When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who loved books as much as I did. While the school and local public librarians could tell me about classics, only Mrs. Schwinger knew anything about contemporary books. It was Mrs. Schwinger who told us about Island of the Blue Dolphins and A Wrinkle in Time and Harriet the Spy. She kept her own small library of recent volumes in the back of our classroom. If you finished an assignment before the rest of the class, you were encouraged to pick one up and read at your desk. For Florence Schwinger, as for me, reading wasn’t a chore but a delight. Every Friday afternoon, when we returned from lunch, we’d push back our desks and have a “sharing” session to tempt others to read the books we’d particularly enjoyed: individually or in pairs, we’d perform a sketch or a song, show a diorama or poster, or simply stand up and speak. You read, you grow; you share; you remember.
To help with that last piece, Mrs. Schwinger had us keep a reading diary. We kept them in slim, soft-covered booklets of square-ish proportion, very similar to the blue books I’d someday be given for my college history exams except that the cover pattern was the mottled black-&-white “composition” print so familiar to several generations of American school kids. Every time we finished reading a book, we were to record the title, the author and the date, plus as little or as much as we wanted to say, so long as it showed that we’d read the actual book and not just the jacket blurb. Mrs. Schwinger periodically collected these notebooks, to keep on top of what we were reading (and presumably what we were thinking). When a notebook was complete, she’d keep it and hand us a fresh one.
Sometime between senior year of high school and heading off to college, a surprising manila envelope appeared in the mailbox: one of my 5th grade reading diaries. I can only think that Florence felt that the threshold of adulthood was a good time for us to touch base with our pre-teen selves. What it did for me was show me how many books I’d read that I’d entirely forgotten—at least consciously (I often question whether my subconscious has forgotten anything I’ve ever read). I decided that, as a freshman in college, I would resume the habit Florence had encouraged. I would keep a reading diary again. Anticipating that there would be a great deal of class-related reading in college, I further decided that my Book Book (as I called it) would be limited to books read for pleasure.
I’ve kept up the habit over the decades since college. Thanks to my collection of Book Books, I can verify whether I really read the book or only think I did because I saw the movie. I can confirm that I was not at all amused by Confederacy of Dunces and was completely perplexed by everyone else’s enthusiasm for Fear of Flying. I know that, for catharsis during a bad break-up, I binged on Jean Rhys; and that I waited far too many years before picking up my first Terry Pratchett (it was Moving Pictures). It can be fascinating to look back and see not only what I was reading but how much time/energy I felt like putting into commenting on it. There are flashes of envy, when I had to acknowledge how meagre my own gifts were by comparison to a specific writer…and sometimes envy of a writer who left me thoroughly unimpressed but who nonetheless had the power to command an agent, a book deal and what I felt were ridiculous accolades from reviewers. Sometimes the diary entries are a glimpse into my heart, but other times they amount to little more than a plot summary, concluding with “a pleasant enough read.”
For the last couple of years, it’s been increasingly difficult to maintain these records. I still keep a list of what I’ve read (mostly in an effort to vary my reading, which is especially challenging during sad times when I want to binge on mysteries or fantasies) but I’ve often found myself lagging months behind in writing down my thoughts. The longer the lag, the more arduous the act became, to the point where I realize that I’ve effectively quit. And yet, I’ve hesitated to turn the key in the lock and officially call it closed.
There’s always been a significant archivist quotient to my nature. The Book Book is only one element of this. I’ve also historically kept elaborate photo albums and preserved other artifacts. Only recently have I begun to question who I’ve been keeping these archives for. When I began, I must have imagined they’d have some value beyond my own lifetime. As it’s turned out, however, I have no children and I’ve made no mark on the world. My memories are of interest to no one but me. It’s a shocking realization, very bruising to the ego, that once I’m gone none of these archives that I’ve so carefully (and often arduously) compiled will amount to more than a very large bin of recyclable paper.
Maybe at this point in life, the way to grow up isn’t to start a new venture but to accept that it’s time to put some things to bed. So I’ll finish off the Book Book entries for 2016 (yes, that’s how far I’ve lagged behind; here it is August and October – December are still pending) and set that notebook aside. And the notebook that had already been purchased for 2017 will be used to keep lists: because I still like to enforce some kind of variety in what I read, and there’s nothing like seeing five scifi stories in a row to send me running to the non-fiction TBR pile!