• Books Become Bookmarks: The benefits of maintaining a reading list

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Strategies     Comments 25 comments

    books-768426_640In an era in which we routinely track every penny we spend, every calorie we consume, and now every step we take, it strikes me as almost unbelievable how few of us keep a reading list.

    Documenting the books we’re feeding our own brains was something I assumed most serious readers did. But when I asked four of my closest heavy-reader friends, I found that none of them maintain any account of their literary intake. A few of them have a running list of books they want to read; but when a particular title’s time comes, they delete it from the list as if it were no more than a chore now completed.

    Part of my concern with this is due to my own faulty memory. I’ve read several hundred books in the past six years, and yet when pressed I can summon the titles of maybe two armfuls of them. Thousands of hours of my life devoted to stacks of books whose plot, style, purpose, and role in my life are inaccessible to me through simple recall.

    The only solution that has given me any sense of connection with what would otherwise be lost is maintaining a reading list, which I’ve done since March 2010.

    Your turn #1: Do you keep a list of books you’ve read? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below.



    That reading list has been a lifesaver in many ways, reconnecting me with more than just the recollection that, yes, I’ve read that book, or no, I haven’t read that one.

    The key, I’ve found, is in listing more than just author and title. A reading list should also provide some much needed context: the month and year you read the book, some plot summary and impressions/opinions, and, most importantly, where and under what circumstances you read it.

    Much of the joy of reading is found in the moment, the experience itself. But there’s great pleasure to be had, as well, in the remembrance of that experience, in the ability to reflect on a book years later, and in rediscovering where, when — and this is crucial — who you were at the time.

    Your turn #2: When you think back to a book you’ve read, can you recall the circumstances (where, when, etc.) under which you read it, or do you remember only the book itself? Do you even care to remember the circumstances, or is the book itself all that matters?


    Self-Indulgence Overload

    Scanning my reading list as I write this, here are three book experiences I couldn’t have told you about mere moments ago and should probably continue to keep to myself but won’t:


    81f00atl1olOur first week in a roach-filled apartment in a comatose Florida town, April 2010. The movers haven’t arrived with our box spring or frame yet; the mattress is on the floor, and at night we leave on all the lamps in a failed effort to ward off the bugs. The light keeps me up, which is how I manage to read Let the Great World Spin in only a few nights. One morning I wake to a roach on my pillow, just standing there immobile like it’s been assigned to monitor my breathing. I swipe it to the floor and squash it with that book. And then I keep hitting it and hitting it until I’m near tears. I miss Boston, and my friends. We ask someone to recommend a local restaurant. With good intentions, she suggests a strip-mall Carrabba’s as our “best bet.” I fold back into the book.



    New to New York City, judging it only by pre/misconceptions, I get off the subway at 125th & Lenox to tour the neighborhood and look at some of the buildings Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts writes about in Harlem is Nowhere, June 2014. Wondering if it is OK to do so, a white guy wandering Harlem aimlessly and gawking.

    I finish the book in Marcus Garvey Park, overlooking the swimming pool, wishing my pocket of NYC were nearly this alive.



    Honeymooning across Spain with my wife, June 2015, lugging an 860-page fascinating bastard of a Lennon biography. As we wait in line ninety minutes to tour a 15th century Madrid convent, John’s mom is wiped out by a car. While he writes “A Day in the Life,” we sit at a café on Barcelona’s La Rambla and split a XeXe, a dessert so good I almost cry.

    The return flight coincides with Lennon’s “Lost Weekend.” I too know how it feels to want to return home while also wanting to never return home.


    Your turn #3: Share with us a particularly affecting reading experience — where you were, when you were, who you were, and why it sticks with you.


    Books Become Bookmarks

    It’s true that my life is richer for having experienced those moments even if I can’t call them up so readily. But remembering them through literature is such a tremendous pleasure.

    In this way, books become bookmarks poking out of the thousands of days of my life. More than mere diversions, they bring me closer to my own story, even as they dovetail into it.

    Write down what you read. Check in on your reading list from time to time. Be aware of how books fit into the narrative of your existence.



    David Duhr, co-founderWriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and contributes regularly to the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, the Observer and other publications.


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    Steve Adams

    This is a very very good idea, David. It would also help you retain those books and, yes, track your life. I’m surprised I’ve never heard of anyone doing this before.

    Carolyn Cohagan

    I took a class with Janet Fitch (“White Oleander”) and she told us to keep a list of the books we read and what each book taught us about writing. She said that after a while we would stop reading anything that didn’t have something to teach us. I found this to be a fantastic piece of advice.

