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Every book I've ever read - an essay on reading

Ever since I was about eighteen (that's almost fifty years ago) I've written down the author and title of every book that I've read. I write these details down in my best handwriting in a high quality A4 notebook that has gilt-edged pages, a marbled cover and a silk place finder.


Marilyn gave me the current book as a birthday present in 1993. I know this because I wrote that information down on the first page of the book. Then I duly transcribed all the entries from a previous notebook into this one. I read between twelve and twenty-four books a year so there must be about 850 entries in it. I start each year on a new page and the page header just tells me the year, and each new year is double underlined.


I hardly ever write anything in this book other than the author's name and the book title. There are only a few entries that give any more information; in fact there are so few that I can remember what they are without opening the book. Here's an entry I wrote in 1994:


"The first book I read this year was John McCarthy and Jill Morrell's 'Some Other Rainbow'. [This book tells the story of McCarthy's kidnap by Islamic Jihad terrorists in Lebanon in April 1986, his five years in custody and Jill Morrell's campaign to secure his release]. I began reading it on May 20th 1994 while I was on a return flight from Tel Aviv to London. By co-incidence, earlier that day I had visited Jerusalem, only three or four weeks after Israel signed a peace treaty with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. I had seen the PLO flag flying in East Jerusalem!"


I was in Tel Aviv on a business trip, and my customer had taken me to Jerusalem to see the historic city on a day off. I remember how shocked he was to see the PLO flag flying there, and I also remember how optimistic the Israelis that I met were about this peace treaty. I didn't meet any Palestinians, but I assume that at the time they too would have been optimistic about change. I'd brought 'Some Other Rainbow' with me, and of course the reasons for McCarthy's incarceration was inextricably linked to the Palestine problem. How wrong we all were to have so much optimism.


But why do I write all these book titles down?


I think that there are three reasons. If I dip into this notebook It's like dipping into a family photo album. Looking back on 1975 I see that I read three works by Solzhenitsyn and the first two books that I ever read by John Le Carre, and I recall that at the time I was backpacking around North America. I will always associate 'The First Circle' and 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' with a drizzly72 hour Greyhound Bus journey across the empty and flat Canadian Prairie. If I look back to more recent years I will always associate Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi's ' Half of a Yellow Sun' and Dave Eggers's 'Zeitoun' with the tour of China that Marilyn and I made in 2010. When I recall where I was when I was reading a particular book I also recall the places I was in and the people I was with. I don't really need any more memory aids than the names of the author and the book. My notebook gives me a sense of time and place.


The second reason is that occasionally I look through the book to see if there's anything I want to re-read. I studied 'Wuthering Heights' for A level in 1966 and in 1998 I decided to re-read it as a result of looking back at my notebook.


Thirdly, every few months I look at what I've read over the past twelve months and ask myself if I'm restricting my reading to a limited range of voices. Those of us who read in English are a privileged lot. We can read works in our language by writers from all over the English speaking world; and in this sense of course I mean the UK and Ireland, the USA and Canada, Australia New Zealand and South Africa, but I also include India and Nigeria. And we can read books in translation. I use the list to decide what book to buy next. Have I just read three novels by middle-aged English white men one after the other? If so, my next book purchase might be travel literature, history, popular science or biography; or another novel by a woman from a different culture. So my notebook helps me to hear a wider range of voices, which, in turn, helps my own writing.


So I'm going to continue writing down every book I've ever read.


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