This post was originally written for The Startup.
In January 2017, I started a project that, to my own surprise, is still ongoing.
I decided to start keeping track of what I read. After reading a lot, sometimes hundreds of books a year, since I was about five, I hated not having a record of what I’d got through.
Since then, I’ve written a monthly (or bi-monthly) blog post listing all the books I read during that time, accompanied by short summaries and simple reviews. I also list my absolute favourites from the last few years on a page on my website.
At first, it seemed like something other people might enjoy. Finding good books to read is always a struggle. There are so many options and behind all the self-promotional hype, it can be difficult to establish what is truly worth your time. This is especially the case considering that books are a not insignificant investment of time and, in some cases, money. Seeing as I wasted a lot of both on books that proved to be (subjectively) awful, I wanted to save others the hassle.
As hoped, many people over the years have emailed to tell me that they enjoy the lists and like not having to choose all their own books. Seeing as I read widely and make an effort to engage in serendipitous discovery, the lists involve a lot of unusual or obscure suggestions.
But I never expected just how valuable the practice of writing about what I read would prove for me. In the purely selfish sense, writing these blog posts, which I think of as reading roundups, has made a huge difference to the way I view books.
If you’re someone who wants to get more out of the books you read, you might benefit from doing something similar. Here are a few reasons why.
It doesn’t need to be in blog post format. It could be sitting down to write reviews on GoodReads, Amazon or elsewhere for the books you’ve read lately at the end of each month. It could be a Linkedin post or a Twitter thread, or posts on a related subreddit. It could be an email to a few friends who also like books. It could be something entirely personal, kept in a notebook or Word doc.
The point is making it a regular, consistent practice. Some people might prefer doing it as soon as they finish a book, while the memory is fresh, I personally prefer to let it sit until the end of the month.
We’re all terrible at being honest about our behaviour. We think we work more than we do and sleep less than we do. We’re awful at estimating how much we spend or eat. When metrics are perhaps a little shameful, like how much time we spend on social media or watching TV, our self reported numbers can be way out.
Just try recording how much time you spend doing actual work during a random week. It’s probably about half what you imagine.
So writing about what you read is a way of being honest about what you’re actually reading and if it’s more or less than you imagined. Obviously, the quantity is not at all important, unless you, like myself, set targets in the same way as some people set targets for exercise or income. But it helps you be honest and see if you’re kidding yourself. As they say, what gets measured gets managed.
For me, it’s a reminder to keep reading as a priority above other forms of entertainment. Wanting to ensure there’s enough to write about motivates me to invest enough time in reading, which is especially important as it’s a large part of how I make a living.
Sometimes we gravitate towards certain books that are reflective of interests or concerns or desires that we might not be consciously paying attention to. Keeping records can highlight that, helping you to recognise patterns.
In the same sense, it can show when our reading is too restrictive. Like if we’re just reading about the same topics all the time, or only fiction or non-fiction. Keeping track of my reading repeatedly makes it clear that, without a focused effort to do otherwise, ending up only buying books written by a narrow section of the population is almost inevitable.
You’d probably like to remember more of what you read. Most people would. It is beyond frustrating to get to the last page of a book and realise the majority of its contents are already slipping your mind. Rehashing and summarising a book makes it much easier to remember more of it later on. There’s a reason why textbooks often suggest writing a summary at the end of each chapter.
It also helps to have something to revisit if you find yourself forgetting details.
Writing about what you read creates a record of different types of progress as time passes. If you’re trying to read more (of particular types of books or in general), it shows how small efforts add up over time.
But it’s about far more than numbers. Progress can also take the form of developing interests. It can mean your reading is becoming more complex or advanced. It can show how your preferences are changing or how much you’re learning. In any case, it’s excellent writing practice.
More nuanced opinions.
In the past, upon finishing a book, I would internally label it as being good, bad, or mediocre. Sometimes a book would be extraordinary but for the most part, my opinions remained binary. Without further thought, my opinions remained at the most basic level.
Writing about what you read nudges you towards more nuanced opinions, that take into account factors beyond your basic enjoyment of a book.
It prompts you to look beyond the simplistic good/bad dichotomy to base assessments on more than enjoyment alone. Putting opinions into words helps crystalise them. Sometimes it’s essential to write in order to know what you think.
A deeper look.
Each time I write a review, I research it a little to inform my thoughts. This would perhaps be better to do before reading, but I prefer to go in blind so other people’s thoughts don’t dictate my experience of a book too much.
Writing up summaries often means taking a deeper look at a book and learning more; about the author, about its context, about any inaccuracies, about its significance