Years ago, when Germaine Gustafson was married, working as a nurse and raising children, she craved something in life that was just for herself. She found it in reading. She started going to the library and bringing home novels, nonfiction and true-crime books by the stack. She read so much that she forgot what she had read and sometimes she picked up a book and realized a third of the way in that she had already read it.
“So I started keeping track,” she told me the other day. “And through the years, as I went through marriage and divorce and kids and jobs and whatever, my reading list has expanded beyond belief.” She started jotting down the titles in January 1967, and now — 50 years later — her list totals 6,708. Probably 6,710 by the time this column hits print. Or 6,720. She reads fast.
A recent favorite, for instance, “The Nightingale,” by Kristin Hannah, she read in three days. “And it’s a fairly thick book,” she said. “I read a lot at night. If a book is really good, I’ll read in the afternoon, but I feel guilty.”
How many books does she read a year? “I never counted,” she said. “Probably about 25.” But then we divided 6,708 by 50 years and got: 134 books a year. “Wow,” she said, “I had no idea.”
Gustafson writes the titles on scratch paper and then, when the list grows to about 10 or 20 titles, she goes to the library and types it up on a computer.
Of all the people who wrote to me about keeping a book journal — and there were many, well over 100 — Gustafson, who is 78, has kept track the longest.
But there are a lot of you who keep track diligently. Look at Nancy Newman of Minneapolis — she keeps not one, but three lists: “I have a three-ring notebook in which every book is listed chronologically,” she wrote. “Another notebook has each book listed alphabetically.”
And then there’s her third notebook: “I record, in alphabetical order, all books that I start but don’t finish. And there are a LOT!”
Allen Cavell of St. Paul also keeps multiple lists. One is of books he’d like to read; one contains summaries of books he’s read; one is a searchable database of all of his reading; one is a slightly revised version of the database; and the fifth is an Excel spreadsheet of all the Pulitzer and Nobel prize winners he has not yet read. (Yes, he is reading them all.)
Birdie Westerdahl might be the most organized of the bunch. “I have an accordion expanding file that has alphabet tabs A-Z. When I get a book, I look the author up and copy his bio and list of books. After I have read a book, I check it off on the author’s list. I have been doing this for about 10 years.”
Terse reviews, commemorative cocktail glasses
If authors could peek into your book journals, they would quake. You are unflinching in your assessments of what you read. Elizabeth Hermeier categorizes books as “worthy” and “unworthy.” Gustafson ranks books anywhere from “excellent” to “blah.”
Betty Madden rates books “good, very good, excellent,” sometimes “boring” and, once, “terrible.” (Don’t you wish you knew which one that was?) For Madden, however, Tony Hillerman and William Kent Krueger always warrant a “great.”
Twenty years ago, Maryfaith Fox of Minneapolis bought a book journal for her sister. When her sister died in 2002, Fox got the diary back. “It was so nice to see her handwriting and begin to read the books she enjoyed,” she said. “In August 2002 I began a running list of every book I read. At some point I started a rating system: ‘star’ for excellent, ‘plus’ for good and ‘minus sign’ for lousy. Books without symbols are just OK. I don’t believe I’ve failed to record a single book in 15 years. The diary is now pretty battered. I write small, as it has to last me the rest of my life.”
I wish I had the space to write about everyone’s method, because there are so many ways that people keep track. Some use notecards, some use calendars, some keep a digital list. A surprising number of you use Excel spreadsheets, you eggheads, you.
Many of you keep track online — through Goodreads, or Library Thing. (I failed at that, too, by the way — if you look me up on Goodreads it will appear as though I have been reading the same book since Aug. 26, 2012, but I can assure you that is not the case.)
Minneapolis graphic designer Gina Sekelsky has been keeping track since 2000, and her book lists are the most beautiful I’ve seen — collages and mosaics and stars and calligraphy and colored paper and little drawings of the book jackets. I would keep a journal, too, if I knew how to make it look like that.
JoAnn Carroll Lewald just started keeping track of her reading last fall, writing the titles of books she’d finished in a spiral-bound calendar. “When I reach 100 I think I’ll buy myself a nice pretty journal,” she wrote.
But Dennis Nisler and his Shoreview book club (the Bar Boys Book Club) have an unusual method: In addition to a formal journal, “We have a set of cocktail glasses produced each year that has the names of each book by month etched in the glass.” I do love this idea.
So why keep track? To remember what we read, to remember when we read, to give us a sense of accomplishment.
Said Laura Heuer, “It is fun to see the list grow and it makes me feel lucky that I am able to carve time out of my busy life to read as much as I do.”
OK, you have inspired me. Starting in January, I will drag out that old blue journal of mine and I will keep track. Ask me in March how it’s going. Just don’t follow me on Goodreads.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks