Thursday, July 21, 2011

How Do You Remember Books?

Like a typical dude, I just totally blew it on a pretty significant anniversary. But I'm the only one who cares that I missed it, so no harm, no foul, I suppose.

Ten years ago, in early June, 2001, a year out of college, and hoping desperately to devise a way so that all the books I read wouldn't be stowed on the shelf and totally forgotten, I started my "list" — essentially, my book journal. So for the last 10 years, after finishing a book, I sit for 20 minutes or so (longer for better books, usually — I wrote about Infinite Jest for almost two hours) and type out unorganized thoughts about the book. It always must be the day after I've finished reading, to give the book a bit of time to percolate. I'll never start another book until I've finished writing in the list. And I've never shown the list to anyone.

At some level, it's a bit obsessive-compulsive, I grant. However, it's also comforting. What was Augie March's girlfriend's name? What was Amir's big regret in The Kite Runner? Was it liver or roast beef that Portnoy, um, defiles in Roth's novel? Yes, the answers to those questions are trivial and inconsequential to understanding what these books are actually about, but still, to have a place to be able to go back and look up stuff like that eases my mind when I'm reading. (And whether or not we're remembering the specifics of books, they're still adding something to our "worldview," as this fantastic NY Times piece from last year argues. )

In addition, for me, the list has also been hugely beneficial over the last two years as I've read and commented on others' blogs. It's great being able to remind myself whether I agree(d) with what someone's written about a book, and to be add to the conversation more so than "I know I read this, and I think I liked it, but I don't remember specifics. Good review."

So, the list is now 10 years old. After my entry last week on Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, the list has grown to 364 single-spaced typed page. It is 250,744 words. By way of comparison, War and Peace is 568,880 words. Just under halfway there, baby! The first book I wrote about on the list is Rabbit, Run, by John Updike and the first line is "This book started out pretty slow, plotwise, but I really could appreciate Updike’s writing style. His work reads like a manual for any sort of writing student." Man, beyond being downright cringe-inducing, that is some Grade A-mateur analysis, isn't it? 

But I bring up the Ten-Year Anniversary of The List not just to pat myself on the back for keeping this up for 10 years and to open myself up for the potential ribbing that will surely ensue, I also bring it up to find out how others remember books they've read?

I realize the idea of a "reading journal" isn't exactly original, but how do you keep yours? What personal flavor does your journal have? Other than just storing your titles on GoodReads, what have you found to be effective for remembering the particulars of books you've read? Let me know — I'm excited to hear about what other readers do.


  1. I use my LibraryThing account to save quotes from each book I read. The quotes remind me not only of characters and important themes, but of the author's style.

  2. Maintaining a list like that for ten years is pretty commendable, Greg. I guess it goes to show a true love for literature usually lasts a lifetime. (Not that ten years is a lifetime, but you're certainly well on your way.)

  3. Great post Greg. To be honest, I've asked myself that question before and that is one of the main reasons I started my blog.

  4. I have an actual reading journal that has pre-formulated questions about plot line, favorite characters, quotes, etc. I typically do a plot synopsis just so I remember how the book ends, but I find whenever I've gone back to look at an entry, it still isn't jogging my memory. So perhaps my method isn't working so well!

  5. I'm impressed with your list both that you have such a list and that it's been going for 10 years. The closest I've come to remembering what I've read is looking on my bookshelves to see what I have. Otherwise my blog is my way to remember.

  6. That's why I started blogging.

    When I was in high school we had to fill out these forms in English class for every book we read. They contained basic stuff: plot, characters, themes, settings. I still have those in a notebook, and when it came time to study for my M.A. exams, I used a similar methodology, a form that I filled out for every book. I have those in disk format, printed out in a notebook, and on a LiveJournal so that my classmates and I could read each others' thoughts on the books. Obsessive? Yes, a bit. I think that a lot of us bookish types are a little obsessive, but why spend all that time reading if you aren't going to remember it?

  7. I love the idea of a reading journal. I was hoping that would be what my blog would become and maybe it is. Loved this post and congrats to you for 10 years of books journal.

  8. I'm with Red. I look at my bookshelves and go, Oh. Yeah, I think I read that. It's pretty lame, but I also don't know if I could keep a journal for very long either. Very admirable.