    Carol Bro

    David: I too have kept a reading list since around 2004. I have used it often for recommending books to others, to see what books I’ve read in a series and to refresh my memory as to whether I’ve read a book before. I also keep track of how many and what books I’ve bought or read in a a given year. My list, typed, is 15 pages long currently. I also try to keep up my list on Goodreads.com. It shows what year I read a certain book and which ones I’ve reviewed. I think a book list is… Read more »


    I don’t make one, but I kind of would like to now. If I
    see a book and remember that I did read it, I can also
    usually remember the circumstances, and that almost
    always warms me. So to have free and constant access
    to that info would be great. Thanks for the tips.


    Yes, a reading list is a really good idea, especially for a literary-minded person. While I hadn’t thought of it as a “reading list,” I have kept one for a number of years in the form of book reviews. I started doing them as an exercise and found I was getting likes, favorable comments, and “this helped me decide” notations on Amazon (where I review as “Ray F”) and on my website. I, too, have found it fun and inspirational to read over my reviews and notes from time-to-time. They are, indeed, memory jogs and associations for where I was… Read more »


    Yes, a big “amen” on the “best books” angle. My reviews and accompanying notes (with quotes and page numbers) are great resources when I’m writing about a book, refering to something in a given book, quoting, etc. Saves the time of flipping through a book again to find something. When I did my “Ray-views” book, I just grouped all the reviews into categories they naturally fell into: Beyond the Usual The Human Problem On Prophecy The Dystopian Potential Inspiration Storytelling and wrote commentary on each, that is, how the books reviewed reflected the category subject, my feelings on it, what… Read more »


    I wonder if there’s something here about looking ahead
    vs. looking behind, and what sort of person we are. Like,
    keeping a TBR list is for (chronologically) forward-thinkers,
    while keeping a have-read list is for those who place
    greater emphasis on the past. And people who do both
    live equally?

    Mark H.

    1. I do not keep such a list, mostly because I’ve never considered doing such a thing. It’s a good idea though, and maybe I’ll start. 2. I can remember some of the where/when (etc) if the book was particularly memorable. For example, and this can answer #3 as well, I read THE IDIOT at a resort in Scottsdale in 2007, and I can picture it completely. Is that because I loved the book, or is that because I loved the resort? Or a combo of both? If I’d read a bad book on that trip, would I remember anything?… Read more »

    Mark H.

    I finished the Idiot on the flight home, so nope, no other books on that trip. But yeah, that’s an interesting concept: the more memorable the circumstances/setting, the more memorable the book, or the reading experience, as you like to put it. I wonder if there’s something here worth pursuing? Maybe for people who have trouble retaining books it’s as simple as reading each book in a unique location. Tke your book to the mall, take your book to the park, take your book to the far Denny’s. Break into someone else’s car and read a book behind the driver’s… Read more »

    Carol Bro

    Book to Movie: I thought they did a pretty good job on The Time Traveler’s Wife; and, obviously, To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the best. In the worst category, I would place The Accidental Tourist – one of my all-time favorite books (and Macon Leary one of my all-time favorite literary characters). It just did not translate well to the big screen.

    Kathy P

    I keep a list, and I love it for a lot of these same reasons.
    Mostly recall; like you, I can remember things better if
    I’ve written them down. Even if I don’t include plot details
    or circumstances; merely the act of writing down a title
    and author helps a book stick in my mind. Thanks for
    the post.

    […] week we had a great conversation about the benefits of maintaining a reading list. Today we want to get all morbid and discuss your final entry on that list. That’s right, […]

    david lemke

    I don’t have enough bookshelves! (you can’t have to many books.)To paraphrase a friend, “Too much garlic is almost enough.” so “Too many books…” I never thought to track my reading to see how my reading tastes have changed. I’ve about 3000 books so I’ve thought to keep track of what I own and what I read only for the most practical of reasons; So I don’t re-buy a book I already have,(it happens) or accidently re-read a book already read. I don’t intentionally re-read because there is so much to read and so damn little time. Listing all that… Read more »

    David Duhr

    Not that I don’t have a dozen bookstore options in my neighborhood alone, but I do miss Half Price bookstores, both in MKE and Austin. Also, I’ve never in my life listened to an audiobook, which is crazy. I should really do it, just to try the experience once. Maybe I’ll love it.

    It is always interesting to see who uses “read” and who uses “listened to” when it comes to audiobooks. I’ve heard both.

    Would love your thoughts, please comment.x