Keeping track of reading (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 06 Jan 2019

Keeping track of reading

About fifteen years ago, a friend in LinuxChix blogged about doing the "50-50 Book Challenge". The goal was to read fifty new books in a year, plus another fifty old books she'd read before.

I had no idea whether this was a lot of books or not. How many books do I read in a year? I had no idea. But now I wanted to know. So I started keeping a list: not for the 50-50 challenge specifically, but just to see what the numbers were like.

It would be easy enough to do this in a spreadsheet, but I'm not really a spreadsheet kind of girl, unless there's a good reason to use one, like accounting tables or other numeric data. So I used a plain text file with a simple, readable format, like these entries from that first year, 2004:

Dragon Hunter: Roy Chapman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions, Charles Gallenkamp, Michael J. Novacek
  Fascinating account of a series of expeditions in the early 1900s
  searching for evidence of early man.  Instead, they found
  groundbreaking dinosaur discoveries, including the first evidence
  of dinosaurs protecting their eggs (Oviraptor).

Life of Pi
  Uneven, quirky, weird.  Parts of it are good, parts are awful.
  I found myself annoyed by it ... but somehow compelled to keep
  reading.  The ending may have redeemed it.

The Lions of Tsavo : Exploring the Legacy of Africa's Notorious Man-Eaters, Bruce D. Patterson
  Excellent overview of the Tsavo lion story, including some recent
  findings.  Makes me want to find the original book, which turns
  out to be public domain in Project Gutenberg.

- Bellwether, Connie Willis
  What can I say?  Connie Willis is one of my favorite writers and
  this is arguably her best book.  Everyone should read it.
  I can't imagine anyone not liking it.

If there's a punctuation mark in the first column, it's a reread. (I keep forgetting what character to use, so sometimes it's a dot, sometimes a dash, sometimes an atsign.) If there's anything else besides a space, it's a new book. Lines starting with spaces are short notes on what I thought of the book. I'm not trying to write formal reviews, just reminders. If I don't have anything in specific to say, I leave it blank or write a word or two, like "fun" or "disappointing".

Crunching the numbers

That means it's fairly easy to pull out book titles and count them with grep and wc. For years I just used simple aliases:

 All books this year: egrep '^[^ ]' books2019 | wc -l
 Just new books:      egrep '^[^ -.@]' books2019 | wc -l
 Just reread books:   egrep '^[-.@]' books2019 | wc -l

But after I had years of accumulated data I started wanting to see it all together, so I wrote a shell alias that I put in my .zshrc:

booksread() {
  setopt extendedglob
  for f in ~/Docs/Lists/books/books[0-9](#c4); do
    year=$(echo $f | sed 's/.*books//')
    let allbooks=$(egrep '^[^ ]' $f | grep -v 'Book List:' | wc -l)
    let rereads=$(egrep '^[-.@\*]' $f  | grep -v 'Book List:'| wc -l)
    printf "%4s:   All: %3d   New: %3d   rereads: %3d\n" \
           $year $allbooks $(($allbooks - $rereads)) $rereads
  done
}

In case you're curious, my numbers are all over the map:

$ booksread
2004:   All:  53   New:  44   rereads:   9
2005:   All:  51   New:  36   rereads:  15
2006:   All:  72   New:  59   rereads:  13
2007:   All:  59   New:  49   rereads:  10
2008:   All:  42   New:  33   rereads:   9
2009:   All:  56   New:  47   rereads:   9
2010:   All:  43   New:  27   rereads:  16
2011:   All:  80   New:  55   rereads:  25
2012:   All:  65   New:  58   rereads:   7
2013:   All:  59   New:  54   rereads:   5
2014:   All: 128   New: 121   rereads:   7
2015:   All: 111   New: 103   rereads:   8
2016:   All:  66   New:  62   rereads:   4
2017:   All:  57   New:  56   rereads:   1
2018:   All:  74   New:  71   rereads:   3
2019:   All:   3   New:   3   rereads:   0

So sometimes I beat that 100-book target that the 50-50 people advocated, other times not. I'm not worried about the overall numbers. Some years I race through a lot of lightweight series mysteries; other years I spend more time delving into long nonfiction books.