  9. For the last few years I've kept a list of books I've read, with just the date finished and a short blurb about the plot. When I started my blog, I kept it up for several months, but I haven't thought to add any of my most recent books in it. Between Goodreads and blogging I find myself having a better grasp on remembering what I've read.

  10. If you're not going to pat yourself on the back, I will. Ten years of doing anything consistently is impressive. I'm one of the sell outs who reviews for Amazon (books only), so I guess that's my "journal."

  11. I used to keep a diary all through middle school and high school and would keep my thoughts on books read in there. Now it is a combination of what star rating I give a book on Goodreads and the reviews I write on my blog. Every once in awhile I'll look at the ratings I've given something on Goodreads and wonder why I liked or hated it so much and it will prompt me to go back and read my review.

    I think its awesome you've managed to keep a reading journal for that long :)

  12. Ten years? Holy mother of pearl. You might be my new hero. Sheesh, I'm stoked that I've kept my blog alive for a year :)

  13. For somebody who's got a foul memory, I have a great one when it comes to books or music or movies. If I have read a book; but haven't read it lately, I'll just have a look at the blurb on the back or inside cover and it'll usually jog my memory or why I loved it - or not - and I can then talk about it.
    Movies are the same. No matter how long ago I saw them, I can usually remember the plot (if not the actors who were in them) and tell you the basic storyline and why I have them on dvd (and let me tell you, I have a pretty extensive dvd collection; so much so, I have had to buy an Index book and put them into some kind of order! My Dad is very impressed at how organised I am with them!).
    But my books are normally kept - by title - in a reading list book that I've kept going for the last 10 years. If I love them, I'll know why, if I don't and haven't finished them I'll put two letter next the title and author - UF - to signify that I didn't finish the book; so I know I didn't finish it when people ask me if I did I can tell them.
    Otherwise the only way I now know that I have been able to keep track of the books I read - which is the best way for me in today's world, and I'm thankful - is through my blog. I am so thankful I have found Blogger and how to work out the techniques of it so I can put across how I feel about books and so I know whether I've read a book or not; plus it's a lot of fun to put a post together with the pictures and all.

  14. Like others have said, this is why I started blogging. I SUCK at keeping a journal. I've tried, and it peters out after a few books. The blogging form of journaling seems to be working, as I'm coming up on three years. I wish I had your discipline.

  15. That's incredible! Well done. I started one a while ago but it was on paper and I lost the journal so it fell out of practice. Perhaps if I did it on the computer that might help? Then again, I kind of do that already on my blog.

    Half way to War and Peace. You're a legend.

  16. I love this idea.

    Back in late 2006 I started keeping a list of books I'd read that year. I didn't think to do it until pretty late in the year so I had to wrack my brain a bit for what books I read that year (and I'm sure I accidentally included some of the borderline ones from 2005). But I didn't take the listing any further than that. I still don't really though I find reviews much easier to write (and much more engaging and thorough) if I'm taking notes along the way. The problem is I don't keep the notes in a designated book journal (though I have one, I just keep forgetting to use it). I love the dedication behind your process. And amazing that you've stuck to it for 10 years now. Happy anniversary ;)

  17. 10 years! Way to go Greg! I review every book I read on my blog, so I guess it's all here on the internet - like you I often check back before making a comment on someone's blog and find myself thinking 'oh yeah, that's right, that's what I thought about that book' as well as cringing at my terrible writing! I also have a beautiful book journal that I was given as a gift - each page has a section at the top for writing the title, author etc, and then blank spaces for writing quotes, thoughts etc. Each page also has a quote from a book about reading which is lovely. I use it to write down passages or sentences that really moved me. I like to re-read them, it's like my personal book of inspiration.

  18. This (my bad memory when it comes to the tons of books I read over the years) is the very reason why I started my book blog. Thing is, no matter how much I try to write about a book (my recent reviews are over 2000 words), I never feel I got its "spark", and I always feel like I'm missing something.

