Keeping Track by Elizabeth Dillow
My mom recently told me a story about my grandmother that I hadn’t heard before: she remembers my grandma sneaking around with a book borrowed from a teacher friend, doing her best to conceal its presence in their home. The memory especially stands out to her because my grandma was neither a voracious reader nor a sneak. The book? Peyton Place by Grace Metalious. It was considered too racy for most homes, yet spent seventy-six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Fast forward to 1983: I am a bookish 5th grader who races home from school to read a decidedly not-racy book titled The Callender Papers by Cynthia Voigt. I cannot get enough of the boarding school mystery, and the late afternoons I spend on my bed reading and eating tangerines for a snack while the snow pelts my window are perfectly burned into my memory. I’ve always been a sucker for a story about resourceful children who must navigate a tricky situation or solve an even trickier mystery, and I can trace it back to books like this one.
My grandma died in 1986, so I’ll never get the chance to ask her what she thought about Peyton Place, one of the most scandalous (and popular) novels of the 1950s. Knowing this story makes me want to read it to bring my grandma closer to me: I’ll read the words she read, and with a little imagination and some historical context, I’ll be able to piece together a little more insight about the woman she was. When it comes to my own stand-out memory, I feel a tremendous tenderness toward that little girl who couldn’t get enough adventure from the safety of her bedroom. Our love (or hatred, or ambivalence, etc.) of what we read shines a light on who we are fundamentally. I would trade all the gold in the world for a list of what my grandparents or great-grandparents read and loved (and why). Heck, I would trade some gold for a complete list of what I’ve read and loved in my life.
We will probably never know the books our ancestors once loved, but there is an easy solution to make sure this fate does not befall our children, grandchildren, or other loved ones: keep track of what we read. Documenting this information is like carefully preserving a key that unlocks the door to knowing more about ourselves and those who came before us. Here are some simple ways to get started:
Keep a reading journal. From 1998-2006, I kept a handwritten journal of the books I read. I almost didn’t begin when I did because I was mad at myself for not starting sooner. That would would have been a terrible decision! While I switched to an easier Goodreads system in 2007, that little book is hugely valuable to me. Seeing who I was through what I was reading (in my own handwriting!) is priceless. Can you imagine what a gift it would be to hold a copy of your great-great-grandfather’s handwritten book journal in your hands?
Regularly log and review books online. The online community of readers on websites like this one, services like Goodreads, and personal blogs makes documenting our reactions to the books we read more accessible than ever. It also encourages a community of sharing—now, of course, but also across generations. The habit of compiling those books into a list each year to print so they aren’t buried on a server is one worth cultivating. Bonus: recommending books to family, friends, colleagues, and students becomes much easier when you don’t have to go searching for all the post-it notes and napkins you’ve written on through the years.
Build a visual record of the books you read. I love taking pictures of books—the ones in our hands, the ones on our shelves, the ones in our library bags, the ones we want at the bookstore. The photographs we take are usually of the people, places, and things that move us; it only makes sense to include our reading lives in the photo record. Over time, a collection of reading photos will grow, and it’s exciting to trace a reading history through them. Displaying these photographs is yet another way to celebrate the love and joy of reading.
Ask older family members to share the books they’ve loved in their lives. There are so many questions to ask older family members: what was the hardest decision you’ve ever made? What was your first job? While these questions are important, don’t forget to ask about the books that have changed, challenged, or inspired them in some way. Conversations sparked by books reinforce a love of reading that can bridge generations in surprising ways.
Encourage students to document their own reading. It’s never too early to foster the habit of documenting books read. Students are often required to keep track of books for their language arts class or summer reading programs—this is definitely a great start! However, it is possible for teachers, mentors, and parents alike to elevate these lists beyond “homework obligation.” Save those handwritten book logs. Set up a private Goodreads account and encourage its regular use. Invite friends and relatives to send some snail mail with a book recommendation or two… with the invitation to reciprocate.
Go ahead, start today. In a year—or a lifetime—you’ll be amazed at how keeping track can grow a love of reading beyond what you thought was possible.
Elizabeth Dillow is a photographer, writer, and designer with 1,038 books on her “to read” shelf at Goodreads. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with her husband and three daughters (and and about two tons of books, which are always among the first items unpacked in military moves). She blogs at A Swoop and a Dart.