Since a recent post to this blog, which begins with a reference to “my bedside stack of books”, I’ve been thinking about reading lists. About lists scrawled unceremoniously on loose-leaf, spiral notebook paper; lists organized and kept meticulously updated in computer spreadsheets; and -like Seth’s- manifested in the concrete form of an ever-growing tower of books. And not just about how we organize our books-still-to-be-read, but also why. A list can be a self-improvement tool, a way of prompting ourselves to finally soldier through whatever official classic has escaped us until now, or it can be a wholly guilt-free inventory of pleasures still to come. Or, as with people who daily receive new review copies, it can just be the most practical way to keep on top of a mountain of books.
Keeping a list of the books you should read is the kind of practice that’s easy to make fun of, but it has a pedigree. As a teenager, Susan Sontag, famously, wrote in her notebooks the titles of the books she needed to read to before she could be the famous intellectual she planned to become. Most such lists, of course, don’t lead to a future or a career path like Sontag’s, but it’s good for readers to know that there’s nothing wrong with being aspirational and upwardly mobile. Still, some people will undoubtedly be reminded a little too strongly of school assignments and course descriptions. Once past the point in life where other people can force you to read a canonical classic, the average reader may have little interest in returning, and even less in assigning work to him or herself.
As a counterpoint to Susan Sontag’s autodidactic agenda, there’s a romance fan I know who has a spreadsheet to keep track of the books in the genre she still hasn’t read. With details like author, subgenre, and publisher stored in columns alongside the title, she can apply whatever criteria currently seems important and comb through a huge inventory of an even bigger genre, essentially letting it do the work of making selections for her. She’s not trying to be a new kind of reader (as Sontag says in the recently published Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview, ““It’s exciting to me to subscribe to something that’s foreign to my earlier taste), but to do a better job of being the kind of reader she knows herself to be.