    Perhaps a list of preformulated questions could help? No idea. It probably wouldn't hurt either, so if anyone could point me in the direction of such a list I'd be sure to give it a try :)

    Last but not least, congrats Greg on your anniversary -- you've been keeping at it for a decade now, does it sound cool or what? :)

  19. It was definitely not roast beef! That made me laugh, deep and hard and long. Thank you for the Friday gift. Cheers, Kevin

  20. Thanks Kevin for this great post. In my younger years, I used to write down by hand all the interesting passage I loved in a book, and I still have dozens of notebooks. More recently, I have stopped doing this, and only type a few quotations when they really strike me - I save them now for my reviews as excerpts, or they are short I post them on twitter or in a Facebook Note. My blog has been a great help to remember about books. Interesting example: a few weeks ago, I read The Dead, a novella by James Joyce, for the upcoming August Novella Challenge. Instead of writing my review and save it as draft, which would have been he smart thing to do, I waited to write my review, and now I have to read it again, because I just can't remember a thing of it!! Thanks for sharing your practice, I may steal it for my own discipline. Emma @ Words And Peace

  21. Great post! I'm not OCD about the books I've read (ask me about wine I've consumed, and you'll get another response). I do track in Goodreads, and limit myself to ~100 words remembrance.

    Fortunately, the anniversary was with someone who can't talk back, so I think you're fine. It is the "Tin" anniversary, whatever that means. If I bought my wife "tin" she'd throw it back at me.

  22. That is fantastic that you've been doing it for so long. I only wish I'd started doing the same earlier on!

  23. Greg, this is one of my favorite posts ever. There is a method to your madness--you give yourself time to process what you've read, then think it through by writing about it. Pretty brilliant, I think. I have a tendency to just start a new book as soon as I finish one. What you are doing makes sense to me (and I agree with everyone else, your word count is impressive). I've never heard of anyone else approaching a book journal quite this way, but apparently it works for you. That might explain why your reviews are so good!

  24. @Jenny - That's a great idea - saving quotes to help yourself remember the author's style. I save quotes too, but they're more little snippets I thought were interesting than try to tell myself anything useful about the author or to remember the book itself.

    @Brenna - Hey, thanks. Put it this way, the 10 years after college actually do feel like a wholly different lifetime than the time before I graduated college - so I'll buy your premise!

    @Man - Yep, the blog is a good way too. Definitely one of the reasons I started mine too - not just to remember my own thoughts about books I've read, but to find out what others think too.

    @A Super Girl - Don't feel bad - my entries don't always completely jog my memory either. Sometimes, supplemental, online plot summaries are required. And sometimes it's simply because my ramblings were so unfocused, they don't make a whole lot of sense anymore - like someone who can't read their own handwriting.

    @Red - Thanks! Of course, I do a lot of browsing on my own past bookshelves, too - but the reading journal's a good, nerdy "cross reference" if I find something interesting and want more information. ;)

    @LBC - That's very cool how you and your classmates shared information - and in a standardized way. Great idea! I'm sure that was a huge help for everyone studying for the test!

  25. @SenoraG - Thanks! The biggest difference to me between my journal and the blog is that I actually spend some time trying to craft some public-ready writing for the blog. The journal is just for me, so it's a mess. I'd be embarrassed to show it to anyone, ya know?

    @Home - Thanks. The OCD has helped tremendously to keep it up. Otherwise I'd be like my parents who accidentally read the same book they did last year because they forgot they read it.

    @Heather - Yeah, I've often wondered since I started the blog and GoodReads, if those we'd be enough and I could let the list slide. But I'm so emotionally invested in it now, I can't! It's part of the family now. ;)

    @Christine - Thanks - much appreciated! I post on Amazon once in awhile, too, but the feedback there is infrequent and often infuriating!

    @Holly - That seems like a good system. Funny thing is, when I was going back through the list to populate my GoodReads account from the list, I actually had trouble with star ratings because it wasn't always clear how much I'd really liked the book enough to rate it. So if I could go back and do one thing over again, it'd be to do a better job telling myself exactly what I thought.

    @Natalie - That's no small feat either - congrats! I couldn't believe my blog had made it to a year, either...

  26. @Mozette - Ah, to be blessed with such a memory. You're a lucky one, indeed! I think maybe, in my case, the list is one of the reasons I'll always finish books - because even if I hated it all the way through, I'll be able to vent to the list that I hated it, and that kind of makes it worthwhile.

