On Keeping a Reading Diary
My visionary friend Louise Blalock often asks people she cares about to give her a baby picture of themselves, and to describe a “lost book” from their childhood. “Everyone has one”, she’d say, “that wonderful book whose story you remember but whose title and author are lost to time. You’d give anything to find it again but the way to it is lost.”
Like most people, I have one. It is a story about a girl growing up on an island off the coast of Maine. The narrative moves out from her early childhood like the ever-expanding circles that form when a stone is dropped into a pond. Her baby years are spent in the meadow grass of her home, white-winged sea gulls overhead. Later she moves to a bigger island to go to elementary school, then to the mainland for high school. But the story is less about school than it is about summer in Maine and a girl growing up in vividly beautiful environment, in a protected time and place.
I can see it all now, the world captured in that “lost book”. How the summer people cast their seasonal spell, and a small sailboat is a wind-whipped bridge between here and there. The girl’s hair is blonde and 1950’s cropped, her shorts, sneakers and striped t-shirts the essence of summer. The jagged rocks glitter black in the spray, the tiny beaches are tide-wracked with seaweed and foam.
But the identity of the book itself? Who knows? I never wrote it down. It was one of a thousand books that formed the fabric of my summers back then, hauled in piles from the public library, pilfered from the shelves of aunts, uncles, grandparents while on vacation in Minnesota, bought in the scholastic book program at school and then given away. How was I to know that years later I might want to name that book, retrieve it, live one more time in its sunlit, summer world? Or, maybe hand it to a young friend to read from some second hand bookstore or library shelf?
As I emerged from my childhood and teens and moved on into my twenties I began to realize that the “lost book” is not just a problem of youth. All prolific readers who use libraries as their major source of reading material bump into this dilemma sooner or later. If the book is no longer on your shelf at home, it is all too easy to draw a resounding blank in response to that classic question, “read any good books lately?” The issue was only heightened for me by my choice of work, a major component of which has always been to offer good books to readers.
In my twenties I decided to begin keeping a record of the books I read, so that none would ever be “lost” to me again. I figured that this “reading diary” would not only give me a source for my readers’ advisory work, but would also serve as a record of who I was when I read those books. I knew the format I employed would have to be very simple and casual or I would become trapped in the snares of my own perfectionism and wouldn’t bother to keep it up.
The reading diary recipe I came up with called for a notebook of any shape or size, preferably one filled with lined paper. Each brief entry would begin with the day’s date, followed by the author and title of the book read. Beneath that heading I would write a brief description of the work, coupled with my response to it. Proper spelling and punctuation were to be thrown to the winds.
From the beginning the diary was a resounding success. Not only could I answer the “what have you read lately?” query with aplomb, but I could, and did, cull titles from my reading diary for special booklists, like “Quality Women’s Fiction” and “Memoirs”.
As time went by I enjoyed comparing my responses to books read over time, and reread a generation apart.
I have now kept a reading diary for nearly thirty years and it has become an album of memories, a kind of long running self-portrait in books. Looking at batches of books read during crisis or to prepare for a pregnancy now bring a smile of recognition and remembrance. I’ve never liked looking at photos of myself, but every ten years or so it is really fun to look at the snapshots of my reading life that the diary provides me.
In the past year I have begun to keep my reading diary on a computer hard drive rather than in a ratty, spiral-bound notebook. It is convenient to be able to copy parts of it into e-mail correspondence and onto booklists. Yet whatever form it takes, the diary is, at base, a candid, tattered and heartfelt document. One you can use as a portrait, a map, a keepsake or a love letter to literature, just as you please.
Lauri Burke, Community Services Librarian