A Diary that Isn't Embarrassing: On Completionism and List-Keeping

I’m sure this happens to everybody—it’s interesting to watch the way my recreational reading habits change based on where I’m living or working or going to school. I mean this at a really basic, technical level—any time I’ve been in an academic program I’ve been more accepting of “for fun” books I don’t immediately love, because I’m more used to reading on assignment. Having a substantial train commute in New York makes me get through books faster than ever before, so I spend fewer days in each fictional world—though the time I have in each is more concentrated and intense. When I worked in trade digital production I read a lot of ebooks; now mostly print copies. When I lived in Florida and was taking a lot of long walks, I had my first and only brush with listening to fiction on audiobook—and discovered that my easily distracted attention and strong opinions on narrative voice make me a terrible fit for what I’m sure is a totally fine medium.

One consistent peculiarity of my reading habits since 2012 is that I keep a list of every book I read, listen only by title, author, and date completed and broken up only by year. It’s in a giant (for its purpose, at least) and hard-covered notebook, so I suppose there’s an unspoken goal of keeping this going in the very long term. But I never, that I recall, made a conscious decision to start this, and I don’t have an endgame. I do number the entries, restarting at 1 every January 1st, so I suppose I’m keeping track of how much I’m reading each year—and there’s a gentle sense of competition with myself to keep up the pace, especially now that I’m not in grad school anymore and don’t have the same external pressure to do so. But reading isn’t a hardship or a chore for me, and I don’t (consciously…more on this in a minute) read more for the sake of being able to list more books, so the idea of an incentive doesn’t really make sense. And though I’m meticulous about keeping the list up to date, I feel no obligation—internal or external—to read certain books and/or not others in order to protect the “integrity” of the list. Nobody else ever reads it, but not because it’s a secret—only because, I mean, who would.

I don’t really know why I do this, but I do have some theories. One is that when I was a kid I was for some reason obsessed with Art Garfunkel, and he does what is, I have to be honest, a very obnoxious version of this. I don’t remember wanting to emulate him—I mean in book-list keeping; I definitely wanted his fashion sense—and even if I had there was a decade-long gap between seeing Artie’s list and starting my own, but surely his pretentious/weird/somehow endearing(?) example has something to do with it. And in psychoanalyzing Art Garfunkel—at that safe and judgy remove—I’m able to see that I must be after the same thing he seems to be: it's an attempt to make a somehow active legacy out of the potentially passive hobby of reading; to quantify something important that can feel fleeting and intangible. It’s a weird impulse, but I think one that makes psychological sense. And as with all such attempts, it's so doomed to failure it's not even sad to say so—what's the goal, to read and list every book before you die? Even if you could, what would you get out of it?

It’s only recently that I’ve started to wonder whether keeping this list is actually changing the way I read, possibly for the worse. I’m absolutely a completionist—I don’t remember the last time I put a book down without finishing it. It feels like that’s always been a part of my personality, but even if I’ve always read this way, surely it’s been exacerbated by the self-imposed feeling that if I don’t power through a book I’m not enjoying, I won’t “get” to put it on the list. This might be good for me, since I’m a writer too and you can learn as much from reading unsuccessful books as from great ones. But I also read fast—again, since always; but again, probably more because of the gamification factor of the list—and there’s no question that I sometimes lose nuance and even occasionally plot due to my tendency to race through books as fast as I can turn the pages. (I’ve mentioned before that I’m trying to read more plays and graphic novels in order to teach myself to slow down. So far, it’s having limited success.)

I don’t know how much of this is really happening vs. in my head, or how good or bad any of it is. I will say it’s nice to flip back through the pages of my notebook and remember certain months and what else was going on—the December I reread all of Tolkien by the wood stove while home from school for the holidays; the summer I read a bunch of E. M. Forster while moving to New York, starting to date my girlfriend, and frantically searching for jobs. Maybe that’s the point. It’s like a diary that isn’t embarrassing to revisit, because you’re not logging your actual overblown existential state—just the books you’re clinging to while you’re there. The thing is, whether it’s helping my reading habits or hurting them or having no effect whatsoever, I’ve been keeping this stupid list for half a decade and so I’d feel silly just stopping. Maybe that’s how Art Garfunkel got into this mess too.