Naughty or nice? Well, the holidays being my favorite excuse to procrastinate, I’ll have to reluctantly admit to ‘naughty.’ Being naughty, I’ve left my blog entry to the last minute. I’ve had a few New Yearsie ideas I thought I might advance, the kinds of things having to do with resolutions — mostly of the writing variety. But writing has been well enough covered at Black Gate of late and, while I know we have a lot of writers in our audience, I can’t help but think the thing that really pulls us all together, and sets us apart from, well, from a great many people who would never pick up a work of fiction let alone investigate the website of a fantasy magazine, is that we are all readers. First and foremost, that defines us.
But I’ll leave the meditation on what it is to be a reader, and how it changes the way we relate to the world, for another time — or perhaps I’ll just leave it for James Enge as he has been on a philosophical roll lately. Thinking about reading, and my relationship to (or obsession with) books, and thinking about the New Year and the sort of goals and promises we make for ourselves, got me thinking about my reading list.
Maybe you have one, too? Well, if you don’t, now would be the time of year to start. My own list is very simple, a small notebook in which I make note of the title and author(s) of every book I read, as I finish them. I have some rules governing what goes in — for example magazines don’t — and a few other simple notations that let me know if it is a book I am rereading, or a graphic novel, etc. I started keeping it when I turned twenty-one — nine years later I started a second notebook that shows every sign of running out of pages before I’m forty.
I joke about it being an incredibly geeky thing to do, but the truth is I wonder about people that don’t keep lists like mine. I mean, aren’t they greedy for books? Surely their memories aren’t so perfect that they can remember what they read ten years ago? Now, maybe it never occurred to them to keep a list — because maybe they never considered the benefits of a ‘book diary.’
It amazes me that I’ve kept a list as long and consistently as I have. I’m not OCD. I’m not even particularly organized and don’t so much as make notes on a calender or daily planner for any of the stuff I actually should remember — but I’ve never failed to update my list. I wouldn’t do it if there weren’t good reasons to, and if it wasn’t just plain fun.
The most practical of reasons, and one that has proven itself out as more than just theoretical time and again, is the simple need to be able to look up the titles and authors of the books I’ve read. Whether it is to help with reference or research purposes, or just to keep yourself from going nuts trying to remember something you read eight years ago, it pays to have this information at your fingertips. This is especially true with non-fiction, where it is often the case that books on similar topics, many with authors you may not ever read again, tend to blend together upon recollection.
And using a reading list to fulfill one’s reading goals ties in nicely with the New Year. If you’ve ever wanted to read more each year, if you feel like your to-be-read pile is getting the best of you , the list will help. Not only does it provide a bit of positive feedback every time to add another title to it but, in time, it will focus your reading. After years of keeping a list, a picture develops of your reading habits and abilities until each book you select, far from being just a isolated dalliance in a string of the same, becomes part of a whole. Whether you want to spur yourself to getting a handle on the latest best sellers, or think a program of focused reading on a particular topic would make a great way to expand your knowledge, a simple book list is indispensable.
There is danger in this, however. It is very possible to get list-happy — to read like a maniac to achieve an arbitrary number, or to finish bad books just to be able to add them to your total. I’ve been mindful of this since I started — and guilty of it too — but even such temporary mania can fulfill an instructive purpose. I have no doubt that some of the speed reading I’ve done over the years, spurred on by exactly this phenomena, has enormously honed my skills as a reader. Come to think of it, that could be future post, the discussion of reading as a skill that can be developed and trained.
So even moderately crazy digressions, such as the year I challenged myself to read 200 books and came up ten short (!), can’t help but build your reading muscles. But maybe you think muscles are icky, or you scoff at the idea of making lists in a little notebook like Dustin Hoffman on his way to count cards in Vegas. To that I pose the following question: have you ever been part of a group reminiscing about a shared experience — say a vacation — and, when it comes time for you to blurt out what you remember it isn’t the hailstorm on the Thursday you got to the hotel or Uncle Buddy slamming his pinkie in the car door, it’s the book you read that night in an unfamiliar bed while hail plinked outside and Bud’s cursing filtered through the thin wall separating your rooms. If ‘yes,’ then start the list, if you haven’t already got one.
Because the list is really a book diary — not the diary of the books themselves, but your diary through reading. It’s the only diary I’ve ever kept, and quite honestly it seems more than adequate to the task of chronicling my humble days. A look through the list is enough, at least most of the time, to remind me of what was going on in my life at various times. Not only do I see what sorts of things I was reading and thinking about at certain times in my life, and what directions I was moving as a reader, but specific books are linked forever with certain memories of mine. If I had to pick a best reason for keeping a list of this kind, this is it.
But maybe, as has been suggested, I am slightly crazy when it comes to books. What I do know is that, for readers, books are the furnishings of our lives, perhaps even the grammar of our existence. If that’s crazy, then I’ll never stop feeling sorry for the sane as I keep track of life in my little green notebook, one book at a time.
BILL WARD is a genre writer, editor, and blogger wanted across the Outer Colonies for crimes against the written word. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, as well as gaming supplements and websites. He is a Contributing Editor and reviewer for Black Gate Magazine, and 423rd in line for the throne of Lost Lemuria. Read more at BILL’s blog, DEEP DOWN GENRE HOUND.