The Book Journal Crisis: What to Do When Numbers Become Meaningless

Reading is my solace. I do not recognize myself without a book; but in the mild, beautiful spring of 2020, I was so jittery, sometimes terrified, that I took three walks a day just to calm down. Everything was closed, including the parks, but there was no limit on exercise.  When I came home from my walks and did read, I gravitated toward short books, particularly short stories by Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield.

And then I began to worry about my new attitude toward reading. Where were my usual Victorians?  They had disappeared from my night table.    My book journal, in a curious way, was as terrifying as the lurking Covid: it showed how my way of life had been destroyed, or at least derailed–and I didn’t even have the virus. During an old-fashioned phone call, I was gloomy. “All these f—- book lists, book journals, book blogs, indecipherable Twitter, Goodreads–I wish I’d never been born.”

“I haven’t read a thing in months,” my friend confided.  “Yesterday I hummed a Van Halen song in a Zoom meeting.”

“What was the song?” I wanted to know.

Before I stopped making entries in my book journal, I talked dramatically about my determination to WIPE IT OUT.  You would not believe how many notebooks I have with lists and lists and lists.  On Feb. 16, 2013, I read Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me.   Oops, maybe it is worthwhile to remind myself of that excellent novel.  I finished Felix Holt on May 17, 2020,  my third reading of this classic, but I have no idea what year I first read it.  Does it matter?

I do remember telling a friend I was “bored out of my mind,” and was reading “too much” and keeping a book journal with “frightening numbers.”

“What is too much and why write a list?” she asked.

When did the book lists start? I can only think it had to do with blogging. Book bloggers make a lot of lists, and the early blogs were especially fun, full of spontaneity, full of reading recommendations. I loved the early days of blogging when I read short books by Pamela Frankau, Pamela Hansford Johnson, C. P. Snow, and Angela Thirkell in a day, and posted my thoughts the minute I finished.

Now I seldom visit my old blogs and rarely look at the lists in the book journals.

It is one thing to post about my reading at the blog, but keeping lists of every book I read seems pointless. Perhaps I’m less narcissistic than I used to be?  Or perhaps more?  Surely this issue is pointless!

I’ve stopped making lists.  Now I’m a free woman!

Do You Keep a Book Journal? & Revisiting “Daniel Deronda”

My five book journals.

On a social media break a few weeks ago, I started musing about book journals.

I kept a journal in a notebook, but I also enjoyed a Goodreads account.  Goodreads is fun but, well, there’s too much data.  Did my “friends”  (whom I don’t know at all!) really want to know the percentage of an e-book I’d read, or that I’d voted in the Goodreads Choice Awards?   Plus I had a TBR list of at least 300 books.  I get carried away.

I’m not a Luddite…  but I decided I prefer paper.  (At least for a while.)

I do love a pretty notebook!

I started my first book journal in 1995 or 1996.  I  read fiftysome books.  It seemed a great number, but meaningless out of context.  So many ephemeral books…  but some great ones, like Wright Morris’s Plains Song.

And then there was a hiatus until the 21st century.

Fast forward to book journal fidelity.  My journal takes the simplest form:  I record the title, author, and the date finished.  I have used a Paperblanks journal, a Moleskine, a Miquelrius, a Nava Notes, and something offbrand from Walmart.

I enjoy looking  at the journals.  In the first decade of the 21st century, I read Trollope and middlebrow novels by Pamela Hansford Johnson, Dodie Smith,  Hugh Walpole, and Rose Macaulay.  Many of these “forgotten” writers are back in print now.

But when I asked a friend, Didn’t she find it strange I had finished 174 books?, she said, “What’s strange is that you keep track.”

Keeping the book journal may have been the most normal thing that year.  The feat of reading 174 books reflected a high boredom index. Very high.  I love to read, but I’d felt exhausted all year.  Turned out I had a health problem.  Wouldn’t you know?

Still, it is satisfying to look back at that long, long list. Two of my favorites were Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49’ and Joyce Dennys’s Henrietta’s War: News from the Home Front, 1939-1942. The former is a fascinating diary written by Nella Last for the Mass Observation Archive in England;  the latter a charming novel in the form of the heroine Henrietta’s letters to a friend during the war.  (It’s a bit like Diary of a Provincial Lady, only epistolary.)

My reading has changed in the last few years. I’ve become a damned scholar. All right, I’m joking.  I’m an enthusiast.  But I do read more classics.  Read enough long books and you don’t have the embarrassment of reading 174 books.  This year I’m down to 138.  That’s a LOT of books, but not ridiculous.

How do you feel about electronic data vs. notebooks?

REVISITING GEORGE ELIOT’S DANIEL DERONDA.  In December I reread Daniel Deronda, George Eliot’s last novel.  In this strange novel, Eliot inverts the myth of Diana and Actaeon, and describes a man’s search for identity and his study of Judaism.

At my blog Mirabile Dictu, I wrote last year:

The heroine of Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen Harleth, is a spoiled, haughty young woman who marries the wrong man. Gwendolen is over-confident, beautiful, witty, snobbish, and rather lazy, and very much reminds me of Austen’s Emma. Gwendolen is accomplished, but she could be more accomplished if she practiced or studied.  She wins a golden star at an archery contest, but the golden arrow goes to someone else. She is a pleasing singer but hasn’t practiced enough to be proficient. She is a Diana, a chaste huntress, who rides to hounds wildly, and at first seems as cruel and powerful as Diana.  When her male escort falls from his inadequate mount and strains his shoulder, she appallingly thinks it funny and has no sympathy. She does not want to marry, and dreams of doing something great. But her mother loses her money, and Gwendolyn must give up her dreams. She marries the wealthy Grandcourt beause she thinks she will be able to control him–but it is the sadistic Grandcourt who controls her.

You can read the rest of the post here.