Why You Should Keep a List of Books You’ve Read

3 minute read

Like most normal people, I don’t keep a list of books I’ve read.

Well, until recently, that is.

As it happens, there have been a few events recently in my life that have combined themselves in such a way as to overcome my resistance to such a mundane task in just such a way, that actually, I’m finding that keeping such a list (or spreadsheet, whatever) might actually be helpful.

In other words, a convergence of events has caused me to stop and consider how I might address this…this…reverse salient.*

Just prior to the end of the year and holiday seasons, I found myself doing some fairly heavy discarding and tidying of my personal book collection**, relying too much on the Marie Kondo ‘does-it-bring-me-joy’ style, (which I’ll readily admit has the distinction of being both terribly cringe-worthy and actually quite a useful metric).

This initial sorting didn’t stop there — if anything, it only gained momentum.

Traveling home for the holidays, I turned my attention to the dusty bookshelves taking up space and bringing me, admittedly, less joy than I was really anticipating (though my signed Drizzt Do’Urden book series felt nice and warm.)

In some cases, these hardcover gems were actually having the opposite effect of bringing me joy — they were reminding me that I still hadn’t read Les Miserables in the original French, the Shelby Foote Civil War trilogy, or Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (I mean, this hasn’t stopped me from allowing people to assume I had read these by their nature of appearing on my shelf. I mean, c’mon, I was a French major after all…).

It was about this same time that I realize I’ve been investing a lot more heavily in ebooks (groan). But the reality is that I’m finding it cheaper, more portable, and every year an improved experience as the technology and software improve and my remaining grouse-worthy objections decline into narrower and narrower gaps.

But finishing a digital book feels so…empty. No weighty trophy to heft and lend to a friend, no spine-tingling sense of accomplishment (the spine belonging to the creased book, obviously).

More than that though, is that finishing a book (any book) is often the first opportunity my brain takes to forget absolutely everything I’ve just read. Including the author…the title…and the book.

So I tried a simple experiment just this once — writing it down.

And then going back and writing down other books I’ve read, and other’s that I remember having read, and further and further down the rabbit hole…

I found that keeping an evergreen spreadsheet of books tackled both recent and long ago helped address three different issues: I can record the inventory of books read for purely logistic reasons (duh), I can ascribe a missing sense of accomplishment in digital book completions (currently anticlimactic), and I am able to tradeoff the disappointment of admitting to myself I didn’t or won’t read a book (damn you, Kondo!) with the justification that I realize I am in fact churning through other books, just not all the classics all the time.

If you’re looking to do this yourself, I suggest keeping it sweet and simple. Stick to the title, the author, the year you read the thing, and perhaps if you’re feeling saucy a rating and/or notes column. For the advanced out there, you could combine with services like Good Reads, but I’ve played with this for a while and haven’t gotten much out of it.

Happy listing, you quantifiable bookworm, you.

Let me know if you have a system like this and it works / doesn’t work, or how wrong I am in all the ways.

  • Reverse salient is a term I’ve (re-)learned from picking up Networks of Power — used to originally to describe a military line’s backward bulge in an advancing line, updated by Hughes to describe more broadly a component in a technical system experiencing insufficient development, setting back the entire system. See…look at that. Books. Nerds. Bam.
  • Well, the dozen or so books I keep on my Ikea (buzz marketing) bookshelves so that I meet the minimum John Waters threshold — “if you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fck them*” — of minimal dating potential should anyone who enters my pizza-rat-sized studio be tempted to be so inclined.