    @Sandy - Three years - wow! That's IS discipline. Yeah, to me the blog is less to try to remember books and more to try to start a conversation about them. But I understand the idea of blogging as journaling, too. To each, his/her own!

    @Kath - Thanks. Yeah, this thing's made it through four different computers - I've almost lost it a few times due to computer failures, but now make sure to always back up to the cloud. Well done on hitting the half way point! I'm scheduling myself to start it in September. Looking forward to discussing it!

    @booklush - Definitely agree that it's easier to write about a book - in whatever form, blog or journal - if you take notes along the way. I wish I was better about that - my method is to just throw a post-it onto a page with an interesting quote or idea I feel like I should remember. That doesn't always work, but it works well enough, ya know? ;)

    @mummazappa - Ha - isn't the cringing thing at writing you'd done in the past funny? As I was writing this post, I did go back and look at several early entries in the list, beyond just the one I put above. Oh man, most of the time I had no idea what I was talking about. I'm impressed that 10-year-ago-Greg could even read! ;) And that book journal gift sounds fantastic - something that's easy to keep and an easy memory-jog.

    @Kay - A decade. Makes me feel old, frankly. ;) Definitely one of the benefits of the list, and the fact that I know no one will ever see it but me, is that I don't have to limit myself to a word count or form or anything like that. With that pressure off, it's much easier to just write what I want, and then I feel like it's a lot easier to "distill the essence" of a book. Then, it's even easier to actually write a review - as the ideas or the "spark" of the book sort of emerges organically. But I realize this is more work than most people would probably want to put into every book they read. :)

  27. @interpolations - Ha, yeah, I know. Couldn't resist the comedy value of that line.

    @wordsandpeace - Steal, away. Yeah, I'd agree that blogging has also helped me remember books much better than just doing the list. I think the main reason for that is spending the time to think your way through a review - and then discuss that review with commenters - really helps seat the main ideas of the book in your brain. And you're right, if you don't do it right away, those ideas seem to flee! ;)

    @Clinton - Tin, eh? Hadn't realized that. There's tin in beer cans, right? Perhaps that'll be my anniversary gift to myself!

    @Amy - Thanks! No time like the present...

    @Lisa - ...and this is one of my favorite comments ever. Thanks for the very kinds words - you've made my day!

  28. Greg, since I've been keeping my blog and keeping a reading list (a book of titles of books I've read; even if I haven't finished them and only gotten 50 pages in, I'll still write them in to say that I had a go), I've had a better memory at knowing what I've read and what I haven't.
    My collection has swelled from 100 books (when I moved into my townhouse 8 1/2 years ago) to 950 at present and four bookcases! And the collection is still growing! I'm so amazed how fast this collection has grown; the good thing is that I've managed to keep it in one room; and one room only and hope to keep it that way.
    I'm coming up to an exciting time of my life where I'm reading exactly what I want; instead of what needs to be read... and that's exactly where I want to be in my life.
    Blogging has made remembering what I've read a lot easier that when I had to try to remember without the internet. And the new 'search' feature has made it even more fun! :D

  29. Ten year anniversary! Congrats! No small achievement, so good job. I have a reading journal which I have kept since 1994 (once a nerd, always a nerd), but it is not very detailed. Just title, author, and Fiction or non-Fiction. I went through a brief craze of putting ISBNs as well, but that didn't last long.
    I hope you keep it up as you have. This sounds like it will be a really document of your own reading history. Kudos to you.

  30. I agree with the others--congratulations are in order. I kept a similar list for a year and had trouble maintaining momentum even though I'd promised myself I only had to do it for twelve months. I wish I could go back ten years, smack my 21 year old self in the head, and say "start keeping a list, you idiot, 31 year old you will thank 21 year old you." Aside from the value of the record of your reading, I'd be curious to hear if your writing has changed over that time? Maybe focusing on that change could be a starting point for getting back into your fiction?

  31. I actually visit Barnes and Noble and buy one of those fancy expensive lined journals with an attractive cover. When I have random, spur-of-the-moment thoughts about a book I'm reading, I jot it down in the journal and refer to it later when I write up the review. I *could* make notes about the book on my Android device, but I love the tradition of writing notes on paper. As far as keeping track of the books I read, I keep stats on my website in addition to a separate journal that lists the book title and author of each book I read on a yearly basis.