I’ve been an avid reader since I was a child. I attribute this to two aspects of my upbringing. First, my mother, for as long as I can remember, has been a torrid reader. Throughout my life and to this day, she visits the local library once every two weeks, checks out ten to twenty books at a time, and reads them all. So as a child I’d go with her, and mimic my mom, checking out my own ridiculously large stack of books on a biweekly basis. Additionally, my father established this “one hour” rule when I was in the third grade, whereby which, when I got home from school, I’d have to spend one hour, right away, doing homework or reading, before doing anything else. So for most of my elementary school years, homework was minimal to nonexistent, so I’d have this one hour of reading under my belt before I could go out and play each afternoon. By the time I reached junior high, the habit had settled in. I was used to studying without procrastination, and loved reading.
When I was twenty-three years old, I sat down with one of my best friends and, because we had been reminiscing about various books we’d read over the years, began constructing a list of all the books I could remember reading, title and author. It was written in 0.5mm mechanical pencil in a college-ruled wire-bound notebook made of recycled paper. In that first sitting, I was able to recall probably about two hundred or so titles. Over the course of the next several months, additional books I’d read popped into my mind here and there, and I would jot the title down on a napkin, or the back of my hand, or in the margins of whatever books I was then reading, and then add these titles to my running list in the aforementioned notebook when I got home in the evening.
Then, for the next twelve years, I kept reading, in some periods more voraciously than others, mostly novels, and kept adding these titles to my list.
About one year ago, I began a massive data-mining project I’d long wanted to launch. I built a database of my history as a reader. By this time, I had about 800 books in my collection, the vast majority of which were novels, but also general nonfiction, poetry collections, philosophy texts, biographies, and reference books, and I had them shelved in these categories. So I began there. I created a template database with the following basic fields: author last name, author first name, title, and category. Then I typed into this database, one by one, the title, author, and category of every book I owned. Then I added the following two fields: “own” and “read.” I then added an “X” in the “own” column for each book I’d entered thus far, since I owned copies of each of these. I then went through each book on the handwritten list of all the books I’ve ever read and, if it already appeared in the database (with an “x” in the “own column”), I marked an “x” in the “read” column, thus indicating that I both owned and had read the book, or, if it did not yet appear in the database, I added it, and marked an “x” in only the “read” column, thus indicating that I’d read it, but did not own a copy. That was the basic skeleton of my history as a reader.
But then began the fun part, and the real reason for creating it. I then added the following four fields: when read, where read, when got, and where got. To the best of my ability, I picked my way through the list and tried to recall when exactly I’d read each book that I’d read, and where. Like most readers, I have certain strong memories of reading such-and-such book, for example, during the summer of 1993 mostly on the couch at my parent’s house, or during a long road-trip with my best friend in the fall of 1997, or during my first visit to Amsterdam in 2000. Additionally, like most collectors of books, I have strong memories of where I got certain of my books: bought it used at Moe’s Books in Berkeley in 2006, or got it as a 20th birthday gift from my friend Matt in 1998, or inherited it from my mother’s book collection. So I entered in all of this information the best I could. Of course, there are some books in the database that I have read, but I have no real recollection of precisely when, and I have even less of where in the world I got them, so the pertinent columns of the database remain blank for these books. It’s not a perfect database, but it contains a ton of information, and it’s a living thing: as I continue to read, it grows.
And the reason for building and maintaining it? Someday I’ll have children, and someday (fingers crossed) they’ll become voracious readers of books like their father, and they’ll have at their fingertips the substantial (and still growing) collection of books that I’ve spent my entire life curating. And as I age, and as my memories grow foggier and fade away, or if I should die, there will be this record, so that my future daughter can read George Orwell’s 1984 from her dad’s bookshelf, and can know that the copy in her hands once belonged to her grandmother and that her dad read it when he was a sophomore in high school, so that my future son can read William Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and know that his father bought the copy used at Valley Book Center in Fresno, CA, and read it during a trip to Washington DC when he was in college.
(One major shortcoming of the database is that it’s missing everything I read as a little child, hundreds of books, all the Hardy Boys mysteries, all the Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books, all the Choose-Your-Own Adventures, etc. I had a large box full of these that wound up in the rafters of my parent’s garage. At some point a while ago, I climbed up on a ladder and searched for this box, so I could try to construct a “Children’s Lit” section of my database, but it was nowhere to be found. According to my mom, “I think we gave that box away.” So that’s that.)