But I have learned quite a few interesting tidbits.

What Does it all Mean?

I expected my reread count would be quite high. As it turns out, I don't reread nearly as much as I thought. I have quite a few "comfort books" that I like to read over and over again (am I still five years old?), especially when I'm tired or ill. I sometimes feel guilty about that, like I'm wasting time when I could be improving my mind. I tell myself that it's not entirely a waste: by reading these favorite books over and over, perhaps I'll absorb some of the beautiful rhythms, strong characters, or clever plot twists, that make me love them; and that maybe some of that will carry over into my own writing. But it feels like rationalization.

But that first year, 2004, I read 44 new books and reread 9, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy that I hadn't read since I was a teenager. So I don't actually "waste" that much time on rereading. Over the years, my highest reread count was 25 in 2011, when I reread the whole Tony Hillerman series.

Is my reread count low because I'm conscious of the record-keeping, and therefore I reread less than I would otherwise? I don't think so. I'm still happy to pull out a battered copy of Tea with the Black Dragon or Bellweather or Watership Down or The Lion when I don't feel up to launching into a new book.

Another thing I wondered: would keeping count encourage me to read more short mysteries and fewer weighty non-fiction tomes? I admit I am a bit more aware of book lengths now -- oh, god, the new Stephenson is how many pages? -- but I try not to get competitive, even with myself, about numbers, and I don't let a quest for big numbers keep me from reading Blood and Thunder or The Invention of Nature. (And I had that sinking feeling about Stephenson even before I started keeping a book list. The man can write, but he could use an editor with a firm hand.)

What counts as a book? Do I feel tempted to pile up short, easy books to "get credit" for them, or to finish a bad book I'm not enjoying? Sometimes a little, but mostly no. What about novellas? What about partial reads, like skipping chapters? I decide on a case by case basis but don't stress over it. I do keep entries for books I start and don't finish (with spaces at the beginning of the line so they don't show up in the count), with notes on why I gave up on them, or where I left off if I intend to go back.

Unexpected Benefits

Keeping track of my reading has turned out to have other benefits. For instance, it prevents accidental rereads. Last year Dave checked a mystery out of the library (we read a lot of the same books, so anything one of us reads, the other will at least consider). I looked at it and said "That sounds awfully familiar. Haven't we already read it?" Sure enough, it was on my list from the previous year, and I hadn't liked it. Dave doesn't keep a book list, so he started reading, but eventually realized that he, too, had read it before.

And sometimes my memory of a book isn't very clear, and my notes on what I thought of a book are useful. Last year, on a hike, a friend and I got to talking about the efforts to eradicate rats on southern California's Channel Islands. I said "Oh, I read an interesting novel about that recently. Was it Barbara Kingsolver? No, wait ... I think it was T.C. Boyle. Interesting book, you should check it out."

When I got home, I consulted my book lists and found it in 2011:

When the Killing's Done, T.C. Boyle
  A tough slog through part 1, but it gets somewhat better in part 2
  (there are actually a few characters you don't hate, finally)
  and some plot eventually emerges, near the end of the novel.

I sent my friend an email rescinding my recommendation. I told her the book does cover some interesting details related to the rat eradication, but I'd forgotten that it was a poor excuse for a novel. In the end she decided to read it anyway, and her opinion agreed with mine. I believe she's started keeping a book list of her own now.

On the other hand, it's also good to have a record of delightful new discoveries. A gem from last year:

Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore, Robin Sloan
  Unexpectedly good! I read this because Sloan was on the Embedded
  podcast, but I didn't expect much. Turns out Sloan can write!
  Had me going from the beginning. Also, the glow-in-the-dark books
  on the cover were fun.

Even if I forget Sloan's name (sad, I know, but I have a poor memory for names), when I see a new book of his I'll know to check it out. I didn't love his second book, Sourdough, quite as much as Mr. Penumbra, but he's still an author worth following.

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