Like any writer, I read a lot. I write an annual “Reading Time” post, the most recent cataloging the 85 books I read in 2022. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the time I stopped reading for several years, even though I had started up again with a vengeance. This week I hit a milestone that I happened to notice when entering the latest read into my spreadsheet.
Yes, spreadsheet. I mentioned last time that I track my reading on Goodreads, where I can list my reading goals, note the books as I finish them, and write book reviews (or simply leave ratings). I noted that keeping track wasn’t any ego thing; it was an OCD thing. That OCD-ishness extends to a full-on Excel spreadsheet of all the books I’ve read in my lifetime. More or less.
The list started as a handwritten list. At some point I typed it, as in on a typewriter. I don’t recall if it was an electric typewriter or the “portable” monstrosity I used as a kid that weighed 30 pounds. Eventually it migrated to a Word table (or more likely, a WordPerfect table, then a Word table). Finally, after obsessing enough to jump it from one technology to another, including a short stint as a PDF, it ended up in a spreadsheet. Since its initial creation – exactly when I don’t remember but the first dated entry is 1991 – I’ve diligently added to it every book I’ve read from cover to cover. Books or chapters examined as research sources don’t count, and I’m not even going to think about the number of pages read from journal and magazine articles, plus letters and documents from the LOC and other libraries. This list is just books that I’ve read through.
The spreadsheet itself is rather simple. Columns are author name, book title, year read, notes I thought important (usually a word or two or ten), and category. The latter column is a relatively new addition, with a handful of categorizations like “Lincoln,” “Science,” “Writing,” and mostly sits empty because I haven’t bothered to backfill it or include categories like “fiction” or “science fiction” or whatever. Rows are listed alphabetically by author last name. If I read the book more than once, I’ll include both dates (year only) in that column. About thirty percent of the dates are blank. As mentioned, the first entry date is 1991, which is either the date I started keeping the table, or more likely, the date I started keeping track of the year I read the books. All the blank dates were books read before I started keeping track. Most of those obviously predated the list, so I had to backfill to include books I had read in my teen years, high school, college, and real life prior to my reading gap years mentioned last time.
Which means I almost certainly missed a lot. More on that in a moment. But first the milestone. As I was adding my most recent book, I happened to look at the bottom of the spreadsheet, to the very last row. The book listed was called Management Ideas That Work by Mark Zweig. Surprisingly, at least to me, it was one of sixteen different books by authors whose last name starts with “Z.” I’m almost certain every letter of the alphabet is covered, including “X” (When Red is Black by Qui Xiaolong).
More importantly, the Zweig listing is row 2000 (at least until the next book is added). I have no idea how that number compares to the rest of humanity, but by sheer force of being a round number it seems a lot to me.
And as I said, I likely missed a lot. Much of the earlier reads on the list were added much later from memory, or in some cases a written record from literature class or something. I also went through a couple of those books with titles like “1000 Books to Read in Your Lifetime,” plus a list or two of “127 Books You Must Read to be Literate” (or, “Before You Die”). If I found a title where I couldn’t remember if it was something I read or saw in a movie, I assumed it was the movie (although there were plenty of times I read the book AND saw the movie). In any case, if I wasn’t sure I read the book, I left it off the list. I also didn’t include books that were purely textbooks since most people don’t actually read the whole book (and yet, I likely took voluminous notes). Needless to say, none of the billions (okay, hundreds?) of children’s books I read are on the list even though I likely read them dozens of times each. I have no idea how many books would be added if I could miraculously determine every tome I read, but unfortunately my obsessions didn’t kick in until after many books had been traded with public libraries for many years.
One other interesting thing about the spreadsheet I recently noticed. There are fifteen rows in which I have more than one date, meaning I read the book more than once. Usually that means twice, but a couple show I read the book three times for whatever reason, usually with a decade or so in between. But even this is misleading as I know I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy five times (each) when I was in college, then at least once soon after entering the real world, and then again more recently. Those multiple readings are lost to a single recent date read. Then there are books like 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, and others that I read long before I started keeping the list and then read again more recently (for some reason after 2016, dystopian books seemed relevant again). Those books would have the date field blank and only show the most recent reading.
Then there are my own books, i.e., the ones I’ve written. I count these only once after each has been formally published. I don’t count the re-reads and re-writes during the editing phase, and even though I probably re-read them a few times after publication to refresh my memory ahead of presentations, I don’t count those again.
Which means that the 2000 rows, one book per row, are really much more than 2000 books read.
With 2000 books in the bank, the idea of reading 2001: A Space Odyssey suddenly seems like a good idea.
Now my OCD is starting to think about the next round number milestone. At my current average of about 85 books a year, I would need about 12 more years to reach 3000 books read. If I can bump up that average or suddenly identify a bunch of books I previous read that weren’t yet catalogued, I could do it in 10 years.
Except I should be writing. They do say that sleep is overrated.
[Photo is screenshot of a portion of my read book spreadsheet]
Lincoln: The Fire of Genius is available for purchase at all bookseller outlets. Limited signed copies are available here. The book is also listed on Goodreads, the database where I keep track of my reading. Click on the “Want to Read” button to put it on your reading list. If you read the book, please leave a review and/or rating.
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David J. Kent is President of the Lincoln Group of DC and the author of Lincoln: The Fire of Genius: How Abraham Lincoln’s Commitment to Science and Technology Helped Modernize America and Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America.