This is my actual bookshelf, unedited.
In 2017 I read 112 books.
I know this because I track the books I read in Evernote. I have an Evernote for each year from 2014, inspired by reading about an author who wrote down every single book he EVER read.
This is infuriating to me. Why did I not start before 2014? I am 37 years old, I have always been an insatiable reader and I have a terrible memory. Think of the thousands of books I’ve read and lost!
To be fair to myself, I have tried many times over the years to keep records of my reading. Like most writers, I have innumerable notebooks full (or not so full) of never-completed projects. For me, many of those projects centred on book reviews.
But I read too fast, too inattentively and too broadly to review every book I read. Even the tiny purple-covered notebook I started in, maybe, 1992 with the bare minimum aim of filling with one-sentence reviews never made it past five or 10 books.
So 20 years later, tired of my faulty brain software irrevocably deleting so many books from my consciousness, I outsourced to a more reliable program. Evernote worked because of its bare-bones nature. Just write a note. Title it. Save it. Done.
My record is equally bare-bones. Author, title. No review, no rating, just the smallest possible note of what I read. (Plus a monthly and annual count. Because even words people like numbers when they prove how wordy those people are.)
It has not escaped my notice that no less a words person than the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul, does the same. She even wrote a book about it, My Life with Bob, where Bob is her Book of Books. (Hers is an actual, tattered notebook that she tells The Atlantic she took with her on her travels to China, Thailand, etc. Whatever, Pamela. Why you always gotta one-up me?)
It’s on my Books To Read note.
So what did I actually read in 2017?
In January, I was in India, so I read Eric Newby’s delightfully dry A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (it’s very Three Men in a Boat, if you, like me, know and love that comedy classic). I read William Dalrymple’s extraordinary, illuminating Nine Lives, and an anthology edited by Anita Nair called Where the Rain is Born: Writings about Kerala.
I had the enormous privilege of interviewing Gloria Steinem for my job at the time on a magazine (read the story here), so, feeling under-prepared the night before the interview, I downloaded My Life on the Road to my Kindle and read it quickly and desperately.
In February I read Anne Wroe’s Six Facets of Light (and wrote about it here) – she writes about my home county of Sussex in a way that makes me ache for it. I promptly booked a flight home for June.
Sarah Wilson’s First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, about her lifelong struggles with anxiety, stood out in March. Not coincidentally, I had just quit my job.
We went to Bali in April – I duly read Colin McPhee’s A House in Bali, and reread Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (haters, sssshhht).
I discovered Amy Liptrot’s shimmering memoir The Outrun in May and, thanks to the unceasingly brilliant Backlisted podcast, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s gloriously mischievous Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman.
Visiting Trinity, my old Oxford college, in June, I spent some deeply satisfying hours in Blackwells bookshop next door and picked up Justin Cartwright’s The Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited. Which is about… the author going back to Trinity, his old Oxford college. Wait – I could have written a BOOK about it?
Clearly needing comfort in July, I see I reread all of LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books. There are six of them. I needed a lot of comfort.
Another Backlisted recommendation sent me into a Jane Gardam hole in August – a deeply pleasant place to be.
After two amazing outback trips on assignment for Australian Geographic magazine, I read Bruce Pascoe’s seminal Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? Swiftly followed by Singing Saltwater Country: Journey to the Songlines of Carpentaria, by John Bradley and Yanyuwa families (recommend!).
I joined a book club composed of the delightful women I now work with at the Channel Nine website Nine Honey, which finally pushed me into reading Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.
And the end of the year saw me on a homesick streak, with Madeleine Bunting’s The Plot: A Biography of My Father’s English Acre, a reread of Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History, and another reread of Katherine Swift’s The Morville Hours, an account of how the author created a garden at a National Trust heritage property that beautifully tells the story of the place.
As Pamela Paul doubtlessly says far more elegantly in her book (dammit, Pamela), my list tells my story far better than a diary ever could. It tells me what I was thinking and doing and feeling and learning, and gives me pointers for where I might direct my reading – and therefore myself – in the future.
In 2017, I read memoirs and essays and travel books and novels and instructional books and children’s books. I read books that helped me through deadening anxiety and books that bored me and books that made me cry. I got lost and I got angry and I got reassured.
I also, finally, got the idea and the motivation to start writing my own book, something I’ve been stumbling towards my whole life. If anyone ever adds it to their list of Books Read 2019 (or, real talk, 2025 – or 2050) it will be because of the potent combination of books I recorded, day by day, month by month, in Books Read 2017.
Don’t stop reading books. And for god’s sake, write them down.
I wrote about my lifelong love of reading in Sunday Style magazine here.