I’ve kept a reading diary since 2008. I’ve filled four fat notebooks so far, each taking from eighteen months to two years to fill, with about a page apiece of notes on the books I’ve finished. The entries are mostly about the books I read for pleasure: not the critical reading I do for work, since those notes usually go straight into my laptop. These are the notebooks that live beside my bed and go on holiday with me, that collect my life in books.
When a notebook is finished, I index it. Why would I bother? It’s extraordinarily useful, if I’m working on a novel or an author, to know that I have read a particular title, that I had something to say about it, and it’s in that diary there. Filling in the index used to be a bit of a chore, but now I’m doing it for the fourth time, it’s getting rather interesting. I can recall my life by the books I read, why I read them (often for podcasting, sometimes for teaching), and I watch with fascination as the titles mount up and I realise how often I’ve been reading certain authors.
I can now see by the long list of Ivy Compton Burnett titles that I went through a phase of reading her novels addictively, though now I can’t recall anything to distinguish between them. When I added China Miéville to the index for the first time, I realised, appalled, that I had only discovered him two years ago. In contrast, I see I haven’t read, or recorded reading, any Stella Gibbons for six years, and I seem to have read far more Antony Hope than I can remember.
I can track the years when I was writing up research on P G Wodehouse, from a positive infestation of Wooster in the Ws. There are great swathes of time when I was browsing on Jules Verne, interpolated with outbreaks of H Rider Haggard and an oasis of Barbara Pym. For three solid weeks I was reading nothing but Terry Pratchett and Valentine Williams. I break off from indexing to write emails to friends, because their books that I borrowed and wrote about in the diary remind me that I want to see them again.
The discoveries aren’t all happy. I rediscovered the books I read while I was going through hospital treatment (comfort reading, mostly, and a very depressing novel about Henry James’s mentally ill sister), and the books by best-selling, trumpeted, acclaimed authors who I never want to bother with again (Tom Sharpe, Beth Patillo). I’m reminded of the novels I gave up on with indifference, boredom, or revulsion, and of authors for whom I had a brief intense craze and just as quickly tired of (Donna Leon).
Nice serendipities are being created in the Index. Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is next to H P Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulu, and I feel they would understand one another. I think John Welcome and H G Wells would get on quite nicely, but not, perhaps, Evelyn Waugh and Mary Webb. Desmond Cory and Noel Coward would make a good thriller double act, all suavity and deadly action.
I have struggles over how to order the books: is Elizabeth Von Arnim V or A? Sylvia Townsend Warner: T or W? My system for arranging them on my own bookshelves (A and W), has to take account of book heights, and the book spines one does not want to gaze at every mealtime. To solve this, my bookshelves keep the fiction books within the capital letter of the author’s surname, and books by the same author sit together, but Jane Austen sits happily beside Isaac Asimov and is placed before Margery Allingham; Trollope and Thirkell are side by side because they are both of Barsetshire; Neil Gaiman sits in the tallest G shelf because Stardust requires the height. Modern hardbacks, bought because we can’t wait for the new Lindsey Davis or Barbara Kingsolver paperback, lie stacked on their sides in sequence, spines outward, making an author-themed bookend for the next letter.
I am stricter with the index than the shelves because I value its perfect alphabetical workings. (I no longer make the indexes for the books I write: I would rather pay the worker’s hire than lose three weeks of my life and sanity to get the job done properly, and I can recommend an excellent indexer in South Carolina if anyone is interested.) I am meticulous about Mac being indexed in its proper place in the alphabet, with Mc coming shortly afterwards, never the Macs and Mcs lumped in together in a ghetto of clan squabbles (but on the shelf, Colin MacInnes and Helen McInnes sit next to each other). I have a mildly dyslexic blur over the order of R, S and T, so it takes me a long time to be sure that Jan Morris and Alan Moore come before J B Morton. Molly Keane is taking charge of all the M J Farrells, because I prefer to use her real name.
In six years I appear to have read around 800 titles, several of them several times over, in my spare time. The most-read authors are Elizabeth von Arnim, E F Benson, Ann Bridge (out of horrified fascination rather than pleasure, but still), Charles Dickens, Georgette Heyer, Antony Hope, Storm Jameson, Barbara Kingsolver, Rudyard Kipling, Terry Pratchett, Barbara Pym, Arthur Ransome, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Mary Stewart, Josephine Tey, Jules Verne, H G Wells and Virginia Woolf. Those I’ve been reading a lot for book-writing purposes are Una L Silberrad, Rose Macaulay, Angela Thirkell, Dornford Yates, John Buchan, Valentine Williams and P G Wodehouse. My To Be Read pile currently holds none of those authors at all, and several who are still alive.