudice, David McCullough’s 1776, Sun Yat-sen, Reluctant Revolutionary and The Hunt for Red October. I’m very thankful for book reviews by blogger’s such as you for ideas to add to my list.

    • Great list of books read and to read. One of the things that feeds a love of reading is hearing of the books others have enjoyed! BTW, never realized that quote was from Zappa. Thanks.

  2. Several yrs ago I started keeping a list of the books i read – with pen in a notebook. At one time I also entered a bunch of books I’d read into a facebook app which then ceased to work. (annoying!) I switched to goodreads sometime after that. But my notebook is still my main record. I wish I’d started a record sooner!! I agree, and had never quite thought about it, but yes, “It is fascinating to me how our book lists, if we keep them, serve as a kind of narrative of our lives, and a window into the things that matter to us.” A diary of sorts!

    I was a big reader as a child, decreased a little as a teen, and after the heavy reading for my bachelors degree I needed a break and did not read too much for a several years. Maybe 5 to 10 books a year. Then in my 30’s I slowly began to read more and more. Now I read 40 to 60 books a year.

    Great post!!

    • Thanks, Laura! Actually, I wish I had started the list earlier. I probably read 30 books or so a year in the years after college, a bit more when I was in seminary, and then numbers picked up as our son was out of the home. Glad you enjoyed the post–I did as well as I wrote it.

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