Tracking a Decade of Reading: What I’ve Learned

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In January 2005, on a whim, I created a spreadsheet with four simple columns: Title, Author, Genre, Month Read. I wasn’t sure I’d keep up with this record, but it seemed worthwhile and was simple to maintain, evolving as I added columns to track other details and eventually migrating the whole thing from Excel to Google.

This week, I was updating the sheet for December and realized: somehow, ten years — and almost 500 books — have gone by since that first entry (Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, if you’re interested). Which means I’ve been tracking my reading now for just over a quarter of my life.

To be fair, I only tracked books, not individual articles, essays, or stories, and undoubtedly there are holes here and there in my notes. Still, it’s a pretty solid account, so I spent some time this week reflecting on why this milestone has meaning for me.

The most obvious thing is that it’s enormously satisfying to have a tangible record of my own intellectual development. First of all, because I’m a Listmaker (if the reading record is Exhibit A, let’s call this Exhibit B: I’ve been tracking Christmas cards sent and received since 1997). So all those rows and columns are a thing of beauty in and of themselves — but more to the point, they’re a record of something that’s become increasingly important to me.

I think most of us realize that we’re in a state of change, but it happens with a relative lack of awareness — like how you still think of your niece as a baby but then see a new pic of her on Facebook with her hands in her pockets, gazing off into the middle distance, and you think, wait, when did she turn into a toddler? It sneaks up on you, is what I’m saying. But keeping a list of what I’ve read and my responses to those books over the years is like a Facebook Timeline consisting solely of my literary encounters.

Instead of remembering myself as I think (or maybe wish) I used to be, I’m seeing myself as I actually was. Reviews I wrote ten years ago startle me with their naivete, as does the relative lack of breadth and depth in my reading lists. I’m embarrassed by some of the things I read and wrote in 2005, but that’s the whole point, right? I might still be there if I hadn’t had those experiences. But I did, and so I’m not. The parameters of my inner life have exploded.

The first few years, I read mostly fiction, religion, and memoir/biography. While fiction remains my first love, I’m now as likely to read science, philosophy, history, and poetry.

My theological interests have shifted away from conservative Christianity to a progressively broader range of perspectives, including Quaker spirituality, Judaism, Islam, Eastern philosophies, humanism, and atheism.

I’m far more interested than Ten-Years-Ago-Me in memoirs and biographies of people to whom I don’t immediately relate, or who have significantly different backgrounds from mine.

Prior to 2005, for various reasons I was stuck in the old trope that the classics were older and therefore better than contemporary fiction. Today, while I’m still reading classics (2015 is the year I finally tackle Proust), I have a soft spot for debut novels, scout out the IndieNext lists, and live-tweet the National Book Awards.

In the last ten years, I’ve discovered (to name a few in no particular order): Iris Murdoch. Kazuo Ishiguro. Ruth Ozeki. A.S. Byatt. Peter Geye. Wendell Berry. Mary Gordon. Shirley Hazzard. Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Louise Erdrich. Jose Saramago. Jhumpa Lahiri. Emily St. John Mandel. Joan Didion. Richard Powers. Jill Lepore. Mary Oliver. David Mitchell. Timothy Schaffert.

It would be a challenge to identify specifically how each of these writers has enlarged my perspective, and the truth is that they (and many others) are all mingled up in there, still influencing each other’s works in ways I don’t yet realize.

I’ve also revisited some old favorites during the last decade, finding new meaning in Heraclitus’ aphorism: “you can never step into the same river twice.” Since a book exists somewhere in the space between what the author wrote and the experience of the reader, no two people read the same book; but it’s also true that you can’t read the same book twice. It’s not just that you observe things on a second reading that you missed on the first; you’re not the same person you were when you first read it (aka, all those new writers having conversations in your head). So even the same old words have a new shape or heft to them on each go around.

Where I used to make a moral judgement, I’m now more interested in understanding the experiences that led a writer or character to take a certain action. I find myself empathizing with characters I didn’t understand or like before. My old black and white vision has gone gray, which turns out to be a brilliant rainbow of perspectives.

Legitimate question: Are the books changing me, or am I changing the kinds of books I read? Yes. And therefore yes. Each encounter leaves something behind that may or may not shift the balance toward the next selection.

Here’s what I mean. Lately I’ve been working to articulate my core values, the essential aspects of my being, and “intentional” and “curious” are two words to which I keep returning. Reflecting on the record I’ve kept, I see curiosity at work, delving into specialized topics I wasn’t fully aware of being interested in (like biographical details of twentieth-century scientists, and the inner lives of fabulous old ladies, fictional or otherwise). Keeping a record has also helped me to discover gaps I might otherwise not have noticed, and therefore be more intentional about how I want to grow as a reader (like how I set a goal last January to read more works by authors writing in languages other than English, and as a result, more than ten percent of the titles I read in 2014 were works translated from Portuguese, German, Flemish, Dutch, and Korean).

So while the essence of who I am (curious, intentional, etc.) hasn’t changed over the last decade, the content and context of who I am has grown, partly as a direct result of my reading. I’ve been thinking of it as a geological process, intellectual bedrock slowly reshaped by the more powerful forces of literary water and wind. The curve of my internal shoreline, the height and angles of my cliffs and caves are shifting, grain by grain, as the pages turn.

That something critical (namely, my inner life) is being sculpted as I read instills a sense of reward, and of responsibility — to seek both breadth and nuance as I go, to welcome a diversity of experiences, knowing that they will shape my own.

How much more will my view of the world have widened by the time I’ve mapped another decade of reading?

  • Mar

    I suspect you ‘ll be molded and sculpted many times over in the next decade and I’ll be watching and wishing it was me.

  • Read with me! Always willing to share my reading lists. :)

  • David Odegard

    I enjoyed this article. I wish now that I had tracked my reading over the last decade. I have kept detailed financial records since I was 17 (I plead the fifth, IRS), and sometimes I look over old expense sheets to see where I spent money. I am always surprised at the memories invoked: old girlfriends, vehicle problems, gifts. What a great way to track your intellectual pursuits. BTW, I see Wendell Berry on your list, I lead somewhat of a Wendell Berryesque existence on my hobby farm. I like his poetry and his dedication to work his land as a metaphor of God’s working him. If you haven’t read, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, I recommend it to you. Thank you for sharing

  • Nadine

    This is a great article and has inspired me to start my own. Can we see your spreadsheet?

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